01/28/2016 09:49 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2017

Missed Opportunities: What the Campus Climate Validation Study Left Out


Our national habit when talking about rape often ignores the perpetrator's role and puts the onus on the victim. Such emphasis misdirects prevention efforts. Rapists cause rape, yet recent high-profile surveys have focused on victims and ignored perpetrators. The Campus Climate Survey Validation Study (CCSVS), released January 20, 2016 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, is commendable for broadening inquiry to question those who cause the harm while also addressing flaws in other surveys such as the 2015 American Association of Universities Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Assault. Even so, the CCSVS report concentrates on victimization rates, which are broadly consistent with data collected over a 30-year period. Many have suggested, at this point, that we are sufficiently aware that sexual assault of college women is a problem; that it is time to move on. Continuing to limit the scope of these surveys to victimization experiences has had the inadvertent effect of casting all college women who have experienced sexual assault -- because they are the vast majority of victims -- as vulnerable, weak, and needing special protective care to participate in campus life.

Interest in studying sexual assault perpetration dates back to the first (and only) national survey published in 1987, which revealed that 7.7 percent of men disclosed they had attempted or completed oral, anal, or vaginal sex acts on an unwilling woman by using some degree of physical force, threatening bodily harm, and/or by proceeding with a person unable to consent, typically due to alcohol incapacitation. In the intervening years, much has been learned about the predictors) and timing of sexual assault perpetration. These studies are crucial because individual characteristics, peer attitudes, and campus norms that encourage and sustain sexual aggressors, as well as the likelihood of accountability for sexual misconduct, are the only potential points for science-informed, comprehensive campus rape prevention planning and innovation. Campus administrators cannot respond to the White House Task Force's call to protect students by simply knowing rates of victimization.

Despite the inclusion of perpetration in the CCSVS, the level of detail regarding sexual assault perpetration lacks the scientific rigor used to assess victimization experiences. The perpetration data are buried in two paragraphs of a 475-page technical document. The report therein states 2.8 percent of females and 2.9 percent of males disclosed perpetrating at least one act of any type of unwanted sexual contact during the 2014-2015 academic year. Unwanted sexual contact refers to a range of outcomes, some minor, such as nonconsensual touching of a sexual nature including kissing, grabbing, or fondling, even if the victim was fully clothed, and others as severe as attempted and completed rape. However, the survey did not ask about each of these outcomes, rather asking only about how the sexual contact was obtained (e.g., via threats, physical force, or contact with someone who was intoxicated, etc.). Importantly, unless both the outcome and the type of sexual contact are specified, these data do not allow any conclusions about specific experiences of rape or attempted rape. In contrast to questions about victimization, the perpetration question did not include follow-up questions to determine where the incident occurred, who perpetrated it, or other contextual factors (e.g., man or woman; stranger or intimate partner; alcohol present or not).

Other recent sources of perpetration data are also available. The 2015 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, fielded by the CDC, revealed that 0.6 percent of women and 6.7 percent of men said they had been "made to penetrate" another person. Sexual violence perpetration also was queried in the 2015 Administrator-Researcher Campus Climate Survey (ARC3) pilot test and was disclosed by 5.1 percent of men and 1.6 percent of women. In the context of other recent large surveys, the CCSVS stands out because it is the only one that failed to find large gender differentials in sexual violence perpetration. These data raise questions about the nature of sexual violence perpetrated by women, and the experiences of men who report they have been "made to penetrate" another person. These experiences need further study to understand how they are achieved and whether the associated outcomes are similar to experiences of penetration, regardless of gender. Penetration is key, because it is required in legal definitions of rape and attempted rape.

There is a minority of men that perceive that campus surveys overemphasize what men do to women, with insufficient attention to what women do to men. Although few women may rape men, perceptions that they do must be regarded seriously. Understanding this perception is a priority because it may affect responses to future surveys and foment resistance to rape prevention initiatives. We need to move focus from victims to perpetrators, and understand the full range of sexually assaultive behaviors.