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College rape culture: One in five? Or more like one in 40?

economic-forecast-headerIt almost seems hyperinflated, the statistic that we hear cited about how one in five women who go to college are raped at some point during their time on their campus.

When you find out the source of the claim, oft repeated by politicians and in the news media in reporting on the “college rape culture,” you’ll begin to wonder if the statistic is indeed exaggerated to the point of straining credulity.

The number comes from a 2007 study conducted for the National Institute of Justice. The flaws you will notice from the description of how the study was conducted: an anonymous, self-selected survey of women on two unnamed college campuses that took participants 15 minutes to complete, and promised those who took part a $10 gift certificate.

Which is to say, the sample was not at all random, there was no control group (young women 18 to 24 not in college), and as some critics have pointed out, it was conducted at two large public universities, which may further skew the data if one wants to extrapolate what happens in one type of environment, the large university campus, to reflect what also happens at medium- and small-sized campuses.

The response rate to the survey was low, with 42 percent of women on the two college campuses surveyed taking part, further adding to the perception on the part of critics who feel the results are skewed. Critics have also raised issue with how sexual assault and attempted sexual assault were defined in the survey, in delineating all sexual encounters that occurred when a woman was intoxicated as assaults, regardless of whether consent would have been given between the parties in any case.

So now, that all having been factored in, 19.6 percent of women in this study sample reported having been victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault.

There’s your one in five. One in five women of the 42 percent of the female populations at two large unnamed public universities who took 15 minutes to complete a survey for a $10 gift card said they had been victimized under an exceedingly narrow definition of what it means to have been victimized sexually.

Might be worth noting here that the same survey reported that 6.1 percent of men in this survey reported having experienced attempted or completed sexual assault in their college years, i.e. that they were victims of attempted or completed sexual assaults. The sample size of men is much, much smaller, so we can surmise that these numbers are even less reliable than the data for women, but still, interesting that we don’t ever hear those numbers discussed considering how unnaturally high they come across at first glance.

It’s also worth noting that the research into the incidence of sexual assault on college campuses is in general sorely lacking. Another study often cited by critics to debunk the one in five statistic is one that dates to 2002, which puts the figure at one in 40 college women being victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault.

That’s a difference between 20 percent and 2.5 percent. Why the discrepancy? Could it be as simple as flawed study methodology? At the risk of conceding the point to the conservatives who fight this battle as much for the political points as anything else, yes, it’s the flawed methodology. Additional research has indicated that more than 70 percent of college-age women who are told that their sexual encounters with men that occurred while one or both partners were under some influence of alcohol or drugs should be considered sexual assaults do not consider themselves to be victims of sexual assaults.

Extrapolate those numbers out to the questionable 2007 study that gets cited often for the one in five shortcode that it provides, and we start to get closer to one in 40.

Which gets us also closer to the realm of credulity. The idea that one in five college women are raped at some point in their years on campus would force us to accept that little else went on at old State U. than sexual assaults and attempted sexual assaults. Even accounting for multiple incidences perpetrated by some of the offenders, you’d have to assume that if not one in five, then at the least one in six men on college campuses would be the ones doing the victimizing.

Roughly a third, then, up to two in five of the young folks walking around campus at any time of the day or night would be members of this culture of silence that is supposed to exist as an enforcement mechanism that allows rampant sexual victimization to persist.

In this day and age of interconnectedness, with Facebook and Twitter and the myriad other ways that people can communicate anonymously?

Assume it’s the floor, and 2.5 percent of women are going to be sexually victimized at some point during their college careers. That’s sickening enough to qualify as alarming, even epidemic, and we’re long since past the time that college and university administrators and state lawmakers have needed to strengthen laws and policies to protect young women, punish young men guilty of perpetrating these crimes and deter others who might otherwise engage in them through the promise of swift sanction.

Inflating the numbers and citing them to the degree that we ignore them for being beyond unbelievable and hyping fact-challenged tales of gang rapes perpetrated by frat boys who apparently don’t exist will do nothing to combat the problem that does exist, and is very real.

– Column by Chris Graham

News Desk

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