"Sexual Assault is defined by the Department of Justice as any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient."
According to a survey commissioned by the Association of American Universities (AAU), 1 in 4 women experienced sexual assault on U.S. college campuses. Media headlines across the nation widely reported on a rape epidemic occurring at an alarming and unprecedented rate throughout college campuses.
Just as much as the public quickly condemned the university in response to the now discredited November 19, 2014 Rolling Stone article about an alleged violent gang rape at a UVA fraternity house, the new 1 in 4 statistic was instantly embraced by many. After all, we have been bombarded by countless reminders of the infamous "rape epidemic" sweeping our nation's college campuses with campaigns such as the January 2014 White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault, the "Not Alone" campaign, the "It's On Us" campaign to end sexual assault on college campuses launched by the White House in Fall 2014, as well as campaigns sponsored by survivor-run advocacy groups, such as "Know Your IX."
But should popular opinion have been so quick to declare the 1 in 4 statistic as an irrebuttable indictment of the current state of campus affairs? Rather, an informed opinion should be based on a basic understanding as to how the survey was conducted.
According to Kimberly C. Lau, a Title IX attorney at Warshaw Burstein, LLP, "The survey raised important follow-up questions. For example, how was 'consent' defined in the survey? What constituted 'unwanted sexual conduct'?"
Perhaps the best place to begin is with a review of the researchers' own caveats and disclosures made in the AAU Survey, which was conducted by Maryland-based research company, Westat.
For starters, there was a response rate of 19.3%, which according to Westat, the research company that conducted the survey, is the lowest response rate compared to several other surveys on sexual assault. Although the AAU survey was sent to 779,170 college students enrolled at 27 schools across the United States, only 150,072 students responded, notwithstanding the offer of Amazon gift certificates or chances to win $100 in cash prizes as survey incentives. The Survey also warns that its estimates of sexual assault "may be too high" because non-victims were less likely to participate in the AAU Survey. In other words, Westat admits that the 1 in 4 statistic may be inflated.
There was also a wide variation of sexual assault rates across the 27 schools in the present study. As a result, Westat itself cautions that figures such as "1 in 5" or "1 in 4" are simply not representative of anything outside the confines of the study. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were at least 2,968 four-year colleges as of 2012. It would be a mistake to draw sweeping conclusions from a mere fraction, less than 1% of the nation's colleges.
Beyond these serious self-admitted limitations, there are other reasons why the public should be skeptical of the "1 in 4" headlines. Sexual Assault is defined by the Department of Justice as any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.
But compare the examples cited in the DOJ's definition with the AAU Survey's definition of "sexual assault." The Survey specifically excluded the use of the terms, "rape" and "assault." Instead, "sexual assault" was broken down into several categories, including non-consensual sexual contact (penetration or sexual touching by physical force or incapacitation), sexual harassment (offensive sexual jokes, repeated requests for dinner, drinks or a date), intimate partner violence (controlling what the partner wears, threats of harm, use of physical force), and stalking (unwanted texts/calls, being watched).
Ms. Lau adds, "The way the term is defined in the Survey is over inclusive and appears to be more the product of political and social agendas than what most people would consider 'sexual assault'. For example, most people would not think that telling an offensive sexual joke should be equated with the use of physical force.' The AAU's definition of sexual assault is not just overbroad, it is overreaching and, as such, its utility as a measurement of the prevalence of 'sexual assault' is severely diminished."
A common understanding of the phrase "sexual assault" would be far closer to the DOJ definition quoted above. When applying the DOJ definition of sexual assault, (as opposed to the surveys), the rate of rape and sexual assault drops significantly. In a recent Department of Justice study issued in December 2014, "Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization among College-Age Females, 1995–2013," revealed that the rate of rape and sexual assault among female students was 6.1%, as compared to 23.1% cited in the AAU Survey. It is also noteworthy that the Department of Justice study debunks the notion that rates of sexual assault are higher in a college campus setting as compared to other settings. In fact, the DOJ found that nonstudents were actually at 1.5 higher risk of experiencing rape or sexual assault (7.6 per 1,000) than students (6.1 per 1,000).
Further, according to the Survey, being "incapacitated" by the use of drugs or alcohol constitutes a significant percentage of the incidents involving non-consensual sexual contact. That invites the question as to how was 'incapacitated' defined. The Survey defined the term as "Unable to consent or stop what was happening because you were passed out, asleep or incapacitated due to drugs or alcohol." This so-called definition is in fact a non-definition since it repeats the term "incapacitated" to purportedly explain its meaning. Because the participants were not given a clear explanation of this critical factor in determining whether consent was given, there is no way to assess the accuracy of their responses.
Finally, who exactly are the "victims" of sexual assault under the AAU Survey? The answer is not who you might think. The AAU Survey results actually indicate that non-heterosexual students and students with disabilities have a higher rate of victimization than their heterosexual counterparts do. For example, 60.4% of gays and lesbians reported being sexually harassed, and 31.6% of female undergraduates with a disability reported non-consensual sexual contact involving physical force or incapacitation. The headline, "1 in 4 Women Experience Sex Assault on Campus" failed to reflect the more startling findings of the AAU Survey. Instead, the more appropriate headline might have been, "More than 1 in 2 Homosexual Students Experience Sexual Harassment on Campus" or "1 in 3 Women with Disabilities Experience Sexual Assault on Campus."
Ms. Lau further commented, "There are numerous limitations and qualifications to the AAU Survey results due to the relatively small sampling of the responses, the wide variation in responses, the use of overbroad and imprecise definitions, and the emphasized focus on a single demographic (heterosexual women). The Survey also raises a larger underlying issue that is less talked about: namely, the significant role of the use (and often, overuse) of drugs and alcohol in sexual assault, which deserves more attention."
The AAU Survey should provide a cautionary tale: do not take statistics at face value without examining how the statistics were obtained.
Sexual assault is a serious issue that deserves society's attention to see what steps should be taken to address it. Unfortunately, the AAU Survey – because of its serious flaws – does little or nothing to clarify it or point to possible solutions but instead serves only to confuse an issue as to which there is unfortunately more than enough confusion already.
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