The alleged one-in-five sexual assault rate at American colleges is being pushed with renewed vigor Monday thanks to a massive new survey released by the Association of American Universities (AAU). But the new survey has many of the same problems that have dogged earlier surveys.
The survey was administered by the AAU, a collection of America’s top public and private research universities, at 27 member campuses. Over 150,000 students responded, approximately 19.3 percent of the total population. According to the survey, about 23 percent of female undergraduate students have experienced some kind of sexual assault, ranging from rape to lesser offenses like unwanted groping. Just under 11 percent of women said they experienced non-consensual sexual penetration of some kind.
The survey is being widely touted as “validation” for the one-in-five sexual assault statistic that has been repeatedly cited as a call to action. But whether this is actually the case is quite dubious. The new survey took a very similar approach to earlier surveys (such as a Washington Post survey from June), and consequently has many of the same flaws. (RELATED: Are 20 Percent Of Women Really Assaulted In College?)
For example, like many other such surveys, a large proportion of those claiming to have been assaulted say they were unable to consent because they were “incapacitated by drugs or alcohol.” The survey does nothing to clarify what “incapacitated” means, though, inviting the common misinterpretation that it includes merely being drunk rather than so intoxicated as to be effectively unconscious.
Another major issue with the survey is the matter of non-response bias. While 150,000 people participated in the survey, that’s just 19.3 percent of the total student population on the campuses surveyed. Even the researchers themselves acknowledged this degree of non-response was higher than in several similar surveys, and they also noted that evidence indicates individuals who haven’t been assaulted are less likely to participate in such surveys in the first place.
In other words, students who have been sexually assaulted self-select into the survey group, making assault appear more common than it actually is. The survey itself wasn’t uniformly administered, either; some schools offered incentives to students who took the survey, while others offered no incentive and some other schools refused to take part at all.
The survey also shows a degree of editorializing in its interpretations. For example, the report expresses distress at the high non-reporting rate for students who say they have suffered some kind of sexual misconduct. But by far most common reason students give for not reporting is that the incident simply wasn’t seriously enough to bother reporting, suggesting that in practice many “forcible sexual assaults,” as classified by researchers, may in practice be something less.
The Washington Post even acknowledged that the survey’s design almost certainly overstated the level of victimization — before proceeding to treat the survey as reliable anyway, saying it showed assault is “disturbingly common” on campus.
Reports prepared by law enforcement experts have consistently indicated that sexual assault is less common that activists claim and also that colleges are safer for women than the outside world. A report by the Department of Justice released last December, for instance, estimated that just .61 percent of college students are sexually assaulted, and said women of college age were more likely to face assault if they were not in school. (RELATED: DOJ Says .61 Percent Of Students Are Sexually Assaulted)
The allegedly super-high frequency of campus rape has led to dramatic calls for action on the part of some journalists and policymakers. Ezra Klein of Vox, for instance, suggested that it was acceptable to wrongly expel innocent students because the one-in-five stat simply demanded over-the-top action. Similarly, Congressman Jared Polis of Colorado raised eyebrows when he suggested there was nothing wrong with expelling ten students even if it was known just two of them were guilty (Polis has since apologized). (RELATED: Jared Polis Says Expel All Students Accused Of Sexual Assault)
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