Researchers Just Confirmed a Controversial Sexual Assault Statistic

June 17th 2015

Sexual assaults on college campuses nationwide are at a boiling point. Widespread reports of abuse at hundreds of schools––mostly from young women but also from some men––have flourished in recent years, but notions of what exactly constitutes sexual assault still vary among students and observers, and experts differ on statistics.

New numbers from a national survey conducted jointly by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation show that around 25 percent of young women and seven percent of young men enrolled at four-year college campuses in the past four years experienced unwanted sexual encounters. Some reported the encounters as attacks, while others told pollers about dubious conditions under which consent was elicited, often involving drugs and alcohol, or verbal coercion.

The study lends credence to a figure that has caused infighting among observers around just how serious of a problem campus assaults actually are. According to data compiled by Post reporters and Kaiser Family researchers, about one in five women experience sexual assault on campuses. The data buttresses a similar figure frequently cited in discussions surrounding the issue as it has become evermore apparent and urgent. That data comes from a 2007 federally funded study of students at two anonymous public universities.

But as the Post reports, some skeptics have called that figure misleading, pointing instead to a 2014 Bureau of Justice Statistics study that found women on college campuses to only be the victims of rape or sexual assault at a drastically lower annual rate of 6.1 for every 1,000.

The difference between the two studies' methodologies boils down to the difference between what constitutes assault. The 2007 study focused specifically on scenarios of unwanted sexual contact, the BJS study was crime-focused, honing in on rape, attempted rape, and other sexually charged attacks, the Post notes. The Post-Kaiser study, which had questionnaires that were more similar to the 2007 study, found instances of unwanted sexual interactions to be widespread. The Post also notes that a blue-ribbon panel found the BJS method is likely to underestimate victimization. This likelihood is backed up by numbers in the poll: three-quarters of victims say they told somebody about an unwanted sexual encounter, while only 11 percent formally reported it.

But if a broad net found widespread instances of unwanted sexual conduct, the Post-Kaiser poll still reflects conflicting opinions over what constitutes assault. In the poll, 46 percent were unsure if a sexual encounter without explicit, mutual consent from both parties was an assault, while 47 percent said that without it, the encounter was an assault. And despite high percentages of occurrence, many said that sexual assault was not a high-ranking concern about their school. Only 37 percent said it was a problem on campus, while 56 percent thought that drug and alcohol use was a problem. Only 8 percent of students gave their schools a D or F grade when it came to how administration officials dealt with reports of sexual assault.

It's important to note that Post reporters and Kaiser Foundation researchers polled more than 1,000 students aged 17 to 26 from four-year colleges across each state and the District of Columbia, while the 2007 study relied on a much smaller dataset. This suggests what many already suspect based on auxiliary reports, that unwanted sexual assault is a much more prevalent issue than it is taken to be, and also that it is vastly underreported. The new numbers confirm the long held belief that factors such as drugs and alcohol play a huge role in increasing the risk of sexual assault, while also finding no correlation between increased risk and other factors like the type or size of school, social standing, study habits, or living on or off campus.

Studies like the Post-Kaiser one are unlikely to produce obvious, immediate fixes to such a quietly pervasive problem. Rather, they begin to hint at the severity, complexity, and breadth of the problem, which by all indicators is much more nuanced than previously thought.

Check out infographics on the Post-Kaiser findings, and read the stories of some of the students interviewed.

To learn more about the campus sexual assault epidemic, you can also watch and share this brief video we made:​


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