Setting the Record Straight on Sexual Assaults on Campus

eton college in england 1
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Sexual assaults on college campuses have been in the news of late, since the Department of Education released the names of 55 universities and colleges under investigation for allegations that they mishandled sexual violence complaints on their campuses.

College-aged victims of sexual assault and student activist groups have complained to their university presidents for covering up assaults, blaming victims, and for talking victims out of reporting these events. These complaints have occurred at numerous universities, such as Dartmouth College, Harvard University, University of Connecticut, and our own - DePaul University.

Student activist groups suggest that we should be skeptical of the number of assaults that universities track and they are frustrated with the denial and minimization of the problem of sexual assault on college campuses. Unfortunately, this is happening again in the national media.

Both of us are women, and university professors - one of us (Greeson) is a psychologist who conducts research about sexual assault and intimate partner violence, the other (Shattell), a nurse, a mental health advocate, and a researcher who studies mental health issues.

Because of our backgrounds we were alarmed by a recent op-ed that has (once again) minimized the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, George Will cites Mark Perry's analysis of sexual assault research, which claimed to refute the statistic that one in five college women have been sexually assaulted. Many others have already offered critiques of the op-ed for the opinions Will shares, but we want to call him and Perry out for misrepresenting the facts about the prevalence of sexual assault against college women.

If you actually read the original research they cite, Perry's analysis is nonsense and does not at all refute the statistic that one in five college women have been sexually assaulted. Perry and Will have proven that 1 + 1 doesn't equal seven, and concluded that therefore, the number one must not exist.

This is what Perry did. He took the number of female college students from a university (University #1) and then using the statistic that one in five will be assaulted, he calculated the number of female sexual assault victims you would expect to see at that university. So far, so good.

Then, he cited a statistic from a second study, which found that 12 percent of rapes against college women are reported to the police. Using this number, Perry estimated the number of sexual assault victims at University #1 that he would expect to have reported. This actually reflects the number of college victims at University #1 that would report to any type of police (for example, local police department, campus police, etc.).

He then compared the number of assaults students experienced and reported to any police against the number of sexual assaults the college tracked and the numbers don't add up. Because the numbers don't add up, Perry and Will conclude that the one in five statistic must be way too high.

The numbers don't add up because you shouldn't expect them to, for lots of reasons. In fact, the assaults that colleges track are only a fraction of the assaults that their students experience and report to police.

A sexual assault victim who is in college can report to the local police department to pursue criminal charges against a perpetrator and they can also report the assault to their university (for example, if they want the campus community notified of the crime or if they want the university to investigate violations of their student handbook).

They might do one, both, or neither.

When researchers asked female college rape victims whether or not they had reported the assault to police, 12 percent of college rape victims said that they did -- but that doesn't mean that they reported to campus police. Presumably some of them reported to the local police and not their university, because not everyone who wants the police to know wants their university to know.

So we would expect the numbers that are tracked by a university to be smaller -- because a university doesn't find out about all sexual assaults against their students, even when they are reported to local police.

Another key fact Perry's analysis misses is that colleges only track certain types of sexual assault in their numbers. Typically colleges only report assaults that occurred on campus and/or assaults in which the accused perpetrator was also a student at that university. So, again, we expect the numbers tracked by a university to be smaller than the number of assaults their students actually experience and report to local police.

The take home point is that the number tracked by the college would only be a fraction of the assaults that George and Mark are using as a comparison. The mismatch doesn't mean the prevalence figures are wrong -- it's that they have compared a select group of cases that are tracked by a university to a wider group of assaults that their students experience and report to local police.

The statistic that one in five college women has been sexually assaulted while in college is quite similar to findings from other studies. Two other independent nationally representative studies have found that 5 percent of college women have been sexually assaulted in one calendar year.

To suggest that the statistics are a gross overestimate based on a nonsensical process shrouded in the trappings of math is irresponsible.

To be sure, George Wills and Mark Perry have a right to their opinions about this issue, and to present their views, but they've got the facts wrong.

Minimizing the prevalence of sexual assault derails serious efforts to improve how campuses prevent and respond to sexual assault. Minimizing the problem will stop victims from coming forward for fear that people won't believe them.

The one in five statistic is staggeringly high -- but the take home point isn't that the number is right; it's that we we've got a lot of work left to do.

Megan Greeson received her PhD from Michigan State University with a concentration in Research Methods and Statistics. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Clinical and Community Psychology at DePaul University. She has been involved in research on violence against women for the past ten years. In her current research, she partners with communities and institutions to understand and improve the response to sexual assault victims.

Co-authored by Megan Greeson, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychology at DePaul University.