The Washington Post has released a large new poll that it says buttresses activists’ claims that one woman in five is sexually assaulted while at college. Reading the polls’ details, however, paints a picture that is more nuanced, and suggests inflated sexual assault rates.
“One In Five College Women Say They Were Violated,” exclaims the Post’s headline. That claim is based on a poll of 1,035 four-year college students, in which 20 percent of female students said they had either been subjected to forcible sexual contact or else engaged in sexual contact while unable to consent due to incapacitation. The Post’s article goes even farther than its own data, arguing that “the circle of victims on the nation’s campuses is probably even larger.”
The fierce campus sexual assault debate frequently revolves around efforts to determine just how large the problem is. Activists have cited earlier studies finding a one-in-five assault rate, while their critics have relied on federal crime data suggesting the rate is one-tenth of that or even less.
Just how large the problem actually is matters, because it shapes the debate over how college administrators and lawmakers should react. Notable columnist Ezra Klein, for example, endorsed laws he later admitted were “terrible” and would undermine due process, simply because he said a one-in-five rate was so appalling it justified railroading the innocent.
If the Post has contributed strong new evidence that the rate really is as high as activists claim, it would be a major coup. But a critical look at the data indicates the Post’s vast poll has several of the same issues that have made polls in the past so questionable.
First, the poll uses a broad definition of sexual assault, which includes not only forced sexual intercourse (penetration) but also actions such as grinding on a dance floor and unwanted kisses or fondling. As a result, the Post poll doesn’t even ask respondents if they feel like they were assaulted, but rather if they’d undergone any kind of forcible or non-consensual “sexual contact.” In other words, the Post is declaring that students have been “sexually assaulted,” even if they wouldn’t necessarily say so themselves.
Another major complicating factor is alcohol.
Out of all students claiming to have experienced unwanted sexual contact, about two-thirds said it wasn’t from physical force, but rather from being “unable to provide consent … because you were passed out, drugged, or drunk, incapacitated, or asleep.” Fourteen percent of women (and 4 percent of men) said they had suffered assaults of this nature, but the question’s wording means it is an imperfect guide to the actual assault rate. Simply being drunk, even very drunk, is not sufficient to make consent impossible from a legal standpoint.
Legally, one must be so incapacitated from drugs that they are unaware (or unconscious) of what is happening. Oddly, or perhaps intentionally, the poll does not offer this clarification, inviting respondents to believe they may have been assaulted simply because they offered genuine consent for sex while drunk or high.
The Post’s own article on the poll bears out this flawed treatment of alcohol. One anonymous student from the Northeast spoke of getting drunk and, when waking up the next day in bed with a male student, thinking “What? This is not okay. I didn’t agree to this.” Though she goes on to reflect that since the male was very drunk as well, “It’s like we’re both raping each other.”
Simply having no or foggy memory of the sexual encounter does not make it an assault, as long as both were at the time cognizant enough to have sex. The Post makes no mention of this fact.
Overall, then, it’s not clear the Posts’s new poll represents a decisive triumph for activists touting the one-in-five campus rape statistic. Tellingly, despite supposedly being at the very center of a sexual assault maelstrom, college students responding to the poll were actually far less likely than the general public to view campus sexual assault as big problem. According to an earlier poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 57 percent of all adults said assault was a “big problem” on campus and 31 percent said it was “somewhat” of a problem. In contrast, only 37 percent of college students themselves saw assault as a notable problem. Even for women, the number was just 41 percent, less than half that of the general public.
Unsurprisingly, the poll finds many consistent differences in the attitudes of men and women on sexual assault, with women regarding sexual assault as a bigger problem and supporting more efforts to counter it. For example, male students believe it would be worse for an innocent student to be wrongfully expelled than for a student guilty of assault to go unpunished, while female students believe the opposite.
Sometimes the results are surprising. For example, female respondents were more supportive than men of maintaining the “No means no” standard of sexual consent (where consent may be presumed if a person doesn’t object in any way) rather than implementing the new “affirmative consent” standard, where one must explicitly say yes to every level of sexual activity.
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