Dozens of colleges and universities are reeling after having been cited by the Education Department for their apparently lax response to allegations of sexual assault. Meanwhile, Congress and the White House are on a moral crusade to eradicate the problem, making constant reference to a troubling statistic: that one in five women are victims of sexual assault during their college years.
What is disturbing about this figure is not just the alarming rate of occurrence, but also the widespread misunderstanding about its source and limitations. The estimated 19% sexual assault rate among college women is based on a survey at two large four-year universities, which might not accurately reflect our nation’s colleges overall.
In addition, the sex assault surveys had a large non-response rate, with the clear possibility that those who had been victimized were more apt to have completed the questionnaire, resulting in an inflated prevalence figure.
Moreover, the definition of sexual assault used in this and other studies was too broad, including unwanted touching and sexual encounters while intoxicated. A small percentage actually rose to the level of forcible rape. By lumping uninvited advances and alcohol/drug-influenced encounters together with forcible rape, the problem can appear more severe than it really is, creating alarm when cool heads are required.