1 IN 5

That “flawed” statistic that 20% of women in college are sexually assaulted? It’s true

Image: AP Photo/Steve Helber
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Following a year of skepticism, it is once again accurate to say that one in five women in college in the US experience sexual assault.

In May of 2014, the Washington Post ran a story (updated in December) calling into question a statistic that US president Barack Obama, and a number of other politicians and advocates, had been citing for a while—that one in five women on college campuses are sexually assaulted. The Post asserted that the 2006 survey which had furnished that number, funded by the US Department of Justice, might not be nationally representative for several reasons: it only surveyed students at two large public US colleges; the response rate of 42% is relatively low; 19% is the share of women who experienced both attempted and completed sexual assault, not just the latter.

Men’s rights activists and others began using these purported statistical inaccuracies as evidence that the issue of campus rape is overblown in the US. This was around the same time that the US Department of Education announced investigations into what is now more than 100 universities for potentially mishandling sexual assault cases on their campuses. Quite quickly, citing the flaws with the 1 in 5 statistic became a key point used to demonstrate the difficulties in pinpointing sexual assault statistics—one New York Times editorial referred to it as a “flawed 2007 study.”

To be sure, a survey of students at two colleges should not be considered nationally representative. But it’s also not proof that campus rape isn’t a problem; rather, it was a call for more extensive studies. On June 12, the Washington Post published a new poll conducted with the Kaiser Family Foundation. This poll provides the strongest evidence so far that 20% of college women in the US are sexually assaulted; with a five percentage point margin of error, that’s still a higher percentage than the 13.7% who said they’d experienced a completed assault in the 2007 study. In total, 5% of men said they experienced sexual assault.

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The researchers conducted phone interviews with 1,053 Americans between the ages of 17 and 26, all of whom had been undergraduate students in a four-year college at some point since 2011 and lived on or near their campus. The sample size of 539 men and 514 women was smaller than the 2006 survey of 5,446 women and 1,375 men, but represented a much wider pool of more than 500 schools instead of just two, according to the Post.

This poll used similar descriptions of sexual assault to the 2007 study, defining sexual assault as “forced sexual touching, oral sex, sexual intercourse, anal sex and sexual penetration with a finger or object.” This definition also includes unwanted kissing and “rubbing up against you in a sexual way, even if it is over your clothes,” according to the survey. Assaults include those by physical force, as well as if the survivor was incapacitated by alcohol or drugs and unable to provide consent, but is sure the assault happened. The definitions are consistent with the federal legal definition for sexual assault, though terminologies vary among states.

A number of universities told the Post they are increasing prevention and support efforts on their campuses by focusing on consent, encouraging students to report assault they see or experience, and hiring staff to help survivors. As more survivors come forward and statistics like this one become more difficult to refute, it may become easier to hold universities accountable for protecting their students.