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America Has a College Rape Problem, but We Need the Right Data to Address it

America Has a College Rape Problem, but We Need the Right Data to Address it: © Sean De Burca / Corbis

© Sean De Burca / Corbis

Much has been said by journalists, academic administrators and politicians alike, including the President of the United States, about rape and sexual assault on America’s college campuses. However, not everything we have been told is true. It turns out that some of the most widely cited rape facts and statistics do not accurately reflect the data.

Before I go on, let me be perfectly clear: we do have a rape problem at America’s colleges and universities, and this article in no way attempts to deny or minimize that. Numerous young women have been sexually victimized during the course of their college careers. This is tragic and unacceptable, and the attention and resources directed towards alleviating this extremely important problem are rightly deserved. I am thankful that we are finally discussing this issue because it has been avoided for far too long.

The only thing I am arguing is this: if we don’t start being honest with ourselves about the true scope and nature of this problem, we are going to have a very hard time addressing it effectively. To that end, what I would like to do in this article is correct what I see as the three biggest misconceptions about college sexual victimization today.

These include (1) the statistic that 1 in 5 college women will be raped, (2) the belief that college women are at heightened risk of sexual violence compared to other young women, and (3) the common claim that rape is always motivated by power and control and isn’t really about sex at all.

Let’s start by taking a look at that 1 in 5 statistic. Although it is mentioned almost daily and taken as fact, few who cite it are familiar with the source.

This number comes from a 2007 Internet survey (the Campus Sexual Assault Study) of women at two U.S. universities, a survey in which less than half of the women contacted responded. Of those who did respond, 19 percent met researchers’ criteria for having experienced either an actual or attempted sexual assault. These criteria included experiencing at least one forced or unwanted sex act since beginning college, from kissing to grabbing to sexual penetration. In addition, these forced sex acts did not have to occur at college or even involve other students—all experiences counted.

What has happened here is that a single survey featuring a non-representative sample of women from just two universities has been extrapolated to female college students in general. In addition, caveats about “actual or attempted” and the fact that assaults were not specific to college were dropped along the way.

What is perhaps the most fundamental claim about the prevalence of college rape today is far from being a precise and generalizable statistic, and I’m hardly the first to point this out. In fact, this statistic has been critiqued many times, including by feminist scholars—but, so far, this has not stopped the statistic from being cited over and over.

What’s the harm in citing an incorrect statistic, you ask? For one thing, this particular statistic is so large and so frightening that it may lead some women to unnecessarily spend their college careers living in fear. For another, the ease with which this figure can be rebutted has the potential to undermine the push for a solution to the problem. Not only that, but if we don’t really know the scope of the problem we’re dealing with, it becomes that much harder to design ways of preventing it.

The frequency with which the 1 in 5 statistic has been cited has fed into a broader perception that college women are the most at-risk group for sexual victimization and that college is a particularly dangerous place for women. A closer look at the data reveals that this is not the case, though.

A 2014 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics using data from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) revealed that nonstudents aged 18-24 were actually about 20 percent more likely to report being sexually victimized than students of the same age.

By giving the impression that the rape problem is largely a college issue, we avert our eyes from the women who may actually be at highest risk. In light of this, we must start bringing nonstudents into this conversation, too, and we cannot limit our preventative efforts to college campuses.

On a side note, I should mention that the NCVS put the rate of rape and sexual assault (including actual, attempted, or threatened rape) at less than one percent for both nonstudents and students. You may be wondering how that could be so much lower than the figure obtained in the aforementioned Campus Sexual Assault Study, which yielded a 19 percent rate. Part of this is due to sampling differences (the NCVS looked at a nationally representative sample, as opposed to a non-representative sample of students from two schools), but it’s also because of differences in how rape and sexual assault were defined in these studies.

In the Campus Sexual Assault Study (the 1 in 5 study), women were given a checklist that included many forms of unwanted sexual contact, which researchers then used to classify women as having been victimized or not based upon the researchers’ beliefs about what constitutes victimization; in contrast, in the NCVS, the terms “rape” and “sexual assault” were included in the survey questions to allow participants themselves to classify whether they had been victimized.

This hints at a broader problem in trying to assess the prevalence of sexual assault—who determines what “counts” as sexual assault and who the victims are: the people who completed the survey or the people who created the survey? Depending upon who makes this determination, the estimates can be vastly different, with researchers having a tendency to classify many people as victims who do not believe themselves to be victims.

Finally, let’s address the claim that rape is fundamentally about power and control and has nothing to do with sex. I personally believed this for a long time, having heard it repeated in many college classes; however, when I started teaching my own sexuality courses a few years back, I looked for a scientific citation to back it up and was surprised to learn that the view among researchers is much more complex. It turns out that, at least sometimes, rape is more about sex and less about power.

Several studies support the idea that rape is multi-determined and cannot be reduced to a singular motivation. Different rapists can have different motives. For instance, a 2006 study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence analyzed convicted rapists’ motivations for committing their crimes and concluded that rapists fall into at least three distinct categories: those who are violently motivated, those who are sexually motivated, and those who are sadistically motivated. In other words, there appear to be different “types” of rapists.

Having an accurate understanding of the underlying motivations behind rape is crucial for both prevention and treatment. It is difficult to prevent a crime from occurring in the first place if you don’t know what is causing people to commit that crime. Likewise, it is impossible to assess an offender’s risk of re-offending and provide appropriate treatment if the root cause of their offense is unknown.

We readily accept that there are multiple motives behind virtually every other criminal act in this world (e.g., theft, murder) and that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution to preventing any of them. Sex crimes should not be viewed any differently, and we’re not doing anyone any favors by oversimplifying the matter and implying that all rapes stem from the same motive.

It’s time we abandon a lot of what we think we know about college rape in the U.S. and start taking a closer look at the data and research. Our best hope for ending this problem rests upon an informed and nuanced understanding of its true scope and nature.


Justin Lehmiller, PhD, is a sex educator and researcher at Ball State University and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.


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