New Poll Backs Statistic: 1 in 5 College Women Are Sexually Assaulted


A new poll done by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation backs the oft-quoted—and lately, often disputed—Justice Department statistic that one in five college women are sexually assaulted. The poll surveyed 1,000 people who attended college in the last four years and found that twenty percent said they were sexually assaulted.

The one in five statistic originally came from a 2007 survey published by the U.S. Department of Justice, but came under question, particularly in the past year, with the Washington Post pointing out that it only surveyed two schools and that the response rate was “relatively low.” They didn’t quite call it a lie, but did say it was “problematic.”

The new survey, though, is nationwide, covering 1,053 people at 500 schools, large and small, and found that twenty percent of women and five percent of men said they’d been sexually assaulted. The Post says sexual assault was defined in this way: “[F]orced touching of a sexual nature, oral sex, vaginal sexual intercourse, anal sex and sexual penetration with a finger or object.” They also point out that some of the original skepticism about the 2007 study stemmed from a later one that was conducted very differently and may not be a reliable sexual assault indicator:

Skeptics call that statistic misleading, citing a 2014 study from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics that found college women were victims of rape or sexual assault at an annual rate of 6.1 per 1,000. Non-students, the BJS said, were raped or sexually assaulted more often than students. The 2007 and 2014 studies differed significantly in methodology. The earlier survey, by RTI International, asked about specific scenarios of unwanted sexual contact. The BJS study, more focused on crime, asked directly about rape, attempted rape and other sexual attacks. Last year, a blue-ribbon panel said it was “highly likely” the BJS method underestimates victimization.

The survey asked about other forms of unwanted sexual contact—attempted sexual assault, non-physical coercion, and a suspected assault while the subject was incapacitated—and found that 11 percent of women and two percent of men had suffered an attempted assault.

The Post-Kaiser survey calls alcohol a “major” risk factor, as well as students who said they were involved in hookups “from time to time” (so, uh, most college students). Schools with fraternities and sororities also had increased risk, but other factors—public versus private, “party schools,” religious affiliation—made no difference.

The last fascinating tidbit from the survey deals with perception, not reality: 58 percent of men believed that at their schools, fewer than one in five women were assaulted. The same percentage of women thought the number was probably greater.

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Students at Texas Tech drape a protest sign over a school seal on the Lubbock campus, October 2014. The students were protesting a picture of a banner at the Sept. 20 Phi Delta Theta fraternity gathering, which read “No means yes.” The fraternity was subsequently stripped of their charter. Image via AP.

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