Late this morning, the Washington Post sent a “News Alert” e-mail announcing the results of an “exclusive” poll it conducted together with the Kaiser Family Foundation. The poll purports to find that “20 percent of young women who attended college during the past four years say they were sexually assaulted.” This is an explosive number — and not just because the very thought of one in five women being sexually assaulted on campus is horrifying.
The number, it turns out, exactly mirrors the percentage announced in a 2007 federally funded study of two universities, which has been cited by President Obama, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and the Department of Education as proof of a campus sexual-assault crisis. This has, in turn, provided the justification for the ongoing, draconian crackdown on free speech and due process at colleges across the nation, one that has done real harm to innocent young men.
The original 20 percent number was suspect from the start. The 2007 survey used an exceedingly generous definition of sexual assault and its response rate was relatively low. A more comprehensive and rigorous Bureau of Justice Statistics survey subsequently put the rate at 6.1 per 1,000, and found that sexual assault was 1.2 times more frequent for nonstudents than students and had — in fact — been declining since the 1990s. When confronted with the BJS survey, even Senator Gillibrand removed the one in five number from her website.
So the Post number, if valid, would give a second wind to an Obama administration crackdown that was running on factual fumes. Unfortunately for the Post and the administration, the study’s number is not even close to valid. Even worse, in its main story about the poll, the Post misleads about the key question — the source of its one in five headline.
Here’s how the Post said it defined “sexual assault” in its story about the survey:
The poll defined sexual assault to include five types of unwanted contact: forced touching of a sexual nature, oral sex, vaginal sexual intercourse, anal sex and sexual penetration with a finger or object.
After they were read this definition, 5 percent of men and 20 percent of women said they had been sexually assaulted in college. Their assailants used force or threats of force, or they attacked while their victims were incapacitated.
But here’s the key part of the actual definition included in the poll:
Now, I’m going to ask some questions about FIVE types of unwanted sexual contact or sexual assault:
Forced touching of a sexual nature (READ IF NEEDED: Forced kissing, touching of private parts, grabbing, fondling, rubbing up against you in a sexual way, even if it is over your clothes)
Oral sex [definition omitted]
Sexual intercourse [definition omitted]
Anal sex [definition omitted]
And, Sexual penetration with a finger or object [definition omitted]
First, the actual poll question was not limited to “sexual assault” (a far more explosive term) but instead specifically asked respondents about sexual assault or “unwanted sexual contact.” Unwanted sexual contact is not a synonym for sexual assault. In fact, the term is so broad that it can encompass behaviors that are not only not criminal, but may not — depending on the circumstances — even constitute unlawful sexual harassment (which the Supreme Court has said requires proof of conduct so “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.”)
No, one in five college women have not told surveyors that they were “sexually assaulted.”
Beyond that methodological problem, there’s another: “Unwanted” is not the same as “without consent.” It’s far broader, able to encompass a variety of circumstances, up to and including entirely legal misunderstandings and legal (though immoral) emotional manipulation. In fact, it is this very confusion between consent and desire that often makes campus sexual-assault proceedings such a nightmare for all parties. The language of “want” is subject to far more ambiguity than the language of “consent.”
These definitions don’t come close to matching the legal definition of the various sex crimes prohibited by state laws. For example, the phrase “forced touching of a sexual nature” isn’t precise enough to encompass “sexual battery” under Tennessee law. To see what actual definitions of sex crimes look like, peruse my home state’s statutory definitions. You’ll note they don’t match the Post’s definitions. The Post’s definitions aren’t even fair summaries.
So, no, one in five college women have not told surveyors that they were “sexually assaulted.” The negative experiences encompassed in the definitions include everything from entirely lawful behavior, to sexual harassment, to actual sex crimes. The numbers are troubling, to be sure, but even the surveyed students themselves don’t see sexual assault as a crisis — only 37 percent of them described it as a problem on campus. (A much greater number of them — 56 percent — were concerned with alcohol and drug use.) In fact, large majorities of students gave their schools an “A” or “B” for their handling of sexual assault complaints.
The sexual revolution has failed America’s college students. In their quest to create a campus sexual utopia, administrators and professors instead preside over an alcohol-soaked hookup culture where very large numbers of students have regrettable sexual experiences — including experiences that can be completely lawful while still inflicting lasting psychological harm. Yet even in this atmosphere, serious sex crimes — thankfully — are on the decline, and college students are safer from true predators than nonstudents.
For campus radicals, however, the Post survey is like throwing gasoline on a raging fire. The crackdown will continue, with no more legitimacy than it had before.
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.