LANSING, MICH. — Rachel Sienkowski, 21, outside the stadium at Michigan State University. She says she was sexually assaulted after blacking out at a tailgate party during the first few weeks of her freshman year. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

On Friday, The Washington Post reported that 20 percent of women who attended college since 2011 said they had been sexually assaulted, based on a national Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll of current and recent college students. Some readers have asked how the survey arrived at this statistic, and this post aims to address some of those questions.

[Read about the poll: 1 in 5 college women say they were violated.]

Is unwanted sexual touching really sexual assault?

Some have argued that the survey’s definition for sexual assault is over-broad, since respondents were not just asked about forced or non-consensual intercourse but about five different types of “unwanted sexual contact,” including acts such as “forced touching of a sexual nature.”

Experiencing unwanted sexual contact was not the only requirement for an assault to be counted – respondents had to say that the contact was either by physical force or threat (Question 52) or while they were unable to give consent because they were “passed out, drugged, or drunk, incapacitated, or asleep” (Q54). Because a person might not have a complete memory of what happened in this second situation, respondents were asked only to include incidents they are “certain happened.” Answering either of these questions as “yes” was classified as a sexual assault. Fuller descriptions of each circumstance are available here. (Note: Questions about attempted sexual contact by force, suspected sexual contact and sexual contact by non-physical coercion were excluded from the overall sexual assault estimate and reported separately.)

[Read the questionnaire and see the results.]

Sexual contact by force or without a person’s consent is a criminal act in nearly all states, and legal definitions of sexual contact are broader than some might think. Under U.S. code, sexual contact is defined as “intentional touching, either directly or through the clothing, of the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to abuse, humiliate, harass, degrade, or arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person.” States vary in their exact definitions, but sexual touching or “contact with intimate parts” are common descriptions along with some sexual intent.

In addition, the U.S. Justice Department defines sexual assault in this way: “Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities (such) as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.”

It is worth noting that Post reporters conducted follow-up interviews with more than 50 women and men who said they had experienced a completed, attempted or suspected sexual assault. Few of those cases suggested that there had been only casual physical contact misconstrued as something sexual.

Why didn’t the survey simply ask respondents whether they had been sexually assaulted?

Being sexually assaulted is not akin to being mugged or shot. Individuals have different understandings of what sexual assault means, and they might be unclear about whether their experience represented a crime. They might not even feel like they were victimized and have no interest in pressing charges. But if they were asleep, or incapacitated in some other way, and someone had unwanted sexual contact with them, that incident is classified as an assault.

A core goal of a survey is ensuring every respondent understands the question in the same way, which is why explicitly detailed definitions of sexual contact and scenarios of force and non-consensual contact are spelled out.

As noted in our story on “How sexual assault was measured”:

“Terms like sexual assault and rape — there are legal definitions for what those things are, and people’s understandings of what those things are often are not consistent with the legal definitions,” said Christopher Krebs, a researcher at RTI International who led federally sponsored studies of sexual assault on college campuses. “If you use those terms, you’ll dramatically undercount those incidents.”

 

What explains the difference between the Post-Kaiser poll finding that 20 percent of women said they were sexually assaulted while in college, and a 2014 Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report that found female college students were raped or sexually assaulted at an annual rate of 6.1 incidents per 1,000?

A small amount of this disparity depends on time frames and the difference between number of incidents and overall prevalence. The Post-Kaiser survey asks students about incidents that occurred during their entire college span, while the BJS National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) asks about only the past year. The BJS study reports the total number of incidents, where an individual could have experienced more than one, while the Post-Kaiser survey reports the percentage who experienced any incident. But even a rough adjustment of multiplying the BJS rate times the typical four-year span would yield an estimate of about 2.4 percent of women reporting experiences of sexual assault in college, one-eighth of the Post-Kaiser finding.

The bigger explanation for the difference is likely differing question wording and interview context. While the Post-Kaiser survey asked about specific scenarios of unwanted contact in the context of a survey focused on sexual assault and campus life, the NCVS study was focused on crime and asked directly about rape, attempted rape, and other sexual attacks. Concerns about an undercount of sexual victimizations spurred the BJS to sponsor a blue-ribbon panel. It reported in 2014 that “in reviewing all of this material, the panel thinks that it is highly likely that the NCVS is underestimating rape and sexual assault.”

The panel concluded that the use of words like “rape” and “sexual assault” on the NCVS may not be consistently understood, and that the survey’s context of reporting on crimes “may inhibit reporting of incidents that the respondent does not think of as criminal, did not report to the police, or does not want to report to police.” In addition, the panel recommended the BJS sponsor a new survey, with a more neutral context, such as a health survey with questions reworded to incorporate behaviorally specific questions.

Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.