A new survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics debunks the oft-repeated claim that one in five women will be sexually assaulted while in college.
The survey found that between 1995 and 2013, an average of 6.1 for every 1,000 female students were raped or sexually assaulted each year. That's about 0.61 percent annually, or (at most) 2.44 percent over the average four-year period (one in 41). That’s way smaller than 20 percent. That’s also virtually unchanged from 2005, the last time BJS put out this report, where the rate of rape among college women was 6 per 1,000.
Moreover, the average rate since 1995 overstates the danger to women on campuses today, because the rape and sexual assault rate on campus has fallen since the mid-1990s. College women were even safer on campus in 2013, with only 4.3 rapes for every 1,000 college women.
The survey also found that although the media and politicians focus on campus sexual assault, non-students had a higher rate of victimization (7.6 per 1,000, or .76 percent).
BJS conducted its survey in a similar way as previous studies like the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey and the Campus Sexual Assault Study. But unlike those surveys, BJS had a high response rate (88 percent for eligible persons). The NISVS and CSA studies had a response rate of about 33 percent.
The BJS survey also approached the subject from a criminal behavior perspective, while the other two were presented as surveys about public health. But in all three, questions were asked of respondents and their answers were gauged to determine whether incidences of sexual assault had occurred or not — meaning that even if a respondent didn’t explicitly say she was raped or assaulted, the survey might still consider her a rape victim.
One interesting note from the survey is that the rate of rape or sexual assault for women has been declining sharply since 1997. The survey doesn’t theorize about why there has been a decline, and questions to the authors went unanswered at press time.
One issue noticeably absent from the BJS survey is the prevalence of alcohol among victims of sexual assault and rape. While the two older studies asked questions about whether the victim had been assaulted while under the influence, the BJS did not.
After reading the BJS survey, a picture of the most likely victim and the most likely perpetrator takes shape. Women were much more likely to be victimized than men (men had a rate of victimization of 1.4 per 1,000 over the entire study period, compared to 6.1 per 1,000 for women), so the most likely victim was:
• A white female
• Non-college student
• Aged 18 to 19
• Living in the rural or urban Midwest
• Either at home or a friend’s house
• Performing a “leisure activity”
• Between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Characteristics of the most likely perpetrator, according to survey respondents:
• A lone white male
• Aged 21 to 29
• Under the influence of drugs or alcohol
• An acquaintance of the victim
• Doesn’t use a weapon
• Causes injuries
The survey also found that 80 percent of respondents classified as victims did not report their rape or sexual assault. The top reason for not doing so was given as “other,” which could mean anything. The second reason was because they thought it was a “personal matter,” which could also mean anything. The third reason for not reporting a rape was “fear of reprisal,” which is really serious.
Even more alarming than the lack of reporting is the finding that 83 percent of classified victims did not receive help from a victim service agency. BJS doesn’t try to find out why, but this definitely seems like an area that needs more attention.
Bottom line: This survey puts to rest the myth that 20 percent of college women are victims of sexual assault. Anyone who wants to keep pushing that statistic would have to rebut this survey, and in doing so ignore a host of methodological problems in the studies that back up the number they want to believe.
Correction: A previous version of this article said BJS data showed that one in 25 women may be sexually assaulted during their college years. That number has been corrected to say one in 41.