Sixty colleges and universities across the U.S. are currently under investigation for violating the Title IX law by allegedly mishandling sexual-assault cases on campus. All types of schools have been caught up in the still-widening scandal, from Harvard to Cisco Junior College in Texas.
In April, Bloomberg Businessweek explored why so many of these cases have recently been opened and why this has become a national issue. Earlier this year, the White House convened the Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault to address the problem. The group released its first report in April which opens with the line, “One in five women is sexually assaulted in college.” (PDF) If you have a daughter and you send her to college, the White House is saying, she essentially has a 20 percent chance of being raped.
That’s a shockingly high figure. But this week, Glenn Beck’s show The Blaze ran a segment claiming it isn’t true:
The Blaze took issue with the small sample size (5,446 women across two schools) studied by one of the sources for the statistic, the National Institute of Justice’s 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Survey (PDF). OK, it’s a fair complaint to say that two schools aren’t indicative of the entire U.S. college system. The Blaze’s Stu Burguiere also claimed that 62 percent of of the survey’s respondents said they “didn’t consider the incident to be rape. …The president is saying the women were raped and these women are saying they weren’t.” That’s not quite right. What the survey said:
“Of the victims who did not report the incident to law enforcement, the most commonly reported reason[s] for non-reporting were that they did not think it was serious enough to report, that it was unclear that a crime was committed or that harm was intended.”
That doesn’t mean they didn’t think it happened at all.
The Blaze also attacked the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This study doesn’t focus on college students but on people of all ages. According to the study, 18.3 percent of women—which works out to about 22 million people—say they have been raped in their lifetime. (The survey also tracks men; for them the statistic is 1.4 percent, or 1.6 million people.)
The CDC’s number does vary slightly by race: It’s 22 percent for black women; 14.6 percent for Hispanics; 18.8 percent for whites. But it is shorthanded throughout the report, and in most places that cite it as a source, as one in five.
“This survey was designed to massively inflate the number of victims,” The Blaze’s Burguiere said before introducing “rape expert Jeff Fisher.” What follows is a two-and-a-half-minute sketch in which the “rape expert” tries to convince a giggling, hair-twirling, cross-dressing man in a blonde wig to have sex with him by saying things such as, “You should have sex with me, I’m going to be on the cover of the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog this month.” The man-pretending-to-be-a-woman agrees, then Burguiere jumps in and says: “Woah, woah, woah—stop, that’s rape! Pressuring someone to have sex with you by telling them lies is the same as rape.”
Not according to the survey they’re talking about. The 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey covers several types of sexual violence—including rape, yes—but it also asked questions about different types of unwanted experiences including “sexual coercion.” As the study explains:
“Sexual coercion refers to … being pressured in ways that included being worn down by someone who repeatedly asked for sex or showed they were unhappy; feeling pressured by being lied to, being told promises that were untrue, having someone threaten to end a relationship or spread rumors; and sexual pressure due to someone using their influence or authority.”
Answering that question, 13 percent of women and 6 percent of men reported they’d been coerced into having sex. Technically, if The Blaze wants to wrap that definition in with the study’s actual definition of rape, the statistic it would have to debunk is in fact 31.3 percent of women—or slightly fewer than one in three.
The tendency to disbelieve the 20 percent figure that’s so widely reported is understandable. Twenty-two million is an awful lot of women—that’s about how many people live in the entire New York metropolitan area. The number often appears in discussion of campus sexual assault without much sourcing. So I did a little digging. And if you really want to understand the 20 percent stat, here’s the best source I found.
In 2000, University of Cincinnati criminal justice professors Bonnie Fisher and Francis Cullen published a survey for the Bureau of Justice Statistics called “The Sexual Victimization of College Women” (PDF). In the study, Fisher and her colleagues surveyed 4,446 women from a wide variety of colleges. They asked a series of very specific, very thorough questions about what women had experienced “since the school year began,” a period that worked out to about six months. They found that 2.8 percent of women had experienced attempted or completed rape. From that, they extrapolated that about 5 percent of students would be “victimized” in any given calendar year, which would make the rate across college somewhere between 20 percent and 25 percent, depending on whether students typically graduated in four years or five.
That study is a little old now and isn’t often cited by name, since so many others have followed. But when you couple its findings with those of other surveys, such as the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, you see statistics that closely match the “one-in-five” number again and again. Personally, I find it fascinating that the percentage of college-aged women who will be assaulted and the lifetime percentage are so similar. Perhaps that’s because, according to the CDC report, nearly 80 percent of rape victims are assaulted before their 25th birthday. And probably not by someone pretending to be a model for Abercrombie & Fitch.