TIME Sexual Assault

1 in 5: Debating the Most Controversial Sexual Assault Statistic 

Independent Womens Forum Rape
Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the Independent Women's Forum, speaks at an Independent Women's Forum panel discussion at the Fund for American Studies in Washington on June 26, 2014. Amber Schwartz

Does America really have a "rape culture"?

A conservative women’s group is trying to debunk the claim that one in five women is a victim of sexual assault in college.

The startling one-in-five statistic has become a rallying cry for campus judicial reform and entered the public lexicon through widespread dissemination by the media and the Obama Administration. Obama created a White House task force on campus sexual assault earlier this year, and Congress is currently considering proposals to combat sexual violence on campus.

At a Senate hearing Thursday, the one-in-five statistic was invoked in opening statements. Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary of education for civil rights, said that “sexual violence is pervasive” on many college campuses and James Moore, compliance manager in the Clery Act Compliance Division of the Education Department, said we are experiencing a “crisis of sexual assault” on campus. (The Clery Act, passed in 1990, requires colleges and universities to publish annual reports on security and crime statistics, as well as publish information about sexual assault policies and programs.)

But the Independent Women’s Forum, based in Washington, D.C., hosted a panel Thursday for about 100 people at The Fund for American Studies that questioned the validity of one-in-five figure.

“I do not believe that the one in five statistic is trustworthy,” said Christina Hoff Sommers, self-titled “factual feminist” and resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “Inflated statistics lead to ineffective policies. Worse than that, they can breed panic and overreaction, and that’s what I think we have right now. I believe that the rape culture movement is fueled by exaggerated claims of victimization.”

Is it exaggerated? The oft-touted statistic comes from a 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice. The study was a Web-based survey circulated to a random sample of 5,446 undergraduate women at two major public universities. The survey found that 19% of the female respondents had experienced completed or attempted sexual assault since entering college.

Yet the survey response rate was 42.2% and 42.8% at the two universities, and Sommers believes the fact that less than half the women chose to respond to the survey points to a troubling selection bias in the respondents. “The people who feel the most strongly about the survey, for whatever reason, are the most likely to respond,” she said.

Sommers and other members of the IWF panel also question the ways this study defined sexual assault. In the executive summary of the 2007 study, the researchers wrote, “Legal definitions of sexual assault factor in one’s ability to provide consent, and individuals who are incapacitated because of the effects of alcohol or drugs… are incapable of consenting.”

In other words, this survey classified sexual encounters that occurred while the woman was intoxicated as a form of sexual assault, regardless of whether the perpetrator was responsible for her intoxication or she consumed the substances on her own. “I can imagine many cases where someone was incapacitated, unconscious: could not consent,” said Sommers. “But there are other cases where it can be quite debatable.”

“Proponents [of the 1/5 statistic] are exaggerating the threat, too often confusing regretful sexual decisions made while under the influence of alcohol or drugs with actual rape,” Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of IWF, wrote in a statement circulated before the panel.

“If sexual intimacy under the influence of alcohol is by definition assault, then I would say a significant percentage of sexual intercourse throughout the world and down the ages would qualify as a crime,” Sommers said. (Sommers wrote an article for TIME in May 2014 about the “panic” she sees surrounding this issue.)

Cathy Young, columnist for Newsday and contributing editor at Reason magazine, believes that conflating drunken sex with more serious assaults undermines the gravity of the issue: “This is trivializing to the experience of women who unfortunately have had the experience of being violently raped,” she said.

Instead of one in five, Sommers believes the real number is closer to one in forty. In 2005, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report called “Violent Victimizations of College Students, 1995-2002,” with a section specifically dealing with sexual assault. This study also has an expansive definition of sexual assault (“Sexual assaults may or may not involve force and include such things as grabbing or fondling. Sexual assault also includes verbal threats”), but does not have the same restrictive view of alcohol as the Campus Sexual Assault survey. “They made it clear they were asking about a serious violation,” Sommers said.

The response rate for this survey was 80% to 88%; double that of the 2007 survey, and the results showed an annual rate of sexual assault against female students to be six per one thousand, which translates to about one in forty over four years. This means that 2.5% of women are sexually assaulted in college, not 20%. It is worth pointing out that the figures in the Bureau of Judicial Statistics survey are at least 12 years old.

“Sexual assault on campus is a genuine problem,” said Sommers. “But to get smart solutions, inflated statistics are not the answer.”

But whether the statistic is one in five, one in forty, or somewhere in between, Andrea Bottner, former director of the Office of International Women’s Issues in the George W. Bush administration, believes that those aren’t the numbers we should be worried about.

“One in five does not bother me too much as a statistic,” she said. “Frankly, I think it’s the wrong statistic to be focused upon. The number that comes to my mind is sixty percent. About sixty percent of rapes in this country are never reported… To me, every time a victim comes forward, I imagine two more next to him or her who don’t. Those are the people we need to reach.”

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