To have serious conversations about campus assault, we have to abandon bad data

Alex Stevens, Political Columnist

This past week, an article published by The Oakland Post drew important attention to the “red zone”— a period between Labor Day and Thanksgiving when students are more likely to become victims of sexual assault.

The article cited a statistic from the National Institute of Justice that asserts one in five female college students will be victims of sexual assault. The reporting of this statistic is highly misleading, as the study it comes from cannot be extrapolated to national trends by reporters acting in good faith.

Furthermore, attempts to affirm this statistic with more widely applicable data have been met with similar skepticism. In an article for Time Magazine, Christopher Krebs and Christine Lindquist, two of the researchers involved in the study from which the one-in-five statistic is derived, explained why it is inappropriate to extrapolate that study as a baseline for national sexual assault statistics on college campuses.

Christopher Krebs and Christine Lindquist wrote:

As two of the researchers who conducted the Campus Sexual Assault Study from which this number was derived, we feel we need to set the record straight. Although we used the best methodology available to us at the time, there are caveats that make it inappropriate to use the one-in-five number in the way it’s being used today, as a baseline or the only statistic when discussing our country’s problem with rape and sexual assault on campus.

First and foremost, the one-in-five statistic is not a nationally representative estimate of the prevalence of sexual assault, and we have never presented it as being representative of anything other than the population of senior undergraduate women at the two universities where data were collected — two large public universities, one in the South and one in the Midwest.

Second, the one-in-five statistic includes victims of both rape and other forms of sexual assault, such as forced kissing or unwanted groping of sexual body parts — acts that can legally constitute sexual battery and are crimes. To limit the statistic to include rape only, meaning unwanted sexual penetration, the prevalence for senior undergraduate women drops to 14.3 percent, or one-in-seven (again, limited to the two universities we studied).

Third, despite what has been said in some media reports, the one-in-five statistic does not include victims who experienced only sexual-assault incidents that were attempted but not completed. The survey does attempt to measure attempted sexual assaults, but only victims of completed incidents are included in the one-in-five statistic.

Fourth, another limitation of our study — inherent to web-based surveys — is that the response rate was relatively low (42 percent). We conducted an analysis of this nonresponse rate and found that respondents were not significantly different from nonrespondents in terms of age, race/ethnicity or year of study. Even so, it is possible that nonresponse bias had an impact on our prevalence estimates, positive or negative. We simply have no way of knowing whether sexual-assault victims were more or less likely to participate in our study. Face-to-face interviewing tends to get higher response rates but is considerably more expensive and time-consuming. That said, given the sensitive nature of the questions, the anonymity and privacy we afforded respondents may have made women comfortable with responding honestly. Overall, we believe that the trade-offs associated with low response rates were overcome by the benefits of cost-efficiency and data quality.

Given the data’s limitations, reporting this statistic without providing the appropriate context in which the data was gathered crosses the line of responsible reporting.

It undermines the legitimate concerns regarding sexual assault on college campuses by providing argumentative fodder for those who are quick to dismiss the issue.

Operating under the assumption that sexual assault is an epidemic specifically on college campuses (as it was described in the aforementioned Oakland Post article) is an unfortunate oversight given the great degree of conflicting data in reference to that claim.

For example, a nationally applicable study provided by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that female college students are less likely to be raped than individuals within the same age group who are not enrolled in college.

This study follows common trends in violence as wealthier and better-educated individuals (two traits that are generally applicable to college students in relation to others in their age group) are less likely to experience violence than those less well-off.

Because of this, it’s possible that by focusing on inapplicable statistics and ignoring studies that don’t affirm our assumptions about the college social environment, we are misallocating resources to alleviate sexual assault in places where it may occur less than in other parts of society.

It should further one’s skepticism that, as I noted above, it is the case that college students are generally wealthier and better educated than their peers.  From a purely egalitarian standpoint, it’s reasonable to question data that claims people with more wealth and better education are victims of sexual violence at higher rates than those of lower socioeconomic standing.

In addition to possibly eschewing efforts to combat sexual assault, this type of reporting heightens unsubstantiated fear among college students and puts pressure on poorly-trained college administrators to intervene in criminal and investigative procedures — a role they are in no way suited to handle.

To be clear, my intention is not to minimize the seriousness of sexual assault or to detract from the horrific experiences of those who are victims of these disgusting acts. Quite the opposite: I want to make the case that by reporting poor data and approaching the subject without regard for our own biases, we are derailing a legitimate conversation about sexual assault on college campuses from ever taking place.