More than 18 percent of female freshman at one upstate New York university say they were either raped or the victims of an attempted rape within a year of starting at the school, according to a new survey tracking the risk of sexual assault on first-year college women.
The survey, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health’s June issue, compiles the experiences of 483 freshmen women who self-reported rapes and attempted rapes to a team of researchers in a series of questionnaires. The researchers collected responses four times: just before college began, after the fall and spring semesters, and at the end of the summer, just before their sophomore years.
Researchers did not identify the school where the survey was conducted beyond indicating that it’s “a large private university” in upstate New York. The survey, they say, was representative of the demographics of first-year female students at the school.
The results, the study’s authors say, demonstrate that campus rape remains a widespread issue with a prevalence at “epidemic levels,” and they urged schools to do more to address it.
Fifteen percent of students surveyed said they were the victims of a rape or an attempted rape during the fall or spring semesters of their freshman year, the researchers say.
“If you swap in any other physically harmful and psychologically harmful event, a prevalence of 15 percent would be just unacceptably high,” lead author Kate Carey, professor of behavioral and social sciences in the Brown University School of Public Health, said in a statement. “If, for instance, 15 percent of our young people were breaking their legs in their first year of school, we would expect that the community would do something to enhance the safety of the environment.”
The study defined rape as “vaginal, oral, or anal penetration using threats of violence or use of physical force, or using the tactic of victim incapacitation.”
Nine percent of women surveyed said they were the victim of a forcible rape or attempted rape, while about 15 percent said they were the victim of an attempted or completed rape while incapacitated, including from the use of drugs or alcohol.
Some women reported more than one sexual assault during the school year, which is why that breakdown doesn’t add up to the overall number of women who reported at least one incident.
The survey also found that among students reporting “completed rapes,” 6.6 percent of women surveyed said they experienced a forcible rape, while 9.6 percent said they were raped while incapacitated.
With its relatively small sample size, the survey doesn’t promise to end an ongoing debate over the prevalence of campus rape. Researchers have had difficulty collecting authoritative data on national sexual assault rates for several reasons, including the reluctance of some victims to report assaults to law enforcement.
In 2014, two dueling surveys using very different methodology alternatively supported and challenged a widely-cited claim that one in five female college students has been raped. That claim, The Washington Post’s Fact Checker explained, is an “extrapolation” from a CDC survey that examined sexual assault rates at two colleges.
But the researchers behind the new survey hope their look at the experiences of women at one school will support the argument that campus rape is an issue that can’t be ignored, and they hope their findings will provide some guidance on how to address the issue.
The survey also looked backwards into the students’ experiences before college. In all, 37 percent of women surveyed said they were the victim of a rape or an attempted rape some time between the age of 14 and the beginning of their sophomore year of college. In other words, the data suggests, the traumatic effects of rape were part of the college experience for a large number of the women surveyed, whether the assault itself happened during school or not.
“That’s over a third of female students,” Carey said of the overall number. “That is remarkable. If I have a class with 25 upperclass women, eight of them may have experienced an event like this and all that can come with it — increased mental health concerns, difficulty trusting new partners, increased risk of substance misuse to cope, and the risk of getting behind and not doing well in school.”
Additionally, the survey suggests that women who experience a rape or attempted rape before entering college are at an increased risk of experiencing another sexual assault. That pre-college experience, Carey said, “is a historical and experiential factor that puts them at greater risk for re-victimization and other kinds of adverse outcomes related to drinking and substance use. We really need to be looking earlier to prevent these events.”