Sexual Assault Statistics Can Be Confusing, But They're Not The Point

12/15/2014 04:10 pm ET | Updated Dec 15, 2014

One in 4. One in 5. One in 10. One in 40.

There are a lot of statistics that get thrown around about how many women are sexually assaulted on campus, and last week the U.S. Department of Justice added more data to the mix. Called the National Crime Victimization Survey, the new survey from the DOJ looks at sexual assault among women ages 18 to 24.

The DOJ found that women in this age group who were not college students were slightly more likely to experience sexual violence than collegiate women. In response, some cheered the new data as debunking a "myth" that collegiate women are more likely to be assaulted than women who are not students, saying that assault is not as frequent of an occurrence on campus as advocates make it out to be.

But because the data we have on sexual assault comes from such different sources, it's hard to say that one survey could really debunk another stat from a different one. And in the end, every study has its own unique flaws.

What Did The New DOJ Survey Find?

There were three big takeaways in the report:

  • The survey reaffirmed that females ages 18 to 24 are the demographic most likely to experience sexual violence, and most of the time it's at the hands of someone they know.
  • Non-students reported a higher rate of sexual assault than college students, but only at a 1.2 times greater rate.
  • College students are less likely to report a sexual assault than those not in college: The survey found about 80 percent of college students said they did not report an assault that occurred, compared to about 67 percent of non-students surveyed.

This survey is one of three regular government-backed studies that measure sexual violence among women. The other two are the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NIPSV), published by the Centers for Disease Control, and the Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) study, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The three surveys differ in important ways when it comes to how rape and sexual assault questions are asked and victimization is measured, the new NCVS report notes. One key difference is that NCVS measures the rate of victimization for certain crimes, while the NISVS and CSA are presented as surveys about public health -- meaning women might not report an assault to the NCVS if they didn't feel it was a "crime."

Indeed, the NISVS uses a broader definition of sexual violence, like incidents where the victim was unable to provide consent due to drug or alcohol use, and the CSA includes a look at unwanted sexual contact due to force and incapacitation.

"The NISVS and CSA collect data on incidents of unwanted sexual contact that may not rise to a level of criminal behavior, and respondents may not report incidents to the NCVS that they do not consider to be criminal," the NCVS report states.

No, The DOJ Didn't Just Prove The Campus Rape Epidemic Is Overblown

After the DOJ numbers came out, certain outlets said the data "challenged" or "debunked" the notion that college students are more likely to be assaulted than non-students.

However, data in previous NCVS studies has already found that women who are not students are more likely to experience sexual assault than women who are students.

And each study is different. The NCVC, for example, counts respondents as students whether they're a 18-year-old living on campus or an adult taking classes online, as ThinkProgress notes. In contrast, the CSA only collects data from students on large college campuses, the NISVS doesn't distinguish by student status in its data.

It's also important to remember NCVS doesn't look at incapacitated rape, as Libby Nelson points out at Vox. Studies have found that incapacitated rape, that is "sex when one person was too drunk or drugged to legally consent," is more common than rape under a threat of force, Vox reports.

The NCVS Also Has Critics

Oklahoma State University professor John Foubert, who researches sexual violence, called the NCVS study released this week a "sideshow."

"Over the years, I've grown to distrust NCVS," Foubert, who is also president of the advocacy group One In Four, told The Huffington Post. Foubert said the study's methodology, which includes telephone calls, can leave the data open to errors because researchers might not talk to every person living in a certain household.

"Plus, even if there are more women outside than inside college who experience rape, so what? There is still a lot of rape out there," he said.

Foubert added that the NCVS doesn't go through any peer review. The survey is vulnerable to how people respond, and does not include any analysis afterward to remove false positives, he said.

Indeed, the National Research Council recommended in 2013 that NCVS stop looking at sexual assault altogether, and create a separate study on sex crimes.

So Why Do I Keep Hearing About 1 in 5 Women Being Raped In College?

The stat that 1 in 5 college women will experience sexual violence in college is perhaps the most oft-repeated note about campus rape. Pundits have been trying to disprove the statistic for 20 years, with little success outside of right-wing media. (There are mainstream critics of that data point, too, just not very many of them.)

Data in campus sexual assault surveys continues to hover around 1 in 5. Campus-based surveys at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University both pegged the sexual assault rate at 1 in 6. A University of Oregon survey this year concluded 10 percent of women had been raped, and 35 percent had at least one forcible sexual encounter.

A separate 2000 study apart from the NCVS, but also from the Justice Department, found 5 percent of college women are victims of rape or attempted rape in a year, and suggested that between one-fourth and one-fifth of female students experience sexual assault during their collegiate career.

Foubert noted there are several studies backing up the 1 in 4 to 1 in 5 rates. The first, in 1987, polled 6,000 students on 32 college campuses and found 1 in 4 women had experienced attempted or completed rape by the time they graduated, though the assaults didn't necessarily happen in college. Since then, there were several replications of the finding, including both the 2000 and 2006 versions of the "Sexual Victimization of College Women" studies, which arrived at 1 in 4 female students experiencing attempted or completed sexual assault.

One In Four's name, according to Foubert, is not about one study: It's about a body of research.

There's also a growing effort to get colleges to conduct campus climate surveys, so that each school get can an idea of what's happening on their own campus, rather than sorting through the myriad of statistics being disputed. President Barack Obama is suggesting colleges do them, and a bipartisan Senate bill, the Campus Accountability & Safety Act, would require schools to conduct such surveys.

Finally, And Perhaps Most Critically, The Statistics Are Not The Main Reason For New Efforts To Address Rape On Campus

Stories saying the 1 in 5 statistic has been debunked often also mention that that figure is fueling a movement to address campus sexual assault. It's not. For one, the statistic has been around for a while, but 2013 and 2014 have seen unprecedented levels of effort to address the issue.

The president did not launch a task force based on statistics. Lawmakers did not create bipartisan bills because of statistics. The media did not start reporting on sexual assault because of some data set. The statistic makes for a nice talking point to back up why a U.S. senator or state lawmaker would spend so much energy on an issue, but it's not the reason campus sexual assault became such a hot topic in 2013 and again in 2014.

The reason this issue has gotten so much attention, rather, is because students started speaking out and criticizing how their colleges and universities handled their sexual assault cases. Rarely did they mention any national statistics. Their focus was on soft punishments, disparaging comments college officials made to survivors, fraternities making rape jokes, and alleged retaliation for criticizing their schools on these issues. Some rape survivors said they ended up in psych wards and dropped out of school when they sought help from their institution.

"These are real people we're talking about, not numbers," said Lisa Maatz, a top policy adviser at the American Association of University Women. "The statistics tell a story, but every rape survivor has his or her own story."

The focus on campus sexual assault was never about statistics. It is about students who said they were wronged by their schools after they were raped -- in some cases saying that was worse than the assault itself.

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