Just how much sexual assault on campus

As always, disclaimer: sexual assault on campus is a real problem and we should certainly do all we can within reason to minimize it.  Of course, “within reason” does not include violating all standards of due process for the accused or using wildly inflated statistics to make a point.  I meant to write about the latest study responsible for plenty more “1 in 5 college women are raped” etc., headlines.  Of course, that’s not what the study showed.  Of course, nobody wants to be kissed against their will either, but only one of these things is actually a felony.

Anyway, since I never did write anything critiquing the survey, my procrastination has paid off as the Post recently published a really interesting critique from Brookings scholar and National Journal senior editor, Stuart Taylor  (i.e., this is no anti-feminist with an ax to grind).  Here’s some of the more compelling points that are left out of most discussions of the issue:

Below are three ways in which the 288-page AAU survey report is grossly misleading, as are others like it and the credulous media coverage of them all.

First, the extraordinarily low response rate of students asked to participate in the AAU survey — 19.3 percent — virtually guaranteed a vast exaggeration of the number of campus sexual assaults.

Even the AAU acknowledged that the 150,000 students who responded to the electronic questionnaire were more likely to be victims of sexual assault than the 650,000 who ignored it because “non-victims may have been less likely to participate.”

Start with the fact that 60 percent of the 150,000 students who responded were female, even though half of all students at the surveyed schools were male. Then ask yourself whether you would be more likely to take the time to respond to such a survey if you were a sexual assault victim or if you were not.

Yep.  Huge potential problem with non-response bias.  There is every reasonable reason to believe that those who did respond to the survey are systematically different than those that did not.  I find this next bit particular damning (all emphases in original):

These tables indicate that about 2.2 percent of female respondents said they had reported to their schools that they had been penetrated without consent (including rape) since entering college. If extrapolated to the roughly 10 million female college student population nationwide, this  would come to about 220,000 student reports to universities alleging forced sex over (to be conservative) five years, or about 44,000 reports per year.

But this would be almost nine times the total number of students (just over 5,000) who reported sexual assaults of any kind to their universities in 2013, the most recent data available, according to the reports that universities must submit to the federal government under the Clery Act.

Some other issues:

Worse, the AAU also tallied as victims all respondents who said yes when asked whether anyone had sexually touched them “without your active, ongoing voluntary agreement” — for example, attempting more intimate contact “while you were still deciding.”

No criminal law in America requires such “affirmative consent” to make sex lawful, although some (not all) universities have recently moved in that direction…

Third, a red flag should go up for any reporter or other reader who notices the AAU’s acknowledgment that — for the vast majorities of poll respondents who said they had not reported to campus authorities the events that the AAU classified as sexual assaults — “the dominant reason was it was not considered serious enough,” (emphasis added)…

More astonishing still, 75 percent of respondents who told researchers that they had been “penetrated using physical force” said they had never reported this to authorities — and 58.6 percent of that 75 percent said they “did not consider it serious enough” to report. [emphasis mine]

This most plausible explanation is that most of those classified by the survey as “victims” of sexual assault or rape did not really think that they had been sexually assaulted.

Wow.  Quite the critique.  And again, sexual assault on campus (and not on campus) is a real problem that we should definitely work to reduce.  But scaring people and influencing policy with super-dubious statistics is never a good thing.

(Also, a great take from Emily Yoffe).

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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