Politics & Policy

Are Campus Sex Crimes on the Rise?

The headlines say they are, but the numbers are inconclusive.

On Tuesday, the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report on school crime and safety. The most widely reported finding of the 200-page study has been that the number of reported sex crimes on college campuses has increased by 51 percent, from around 2,200 in 2001 to around 3,300 in 2011. Headlines like “College Sex Crimes up by 51% Even as Other Crimes Fall, Study Finds” and “Report Sees Surge in Sex Crimes on College Campuses” proliferated.

Have sex crimes on American college campuses increased by 51 percent? In fact, the report shows no such thing. The reported 51 percent increase is based on raw numbers of reported offenses and fails to take into account the fact that college enrollment has increased dramatically since 2001. When the report’s authors accounted for this, they found that reported forcible sex offenses have increased by a much smaller margin — from 1.9 per 10,000 students in 2001 to 2.2 per 10,000 students in 2011.

It would have been more responsible and informative for the media to report that there has been about a 16 percent increase in the rate of reported sex crimes. But that would have been less useful for fueling the popular (though thoroughly discredited) narrative that American college campuses are in the midst of a booming sexual-assault epidemic.

Most important, as the authors make clear, the increase refers to numbers of sex offenses reported and does not necessarily indicate an increase in crime itself. It’s based on data from universities across the country mandated by the Clery Act (1990), which requires universities to provide figures on any criminal offense reported to campus authorities and/or law enforcement. It doesn’t mean that any charges were ever brought or even that a police report was filed. And it doesn’t even imply that an allegation of criminal rape was made. Under the report’s definitions, a reported “forcible sex offense” could be anything from unwanted touching on the dance floor to violent, forcible sex.

Some commentators have rightfully acknowledged that the increase in reporting is likely the result of years of activism focused on encouraging victims to come forward and insisting that schools accurately report crime data. At Time, Eliza Gray writes that it may seem an “odd cause for celebration,” but “to many counselors and administrators, the increase is a sign that schools are getting better at handling sexual assault.” A writer for the feminist website Bustle insists that it’s evidence that “anti-sexual assault policies are actually working.” Certainly, rape is an underreported crime, so it’s understandable that advocates view any increase in reporting as a victory. But it’s quite a stretch to imply that we can make fair-minded judgments on whether or not our policies are working based solely on the number of unsubstantiated reports of victimizations.

Though reported numbers have increased somewhat since 2001, the government report shows that sex crimes still appear to be relatively rare on college campuses. Forcible sex offenses account for 11 percent of all reported campus crime, and students are about seven times more likely to report that they’ve been a victim of burglary or motor-vehicle theft than a sex crime. Rates of non-reporting would have to be impossibly high (far beyond what the research tells us, which is that somewhere from 60 percent to 90 percent of rapes go unreported) to yield anywhere near the popular estimate that “1 in 5 college women will be a victim of rape.” (My AEI colleague Mark Perry has done the math here.)

Universities should be held accountable for providing accurate data, and I hope that the Education Department will continue to produce reliable studies to counteract the propaganda surrounding campus sexual assault. Victims need honest and sober research. Any attempt to twist the report’s findings into evidence of a widespread sexual-assault plague — or to celebrate the increased reporting rates as a definitive victory for victim advocates — is misleading at best and dishonest at worst.

— Caroline Kitchens is a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute.

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