A Quick Look at Four Sexual Assault Surveys
In 2007, the federal Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) study estimated that 1 in 5 women in college had been the victim of sexual assault (attempted or completed) since enrolling. Looking just at seniors, who'd been in college the longest, the number was 1 in 4. Claims like this go all the way back to a Ms. magazine survey in 1987 (whose result was also 1 in 4). But the study gained traction and was used by the White House to push for stronger action to address the problem.
It was also the subject of heated debate. A Justice Department analysis of National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) data gave an annual sexual-assault rate (including attempts) of just 6.1 per 1,000 for enrolled females — which adds up to roughly 2.4 percent over four years, and is actually lower than the rate for non-college women in the same age range. A Washington Post poll, by contrast, confirmed the results of the CSA in a national sample.
Now we have a new survey from the Association of American Universities (AAU), in which about 1 in 4 college females say they've been sexually assaulted in some way since enrolling. Or, to use a more specific number, 4 percent report a completed rape by physical force or incapacitation during the 2014-2015 school year alone. And it was only April when most students took the survey.
Here's a quick summary of how the surveys differ, with additional context where appropriate. (To put my cards on the table, I've been critical of the highest estimates in the past.)
CSA: The survey asks whether students have had sexual contact or attempted sexual contact with anyone who forced them or threatened to hurt them. It also asks about sexual contact "when you were unable to provide consent or stop what was happening because you were passed out, drugged, drunk, incapacitated, or asleep." Contact includes forced groping, kissing, and rubbing against the victim. (More than a quarter of victims suffered only attempts, and one-quarter of the remaining victims suffered sexual contact other than rape.)
NCVS: This is a survey about crime in general. Interviewers start with vague "screener" questions about experiences with crime, and follow up to get the specifics of each incident. Some of the screener questions specifically mention things like rape, sexual assault, and being "forced or coerced into sexual activity." They don't explicitly ask about incapacitation, which in other surveys accounts for half or more of assaults. Thus many say that the NCVS estimate is an undercount. However, when incidents are classified, even the NCVS uses a fairly broad definition of sexual assault, including "attacks or attempted attacks usually involving unwanted sexual contact between a victim and offender. Sexual assault may or may not involve force and includes grabbing or fondling." In the NCVS overall, about 30 percent of rape/sexual assault incidents are completed rapes; the rest are attempts, threats, and non-rape assaults. I don't mean to downplay these incidents, of course, but it's important to draw such distinctions when many assume the statistics are limited to rape.
Post: This survey "included five different types of assault: forced sexual touching, oral sex, sexual intercourse, anal sex and sexual penetration with a finger or object." It asked about both physical force and incapacitation and used wording inspired by the CSA. (It was partly a response to criticisms that the CSA involved only two schools.)
AAU: This poll is quite comprehensive, breaking incidents down according to the type of sexual contact and the form of coercion used, and even asking about the absence of affirmative consent. But for incidents involving force and incapacitation, the question wordings are pretty similar to those of the CSA.
Who Was Asked, and How?
CSA: Again, just two schools were included. The response rate was about 42 percent at both, with a bit under 5,500 women participating, and the surveys were conducted anonymously online. The lower the response rate, the greater the chance that the people who chose to participate are highly self-selected and thus non-representative of the population.
NCVS: This is a nationwide in-person survey with a response rate above 80 percent. About 160,000 people are interviewed every year, and the report covers 19 years of data. Importantly, though, college-age females are just a fraction of all respondents.
Post: More than 1,000 people (including men) were polled via telephone. The method used to select them has a typical response rate of 8 to 10 percent, and on top of that, 11 percent of those taking the survey dropped off before finishing it.
AAU: 27 colleges and about 90,000 women participated, but there was a 19 percent response rate, with surveys conducted online. Strikingly, 10 percent of respondents said they were gay, lesbian, or "other" in terms of sexual orientation, and about 1 percent said they were not male or female but "Transgender, Genderqueer or non-conforming Questioning or not listed." (Another 0.6 percent refused to give a gender at all.) Those numbers seem high, raising the possibility of a skewed sample.
This is a difficult topic to study. Most sexual assault is never reported to police, and surveys have all sorts of issues. As a result, the estimates are all over the map. The AAU's latest effort provides some valuable information, but its low response rate — just half of the CSA's, which in turn was half of the NCVS's — is troubling. The NCVS has a lot going for it, with a high response rate and huge sample, but there are legitimate concerns about undercounting as well.
Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen
Note: I've corrected the number of women who participated in the AAU survey. The number who completed it is closer to 90,000 than to 80,000.