College Assaults: Gauging the Problem’s Size Helps Avoid Extreme Steps

In the previous articles in this series, I noted that advocates for “yes means yes” and similar measures billed as fighting college sexual assaults frequently make exaggerated claims on how frequent such offenses are. But if you’re looking for workable solutions, it’s important not to overstate the real dimensions of the problem.

Here’s one example of an unjustified overstatement of the frequency of campus sexual assaults: Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action, a report released in January 2014 by the White House Council on Women and Girls. It advanced the claim, repeated in a presidential speech, that one in five women is sexually assaulted while attending college. The first report of a new task force the White House set up later in the year to fight rape and sexual assault in schools also echoed the bogus claim. The lead sponsor of California’s “yes means yes” law similarly invoked that claim.

The original source of that claim is a 2007 survey by a Justice Department consultant. If you delve into that report, as did a well-researched Slate article by Emily Yoffe, you’ll find less-than-impressive support. The consultant’s survey took website responses to its questionnaire from fewer than 5,500 women at two state colleges, a very insignificant share of the nation’s 12 million female college students.

Another study done for the Justice Department, dating from 2000, is also often cited for an even more horrific claim: that a quarter of all female college students will experience sexual assault. There’s even an activist group, One in Four, deriving its name from the unsupported claim.

That study actually found on average in any year 1.7% of its respondents reported an actual sexual assault, and another 1.1% said they had experienced an attempted assault. Those numbers came in response to a survey done in the spring, so to adjust for the full year, the study’s authors nearly doubled the combined 2.8% figure to 5%. They next increased the typical four-year span for college to five years, and reached the more attention-getting, but ill-supported, 25% claim.

In fact, broader, and both more recent and representative, statistics from the federal government’s National Crime Victimization Survey cast serious doubt on such claims. Data sampled from that nationwide survey between 1995 and 2011 gave estimates that actual, attempted or threatened sexual assaults occurred at a rate of 0.8% for women between the ages of 18 and 24 – among those not in college. For women in the same age group attending college, the estimated annual rate was 0.6%.

Of course, every claim of having been assaulted deserves a complete investigation and, where warranted, prosecution. But, as Rolling Stone has learned to its chagrin, not every such claim is entitled to automatic, uncritical belief.

Further, even a problem as large as incorrectly claimed would not justify ignoring basic due process rights for accused students, such as the right to a fair hearing, rather than a panel of university officials out of their depth, and with a presumption of innocence, not of guilt.

The concluding article in this series will examine why campus are having so much trouble figuring out how to deal with this issue, more ways their procedures can harm innocent students, and some better ways to address what is a real, if overstated, problem.

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