As college students poured back into classrooms this week, ABC Nightline breathlessly reported (and other news outlets and blogs echoed): “A recent study from the Department of Justice estimated that 25 percent of college women will be victims of rape or attempted rape before they graduate within a four-year college period.”
The short statement is enough to make parents think twice before sending their daughter to college. Despite the seriousness of the claim, the hook is riddled with inaccuracies and misrepresentations — not least of which is the actual statistic.
Indeed, nearly 50 percent of the “rape victims” referred to in the report said they had not been raped.
The document in question, “Acquaintance Rape of College Students,” by attorney Rana Sampson, is not a study but rather a report combining and relying on several studies — the largest of which remains problematic.
Sampson released her report more than four years ago and though the Justice Department provided her with some funding, she was not a Justice Department employee. “The opinions contained herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position of the U.S. Department of Justice,” the report disclaims.
The one-in-four statistic, according to footnotes, is derived from a study conducted in 2000 called, “The Sexual Victimization of College Women” (SVCW), by Bonnie S. Fisher, Francis T. Cullen and Michael G. Turner.
Dr. Neil Gilbert, a professor of social welfare at University California, Berkeley, told The Daily Caller that the SVCW’s numbers are severely inflated due to the study’s broad definition of rape and the manner in which subjects were questioned.
According to Gilbert, the SVCW study results found a rate of rape that was 10 times higher than when the methodology for the National Crime Victimization Study (NCVS) was used. Namely, “the National Crime Victimization study had a check to make sure that the codes [or definitions of rape, force, etc.] of responses reflected the interviewees precise description. The SVCW study did not use this type of control on coding,” Gilbert explained.
In the SVCW study, researchers asked subjects to explain what happened to them and then decided, using their own definitions, what was and was not rape. The study defined rape in exceptionally wide terms: “Forced sexual intercourse including both psychological coercion as well as physical force. Forced sexual intercourse means vaginal, anal or oral penetration by the offender(s). This category also includes incidents where the penetration is from a foreign object such as a bottle. Includes attempted rapes, male as well as female victims, and both heterosexual and homosexual rape. Attempted rape includes verbal threats of rape.”
The inclusion of the phrase “psychological coercion” as part of the definition greatly increased the number of “victims.”
In an interview with TheDC, Sampson made no distinction between violent rape and regret after seduction. “Rape is rape is rape,” she said. “I think that the kind of harm that one experiences during rape is not something we want to belittle.”
Apart from the hair-raising 25 percent figure, the SVCW study reports that when those categorized as rape victims were asked if what they described was rape, nearly 50 percent said “no.” Further, 80 percent of the subjects researchers labeled as rape victims stated that the incident resulted in neither physical or emotional injuries. Only 5 percent of those identified as victims of rape actually reported the incident. “If an attorney defending a rapist were to use this, they’d say ‘Well, what’s the big deal? 80 percent of women who are raped don’t have any adverse affects,’” Gilbert said.
“It expands the definition in a way that it includes a lot of events — you know sexual activity at that age can be confusing, there is regret after, there are break ups, all kinds of things that go on,” Gilbert said.
But, according to Sampson many women do not actually realized they have been raped. “It often doesn’t register as rape to women because it does not look like the image they have in their mind. It turns out that image is not the most common type of rape and that is why so many people are able to get away with it,” she said.
Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald put Sampson’s rape report numbers up against Detroit’s, a city with one of the highest violent crime rates of any city in the country. In that city, at the time of the report’s release, the violent crime rate was 2.4 percent, which includes crimes of rape, murder, assault and robbery.
“If 25 percent of all college women were experiencing a violent crime rate that was 10 times higher than anything experienced in the most violent areas, colleges would be transformed. They would be shut down,” Mac Donald told TheDC. “Parents would not be clamoring to get their daughters into Harvard and Yale and Brown and Wesleyan and every other college. You would have a massive revamping of admissions processes because what this statistic says is that colleges are letting in tens of thousands of violent criminals.”
While reports such as Nightline’s scream about an epidemic, Mac Donald says college rape hotlines are silent. “I mean they are so desperate to find rape that at Yale, for instance, they have thrown out the rule that the accuser has the right to confront his victim, which is a cornerstone of our Anglo-Saxon common law heritage. This is at Yale.”
Gilbert said that the desire to inflate the numbers comes down to funding. “These studies have been used to get funding for women’s centers on college campuses,” Gilbert said. “I call it advocacy research, these people mean well and have legitimate concerns. But at some point they exaggerate so much that it is no longer a problem but the norm and with studies like this they risk doing just that.”