The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The latest big sexual assault survey is (like others) more hype than science

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Stuart Taylor Jr., an author,  journalist and Brookings Institution nonresident senior fellow, is writing a book with KC Johnson about the alarm over campus sexual assault. Taylor disagreed with the conclusions of one of the largest surveys of sexual violence and misconduct on campus and the way it was reported by the media.

[Survey: More than 1 in 5 female undergrads at top schools suffer sexual attacks]

Here’s his take:

By Stuart S. Taylor Jr.  

“Survey: 1 in 5 women in college sexually assaulted.”

This headline, on The Washington Post’s long Sept. 21 article about a large survey of students at 27 public and private universities across the country college, is false.

Although the survey, by the Association of American Universities (AAU), was itself deliberately designed to exaggerate the number of sexual assaults on campus, even the AAU said that “estimates such as ‘1 in 5’ or ‘1 in 4’ as a global rate” across all universities is [sic] oversimplistic, if not misleading.”

This is not to suggest that The Post misrepresented the AAU survey’s findings any more than did most major news media. Such advocacy-laden surveys on campus sexual assault — and breathless media reports overstating their already exaggerated findings — have become the norm in this era of hysteria about the campus sexual assault problem.

The problem is no doubt serious, if shrinking. But it has been vastly exaggerated by the Obama administration, anti-rape activists, their media allies and universities pandering to them. It’s no surprise to see the AAU joining this chorus.

Below are three ways in which the 288-page AAU survey report is grossly misleading, as are others like it and the credulous media coverage of them all.

First, the extraordinarily low response rate of students asked to participate in the AAU survey — 19.3 percent — virtually guaranteed a vast exaggeration of the number of campus sexual assaults.

Even the AAU acknowledged that the 150,000 students who responded to the electronic questionnaire were more likely to be victims of sexual assault than the 650,000 who ignored it because “non-victims may have been less likely to participate.”

Start with the fact that 60 percent of the 150,000 students who responded were female, even though half of all students at the surveyed schools were male. Then ask yourself whether you would be more likely to take the time to respond to such a survey if you were a sexual assault victim or if you were not.

Then, to resolve any doubt that the respondents were far from representative of the nation’s college students, consider the facts buried in Tables 3-2 and 6-1 of the AAU survey.

These tables indicate that about 2.2 percent of female respondents said they had reported to their schools that they had been penetrated without consent (including rape) since entering college. If extrapolated to the roughly 10 million female college student population nationwide, this  would come to about 220,000 student reports to universities alleging forced sex over (to be conservative) five years, or about 44,000 reports per year.

But this would be almost nine times the total number of students (just over 5,000) who reported sexual assaults of any kind to their universities in 2013, the most recent data available, according to the reports that universities must submit to the federal government under the Clery Act.

People who experience some kind of incident without reporting it don’t affect the validity of this calculation because none of them (assuming honesty) would be among the 2.2 percent who told the researchers that they had reported to authorities, and all of the 2.2 percent should show up in the Clery Act submissions.

The AAU does not mention this devastating flaw in its methodology.

 The AAU also acknowledged that the huge differences in its estimates of sexual assault rates at the 27 schools — ranging from 13 to 30 percent — make it impossible to provide an accurate estimate even for those 27 schools as a group, let alone the more than 7,000 other colleges in the country.

Second, the AAU classified as sexual assault or misconduct a far broader range of behaviors than does the criminal law or common understanding, in order to get big numbers such as the claim that 23.7 percent of female respondents told researchers they had experienced “sexual assault and sexual misconduct due to physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation.”

A more reliable estimate came in 2014 from the Justice Department’s annual National Crime Victimization Survey: No more than 1 in 160 (0.6 percent) of college women per year — or 1 in 32 (3 percent) over five years — are sexually assaulted.

But the AAU, mimicking other agenda-driven surveys, asked respondents questions such as whether they had experienced “forced kissing,” unwanted sexual “touching” (which could include attempted close dancing while fully clothed), “promised rewards” for sex, threats to “share damaging information about you” with friends, and the like. Then the AAU counted every “yes” answer as a sexual assault (or “misconduct”).

In addition, about half of the students who were counted by the AAU as victims of sexual assault were so classified because they answered yes when asked whether anyone had penetrated or sexually touched them when “you were passed out, asleep, or incapacitated by drugs or alcohol” — which could be seen as including moderate intoxication.

Worse, the AAU also tallied as victims all respondents who said yes when asked whether anyone had sexually touched them “without your active, ongoing voluntary agreement” — for example, attempting more intimate contact “while you were still deciding.”

No criminal law in America requires such “affirmative consent” to make sex lawful, although some (not all) universities have recently moved in that direction.

To borrow from an admission buried in The Post’s huge package of articles in June about a very similar Post-Kaiser poll, the effect of the AAU survey questions was to paint a “dramatically” more dire picture than would questions using “terms like sexual assault and rape” — which the AAU studiously avoided.

Third, a red flag should go up for any reporter or other reader who notices the AAU’s acknowledgment that — for the vast majorities of poll respondents who said they had not reported to campus authorities the events that the AAU classified as sexual assaults — “the dominant reason was it was not considered serious enough,” (emphasis added).

 More astonishing still, 75 percent of respondents who told researchers that they had been “penetrated using physical force” said they had never reported this to authorities — and 58.6 percent of that 75 percent said they “did not consider it serious enough” to report.

This most plausible explanation is that most of those classified by the survey as “victims” of sexual assault or rape did not really think that they had been sexually assaulted.

Read more:

Data from individual schools and their responses to the AAU results

AAU report on sexual assault and sexual misconduct

How students responded to reported rates of sexual misconduct on their own campuses

College students tell their accounts of unwanted sexual encounters