College: Awash in booze, governed by frats, treacherous ground for women who fall victim to boorish upperclassmen and end up bruised and violated, with an imperfect system of reporting and justice as their only remedy.


That’s the picture that has emerged from a year of stories of sexual assault on campus (some meticulously reported and others not so much). One might be led to conclude that American higher education somehow makes young women more vulnerable to aggression and abuse than the general population.

But while that picture may have some validity, it needs some context. A new study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, working with a large survey-based sample, actually finds that between 1995 and 2013, college-aged women were 1.2 times more likely to experience rape or sexual assault when they were not in college.

So what’s going on here? Is there something about the academic environment that keeps women more safe?

Not necessarily, says Callie Rennison, a University of Colorado professor who has done similar research. Though the data from this sample doesn’t say for sure, other research would suggest that it has more to do with demographics of the people in college than some quality of college itself — people with access to higher education also tend to come from wealthier families, where sexual assault is less common.

“People who are disadvantaged in this nation tend to bear the brunt of violence,” Rennison. Notably, non-student women are also 1.6 times more likely to be victims of violent crime generally — especially robbery — not just sexual assault. “While there’s variation in both groups, those who have the ability and resources [to go to college] have certain other advantages that protect them.”

Advantages might include being able to pay for housing without having to depend on a potentially abusive significant other. The BJS survey showed that rapes and sexual assaults of non-students were significantly more likely to happen at home, and at the hands of an intimate partner. Lynn Addington, an associate professor of criminology at American University, suggests that people who didn’t go to college tend to work lower-paying jobs, which adds a whole other layer of stress.

“In intimate partner violence more broadly, we find that couples, especially cohabitating couples, when neither one of them have gone to college, report higher levels of relationship violence,” she says. Since non-students might be more likely to be living with their significant other, perhaps sharing the rent out of economic necessity, abuse becomes harder to escape.

Other associations muddy the waters a little. Sexual violence in college was slightly more likely to have been involved with drugs and alcohol, for example. Young women in rural areas were at greater risk than those in urban areas. And white women were sexually assaulted at higher rates than both black and Hispanic women.

That’s where self-reported survey data gets tricky, says Rennison. Different communities have their own definition of what constitutes “violence”: In higher-crime areas, which also tend to be those with larger minority populations, there might be a higher threshold for what women might report as an assault, sexual or otherwise.

“I may not view the slugfest at the bus stop over someone disrespecting me as violence,” Rennison says. “If the assumption is that white people are more privileged, and I walked up to a white person at the bus stop and shoved them, they might call the police.”

There is some good news. Since the BJS has been able to track this data over time, it appears that — along with violent crime generally — the incidence of rape and sexual assault has declined overall since 1995. The rate of victimization for non-students jumped during the recessions of the late 2000s, which would bolster the idea that students are somewhat insulated from risk of sexual assault that’s driven by economic hardship. But the rates for both populations converged in 2013, leaving no difference at all.

That could just be a one-year anomaly, though. The bottom line, Rennison says, is that there’s a whole lot more research to be done in the field — and as more and more women come forward to share their experiences, perhaps pressure to figure out what’s behind this particular crime will continue to mount.