Campus sexual assault, climate surveys, and what is the true incident rate.

We are now 100 days into the Trump administration and there has been a lot of anticipation about what that might mean for campus sexual assault initiatives and enforcement by the Department of Justice and the Department of Education.  Despite these anxieties the policy edicts and guidances issued under the Obama administration have not been rescinded, thus the higher education community is proceeding under those Obama administration rules.

One of those items that have continued have been colleges and universities conducting campus climate surveys to assess, among other items, the rate of sexual assault on their campuses.

A figure that has been commonly repeated in the press and by federal officials is that 1 in 5 college women are subjected to rape or sexual assault during their time on campus.  What is interesting about this oft cited statistic is that it has  been the subject of various criticisms as to its legitimacy.

A recent campus climate survey conducted by the University of Indiana-Purdue University Columbus (IUPUC) will only add fuel to these debates.    IUPUC conducted its survey in the Fall of 2016 and reported a rate of rape and sexual assault on its campus that was somewhat lower than the 1 in 5 statistic.

I don’t intend to dig down deeply into the numbers here.  All someone has to do is look at the table contained on page 4 of the report.  In that report it is indicated that undergraduate women reported an incident rate of 5.6% for nonconsensual sexual touching, a rate of 4.1% for nonconsensual attempted  sexual penetration, and a rate of 3.1% for nonconsensual sexual penetration.  Presuming the attempted and completed sexual penetration were “double counts” that would leave IUPUC with a total effective rate of sexual assault of 9.7%, which is a bit lower than the 1 in 5 (20%) commonly reported figure and a rate of 4.1% for completed/attempted rape.

One of the common issues in this landscape is that the 1 in 5 number has been used at times as the incident rate of rapes and at other times as the rate for the broader category of sexual assault.  Due to the confusion surrounding the use of this rate I was a bit curious to see IUPUC use the 1 in 5 number as being the generally accepted rate for campus sexual rapes (not the broader category of sexual assault).  I only mention this because in its report IUPUC states that:

“Another important finding from the survey is that the percentage of undergraduate women participants who reported experiencing attempted or completed nonconsensual penetration since coming to IUPUC (4 percent) is well below the widely cited national figure of 20 percent.”

I do ask the readers to take note that the authors of the report from which the 1 in 5 figure was derived have indicated that the 1 in 5 number is for the broader category of sexual assaults, not just rape.  The authors of the study penned a piece in Time about this matter, which can be read here.  Given the ambiguous nature of the use of the 1 in 5 figure, IUPUC may want to consider giving some clarification in its report about how its reported rate stacks up with the 1 in 5 figure depending on its usage whether it is measuring only rape or the broader category of sexual assault.


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