…While reporting a story on the perceived epidemic of sexual violence on campus last year, I interviewed Christopher Krebs, the lead author of the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study, from which the 1 in 5 number was first derived. “We don’t think one in five is a nationally representative statistic,” he said, noting that he’d conducted his surveys on just two campuses. The more wide-ranging AAU survey would seem to sweep away the doubt. But its authors also explicitly warn against making the kind of national claims suggested by this week’s headlines: “[M]any news stories are focused on figures like ‘1 in 5’ in reporting victimization,” they write, then advise that it is “oversimplistic, if not misleading” to conclude that any study, including their own, proves that 20 or 25 percent of female students are victims.
This week, I spoke to David Cantor, co-principal investigator of the AAU study. He explained that the 27 campuses he and his colleagues looked at are not nationally representative; the set of schools was relatively large, but it was not randomly selected from the full complement of American universities. All but one of the schools participating in this survey are members of the AAU, an organization of leading research universities. While 150,000 students filled out the survey, it was offered to almost 780,000 students, which makes for a disappointingly low response rate of around 19 percent. That, too, is a problem, Cantor said, because it raises questions as to whether those students who did take the survey were more inclined to have been victims of sexual assault, thus inflating the results. He said there is evidence this is the case, explaining that analysis of the survey turned up “some indication that people who did not respond were less likely to be victims.”
The AAU survey found that across all 27 institutions, 23 percent of female undergraduates experienced nonconsensual sexual contact as a result of force or incapacitation. This contact ranged from penetration to kissing to being groped over one’s clothes. (Many critics of campus surveys like this one note that the studies ratchet up the incidence of sexual assault by lumping together acts that could be considered rape with less serious violations like unwanted touching.) That 23 percent—on the bubble between “1 in 4” and “1 in 5”—is an average among the 27 schools, which had individual rates ranging from 13 percent to 30 percent. Some of the highest rates for nonconsensual sexual contact in the AAU survey were found at some of the nation’s most elite universities. Of the 27 schools, Harvard University, Yale University, and the University of Michigan reported overall rates of nonconsensual contact to be 26, 28, and 30 percent, respectively, for female undergraduates. (The lowest was the California Institute of Technology.) The study also confirmed the role that alcohol plays in unwanted encounters: “Nonconsensual sexual contact involving drugs and alcohol constitute a significant percentage of incidents,” the authors write.
The AAU report provides separate statistics for the incidence of unwanted penetrative sex. (The report deliberately does not use the word rape, Cantor told me. This was at the universities’ request, because the schools are addressing conduct violations, not criminal matters.) The finding across all the schools was that for the 2014–2015 academic year, the rate of such completed, physically forced encounters among female undergraduates was 1.3 percent, and for those reporting such acts during the entirety of their college years it was 3.2 percent.
The AAU survey notes that previous attempts to pin down campus sexual assault incidence have produced different conclusions and acknowledges that survey results vary based on the definition of nonconsensual activity, the sample size, and the wording of the questions, among other factors. This is illustrated dramatically by the release last December of a special report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics titled “Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization Among College-Age Females, 1995–2013.” It found that contrary to frequent assertions, including by some elected officials, about the particular dangers female college students face, they are less likely to be victims of sexual assault than their peers who are not enrolled in college. The report found that among women aged 18 to 24, those not in college were 1.2 times more likely to be victims of sexual violence than those in college. The good news was that incidence for both groups was far lower than anything approaching 1 in 5: 0.76 percent for nonstudents and 0.61 percent for students.