The Sexual Assault Epidemic Is Real

08/25/2016 12:51 am ET Updated Aug 29, 2016

In the wake of the Brock Turner scandal, the issue of sexual assault on college campuses has been the subject of renewed attention.  By far the most interesting – and ludicrous – position to surface in the debate is the claim that there is no problem at all.  Indeed, some pundits have been taking issue with the very phrase “sexual assault epidemic.”  The idea of a sexual assault epidemic on campus bothers these pundits for three reasons: college students are less likely to be raped than non-college students of the same age; rates of reported rape in the general population are lower now than in the past; and the often cited 1 in 5 statistic covers all sexual assault, not just rape. To some extent, these assertions hold water. But to use relative comparisons of sexual assault levels as an argument against reform is both incomprehensible and morally abhorrent.

            We’ve all heard the statistic that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted in college.  This number has come under increased fire – detractors argue that it is too broad in defining sexual assault as anything from unwanted touching to rape.  But that is precisely the legal definition of sexual assault: unwanted sexual contact.  Those who argue that unwanted sexual contact is too vague misunderstand what sexual assault is, and demean a substantial proportion of its victims in doing so.

            Numerous studies have concluded that roughly 1 in 5 college women will be sexually assaulted.  The Bureau of Justice found that the prevalence of sexual assault for females in 9 colleges was 21% .  The Association of American Universities, in a separate study that surveyed 150,000 students, found that 23% of female college students had experienced unwelcome sexual contact.  Whether the number is 20% or 23%, it’s clear that a sizable population of female college students have been sexually assaulted.  Anyone in their right mind ought to agree that this number is disturbingly high, regardless of what it is elsewhere or what it was before.

            But it seems that the largest issue people take with the sexual assault epidemic doesn’t concern the accuracy of the 20% statistic.  Rather, pundits object to panicking over sexual assault levels on college campuses because, relatively speaking, it could be worse.  This is sort of nonsensical argument, if accepted, could have catastrophic implications.  Homicides in Chicago are problematically high, at over 15 murdered for every 100,000 in 2015.  This rate is lower than it was in the 1970s, and is lower than the homicide rate in Honduras, for instance. Yet no one would oppose a new measure to reduce urban violence in Chicago on the grounds that things are relatively good.

            But for some reason, relative arguments are routinely accepted when it comes to sexual assault.  That isn’t to suggest that they’re entirely inaccurate; college females are 20% less likely to be sexually assaulted than their non-enrolled counterparts, and rape levels have dropped 85% since the 1970s.  Evidently, female college students are safer than other women of the same age.  They’re also safer than they’ve historically been.

            In this sense, the word “epidemic” may be somewhat misleading.   Things have improved for college students, after all, and being on campus is safer than not.  But to use these facts as ammunition against reform efforts implies that current levels of on-campus sexual assault are acceptable.  This is nonsense.  In what world can we seriously posit that not only is there an acceptable rate of sexual assault, but that the bar should be set at 20%?  It is, without doubt, profoundly despicable to throw in the towel on anti-rape efforts because the situation could worse, and is worse amongst other demographics.  This argument is morally indefensible, would never be upheld with any other form of assault, and defies basic common sense.

            Nevertheless, this argument has gained traction in some circles, and sloppiness on the part of activists doesn’t help.  The 1 in 5 statistic covers all sexual assault, yet people frequently conflate sexual assault in this instance with rape, allowing their opponents to accuse them of willful misrepresentation.  Failure to investigate claims before publicly crucifying the accused has also lent credence to those who call the sexual assault epidemic a hoax.  The Rolling Stone is the most obvious offender here.  By failing to properly investigate the allegations of “Jackie,” the magazine did tremendous damage to campus reform efforts.  Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s false assertion that attending college increases a woman’s chances of being sexually assaulted likewise damaged the credibility of efforts to combat sexual assault, and provided fodder for her opponents.

            That 1 in 5 college females experience some form of unwanted sexual contact is outrageous.  But the fact that this is happening on campuses provides colleges with an opportunity to combat sexual assault.  Colleges possess the resources to counsel victims, patrol campuses, refer victims to the police, independently investigate allegations, expel rapists, regulate fraternities and other high-risk environments, and educate students about what constitutes as sexual assault.

            These resources give your average college an extraordinary chance to reduce sexual assault levels and to aid victims –– in keeping with their Title IX obligations.  That by itself ought to be sufficient motivation for colleges to take action, and for the Department of Justice to investigate and punish those that fail to do so.  It doesn’t matter that colleges are safer for 18 to 24-year-old women than non-collegiate environments.  It doesn’t matter that college-age women are generally safer today than they were decades ago.  If institutions have the chance to combat sexual assault, then they have a moral imperative to act.  By stonewalling these efforts to squabble over whether “epidemic” is the proper term to use, we deny what is plainly true and morally pressing.

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