Are 1 in 5 Women Raped at College?

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Apr 11, 2016

Is it true that 1 in 5 women are raped on America's college campuses? If so, what does that say about our universities and the people who run them? If not, how did that statistic get into the mainstream? Caroline Kitchens, Senior Research Associate at the American Enterprise Institute, looks at the data and explains the very significant results.

Are 1 in 5 women raped at college? Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers show that the more statistically grounded ratio is around 1 in 50.

  • A comprehensive study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics focusing on 1995 – 2002 found that there were six rape victims for every one thousand students per year. BLS estimated that over a four-year period, the ratio was around 1 in every 52.6 students.View Source
  • The source of the widely cited “1 in 5” statistic came from an online, anonymous survey in which the researchers – not the women responding to the questions – determined whether an assault had occurred and did not verify claims. “The researchers employed an expansive definition of sexual assault that included ‘forced kissing’ and even ‘attempted’ forced kissing,” explains Christina Hoff Sommers. “The survey also asked subjects if they had sexual contact with someone when they were unable to give consent because they were drunk. A ‘yes’ answer was automatically counted as a rape or assault. According to the authors, ‘an intoxicated person cannot legally consent to sexual contact.’”View Source
  • WATCH: Caroline Kitchens discusses “rape culture hysteria on campus.”View Source
  • Related reading: “Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization Among College-Age Females, 1995-2013” – Bureau of Justice StatisticsView Source

Is there a college rape epidemic? Students are less likely to be raped than nonstudents, and rape cases have declined dramatically overall.

  • According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, rape and sexual assault rates were 1.2 times higher for nonstudents than students between 1995 and 2013. The same study found that between 1997 and 2013, the rates of rape and sexual assault declined 50%.View Source
  • The source of the widely cited “1 in 5” statistic came from an online, anonymous survey in which the researchers – not the women responding to the questions – determined whether an assault had occurred and did not verify claims.View Source
  • WATCH: Caroline Kitchens discusses “rape culture hysteria on campus.”View Source

Is America fostering a “rape culture”? Between 1997 and 2013, the rates of rape and sexual assault in America declined 50%.

  • A comprehensive Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that between 1997 and 2013, the rates of rape and sexual assault declined 50%.View Source
  • Another study found that between 1979 and 2004, the number of reported rapes per capita decreased over 85%.View Source
  • WATCH: Caroline Kitchens discusses “rape culture hysteria on campus.”View Source
  • Related reading: “The Rape ‘Epidemic’ Doesn’t Actually Exist” – Caroline KitchensView Source

Working to prevent rape is essential, but exaggerated claims of a “rape epidemic” lead to hysteria rather than helpful policy.

  • Rather than rape and sexual assault becoming a bigger problem in recent decades — as the popular narrative suggests — the opposite is true. A comprehensive Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that between 1997 and 2013, the rates of rape and sexual assault declined 50%.View Source
  • That decline can be traced back to at least 1979; reported rapes per capita fell dramatically over the next three decades.View Source
  • Related reading: “In Making Campuses Safer for Women, a Travesty of Justice for Men ” – Christina Hoff Sommers, Chronicle of Higher EducationView Source
  • Related reading: “The Rape ‘Epidemic’ Doesn’t Actually Exist” – Caroline KitchensView Source
  • WATCH: Caroline Kitchens discusses “rape culture hysteria on campus.”View Source

Faulty methodology in some studies has led to exaggerated claims about sexual assault, like the debunked “1 in 5” statistic. 

  • According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, men and women combined suffered 188,380 rapes and sexual assaults in 2010.View Source
  • For the same year, the Center for Disease Control estimated there were 13.7 million rapes and sexual assaults.View Source
  • CDC estimates differed so wildly from those of Justice Department because the CDC used very flexible definitions of assault and allowed surveyors to determine what counted as an assault rather than the person answering the survey.View Source
  • A comprehensive Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that between 1997 and 2013, the rates of rape and sexual assault declined 50%.View Source
  • Related reading: Christina Hoff Sommers explains why the study that concluded that “1 in 5” college women are raped is fundamentally flawed.View Source
  • WATCH: Caroline Kitchens discusses “rape culture hysteria on campus.”View Source

Recent changes to campus policy on sexual assault cases, like the use of campus judiciaries, make it more likely to wrongfully accuse men.

  • Many colleges and universities make use of campus judiciaries which are composed of few students and administrators and which do not guarantee the due process of courts of law.View Source
  • Related reading: “In Making Campuses Safer for Women, a Travesty of Justice for Men ” – Christina Hoff Sommers, Chronicle of Higher EducationView Source
  • Related reading: “Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization Among College-Age Females, 1995-2013” – Bureau of Justice StatisticsView Source
  • WATCH: Caroline Kitchens discusses “rape culture hysteria on campus.”View Source

Are American college campuses “rape cultures?” Are they dangerous places where sexual assaults against women are happening at an alarming rate?

According to many gender activists, academics and politicians, the answer is yes. Here’s what the Vice-President of the United States, Joe Biden, said in 2014.

“We know the numbers: one in five of every one of those young women who is dropped off for that first day of school, before they finish school, will be assaulted, will be assaulted in her college years.”

Let’s take a closer look at the Vice President’s claim.

Rape is a horrific crime, and rapists are rightfully despised. We have strict laws against sexual assault that everyone wants to see enforced. But, while rape is certainly a very serious problem, there is simply no evidence of a national campus rape epidemic, and there’s certainly no evidence that sexual violence is a “cultural norm” in 21st century America. In fact, rates of rape in the US are very low and they’ve been declining for decades. Why would it be any different on a college campus? Where, then, does the 1 in 5 rate that Vice President Biden cites come from?

Well, it turns out it comes from a study conducted over the Internet at two large universities, one in the Midwest and one in the South. The survey was anonymous, no one’s claims were verified and terms were not clearly defined. In round numbers a total of 5,000 women participated. Based on their responses, the authors, not the participants, determined that 1,000 had been victims of some type of “non-consensual or unwanted sexual contact.”

And voila! From one vaguely worded, unscientific survey we suddenly arrive at “a rape culture on college campuses.” Tellingly, the study authors have since explicitly stated that it is “inappropriate” to use their survey to make that claim.

Much more comprehensive data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimates that about 1 in 52.6 college women will be victims of rape or sexual assault over the course of four years. That’s far too many, but it’s a long way from 1 in 5.

The same BJS data also reveal that women in college are safer from rape than college-aged women who are not enrolled in college. 

But the truth doesn’t serve the purposes of feminist activists or vote-seeking politicians. Lies work much better. And the 1 in 5 claim is tantamount to a lie.  Here are just a few examples of what this lie has wrought.

At Scripps College, Pulitzer-Prize winning commentator George Will was disinvited from giving a speech. The reason? He had dared to question the “rape culture” mantra in a column he wrote.

At the all-women Wellesley College, students demanded that the administration remove a campus sculpture of a sleepwalking man wearing only underpants. Why? Well, because the image of a nearly naked male could "trigger" memories of sexual assault for victims.   

According to Harvard Law professor, Jeannie Suk, students now ask teachers not to include questions about rape law on exams for fear that such disturbing questions might cause them to perform less well.

And at Brown University, students were so traumatized by a debate on the subject of campus sexual assault that activists organized a “safe room” equipped with coloring books, Play-Doh, calming music, and a video of frolicking puppies.

No less absurd are the attempts by colleges and legislators to cure this non-existent plague. In California and New York, students now have to live by so-called “Affirmative Consent” laws. The California law says that affirmative consent by all parties must be “ongoing throughout a sexual activity,” while the New York law says that “silence or lack of resistance, in and of itself, does not demonstrate consent.”

Confused? Pity the poor college students who have to figure this out. If it wasn't so serious, it would be laughable. But it's not funny to a growing number of young men who find themselves accused of sexual assault, publicly shamed and then brought before campus judicial panels that are guided by rape-culture theory. In such proceedings, due process is an afterthought: it's guilty because accused.    

But here’s the best way to prove that the 1 in 5 number is phony. Ask yourself this question: would you send your daughter to a place for four years where there was a twenty percent chance she would be raped or sexually assaulted?

Of course not.

Good rarely, if ever, comes from lies. The one in five “rape culture” lie is no exception.

I’m Caroline Kitchens of the American Enterprise Institute for Prager University.

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