How MIT Grossly Overestimated Campus Sexual Assault

David Benkof Contributor
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The MIT survey released yesterday with the alarming statistic that more than 17 percent of campus undergraduate women say they have been sexually assaulted is so poorly designed, analyzed, and reported that no reasonable person who examines it carefully can give any credence to its results.

Most galling is that MIT officials presume they know better than their students whether they’ve been sexually assaulted. The 17 percent number is based on MIT’s definition of sexual assault as any unwanted sexual behavior “involving use of force, physical threat, or incapacitation” ranging from kissing and sexual touching to sexual penetration. Yet when undergraduate women were asked directly if they had been sexually assaulted, only 10 percent said they had, of whom half said they had been raped.

MIT’s arrogance in telling women who don’t consider themselves victims that they know better is disempowering and dismissive toward the experiences of the women in the survey. Those respondents are fully aware of all the circumstances of the event – the timeline, the role of alcohol, the extent of miscommunication, and the nature of her own “no.” Or perhaps they simply don’t agree with MIT that an unsought drunken kiss should be lumped in the same category as a violent rape. Yet in an interview with The New York Times, MIT Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart blamed the gap between the two understandings of sexual assault on “confusion among some of our students about what constitutes” the phenomenon, which she said requires – wait for it – more education (re-education?).

The survey’s methodology is deeply flawed. Only 914 of the 2,001 female undergraduates surveyed responded, which comes to 46 percent. But imagine two students – one who had never experienced unwanted sexual contact, and one who had. Which one would be more likely to respond to a survey whose self-described goals included “to get a clear picture of sexual assault at MIT so that we can develop new prevention programs?”

Would we expect students whose cars have been stolen to respond at an average rate to surveys about crime on campus?

Even a note at the end of MIT’s report said “(t)he rates based on those who responded to the survey cannot be extrapolated to the MIT student population as a whole.” But that disclaimer hasn’t stopped media overreaction. For example, the headline at the Daily Beast was “1 in 6 Females Sexually Assaulted at MIT.” And Inside Higher Ed reported “17% of Female MIT Students Say They Have Been Sexually Assaulted.” Well, no. Only 10 percent of a self-selected sample said that; the university decided – against the will of another 7 percent of its undergraduate women who responded – that they had had sexual encounters against their will.

Further, the statistics themselves raise strong questions about possible bias both in the results and the way they were used. Dr. Abraham J. Wyner, professor of statistics at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, found several problems with the survey’s results, which he said “just don’t feel right.”

For example, if the survey is accurate, 12 students said they had experienced attempted or actual oral sex or penetration – but not “sexual touching.” Huh? And for the statistics to make sense, 10 students (more than a quarter) of self-reported rape victims must have said they had not been sexually assaulted. Is that at all plausible?

Dr. Weiner suggested those kinds of strange results are due to “serious double-counting… . You either have tremendous confusion about filling out a survey, or you have serious problems with the way they used their statistics.”

If any school should know better than to rely on research with such significant design and analytical flaws, it’s MIT. But the debate over campus sexual assault seems to have become about ideology, not truth. Given activists’ desire to back up their claims of an “epidemic” of sexual assault, we can only expect more of what Mark Twain called “lies, damned lies, and statistics” at our universities.

David Benkof is a freelance writer living in St. Louis, and a frequent contributor to the Daily Caller. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com