Phi Beta Cons

Re: Sexual Assault and College

Nathan — thanks for mentioning that CDC-funded survey about sexual assault. It provides some important data for the campus-rape debate, but I’m skeptical of its finding that one in five American women have been victims of rape or attempted rape.

I’ve noted numerous times that while any rape is too much, the oft-cited feminist statistics about rape on campus — that 20–25 percent of women are raped during their college years — are exaggerations. Heather Mac Donald’s takedown of the “studies” that produce these numbers reveals the truth: Researchers ask women about their sexual experiences, and then classify some experiences as “rape” that most people, including the women themselves, do not consider to be rape (for example, getting drunk and having consensual sex).

Unlike many other surveys, the new report offers a breakdown of how many women experienced different forms of rape, giving us a chance to exclude “alcohol/drug facilitated” incidents. (To be fair, this does leave out some genuine rapes — such as where a woman was drugged without her knowledge, or was assaulted while unconscious.) The numbers indicate that 12.3 percent of American women have experienced “completed forced” rape and 5.2 percent have experienced “attempted forced” rape. In a given year, the numbers are 0.5 and 0.4 percent respectively.

The data overlap, so we can’t simply add the numbers together to get a total. But we can say that, according to this survey, between 12.3 and 17.5 percent of American women have been victims of rape or attempted rape, and that the annual rate is between 0.5 and 0.9 percent.

Seeing only this, one might say that while the numbers make it seem highly unlikely that 20 percent of university women are raped in only their college years, they are shockingly high even for general statistics. Indeed. But there are reasons to suspect that some methodological flaw, rather than reality, made them so.

Specifically, these figures are considerably higher than those contained in a Justice Department report I mentioned previously. That report indicates that fewer than 1 percent of women aged 18–24 are sexually assaulted in any given year. According to the new numbers, about that proportion of women in general are raped per year, excluding alcohol-facilitated incidents. Young-adult females are by far the demographic most likely to be raped, so that’s a huge difference. [UPDATE: Jacob Sullum provides a more useful number from the Justice data: “an annual risk of rape or sexual assault of 1.3 per 1,000 females 12 or older, or 0.13 percent.” This is about one-fifth the number reported by the CDC, even excluding the alcohol numbers.]

Why trust the Justice report over the new survey? The annual National Crime Victimization Survey, which formed the basis of the Justice report, interviews more than 100,000 people and has a response rate of above 80 percent. The CDC interviewed fewer than 20,000 people and had a response rate of around 30 percent. (In fairness, Justice’s 18–24 numbers are based on only a fraction of the total data.)

I’m all in favor of encouraging women to file reports if they’ve been assaulted, and I think the crime is underpunished even when convictions occur. I’ll even go so far as to say the Supreme Court was wrong to take the death penalty off the table. But the Left has a history of twisting rape statistics to promote its fantasy of a modern America dominated by violent men, and virtually any assertion about the topic demands careful scrutiny.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been amended since its original posting.

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