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Demystifying campus sexual assault data

By Kendall LaVine, Biden Fellow for violence against women initiatives

One in five women will experience sexual assault during their college career. Despite multiple campus climate surveys and national studies establishing the accuracy of this statistic, skeptics claim that rates of sexual assault on campus are much lower. These statistics have become a lightning rod for those who seek to deny the extent of the problem, yet a full examination of the data debunks this controversy.

The high rates of sexual assault on campus were initially found in the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study (CSA) conducted by the National Institute of Justice, a research arm of the Department of Justice, and have been validated repeatedly in more recent studies. Critics of this data site other crime statistics, like those found in the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which show lower rates of sexual assault. To understand the divergence in statistics and to recognize why these figures might not be an accurate representation of the problem, we must look at the methodology of how sexual assault surveys are conducted.

For instance, the NCVS is a tool used by the Bureau of Justice that provides information on criminal victimization statistics as self-reported by participants. The survey uses crime victim language with terms like “rape.” People’s personal experiences with sexual assault are not always consistent with the language and criminal definitions used in the survey, so they often don’t identify their experience as a crime. The context of a criminal victimization survey affects participants response and results in significantly lower rates of sexual assault reported. Studies like the CSA and campus climate surveys use a public health approach to determine whether students have experienced sexual assault. They measure overall climate of campus as well as varying types of sexual violence. These studies use descriptive behavioral language that is more easily understood and which reveal in an increased incidence of sexual assault.

Another key difference between the NCVS and other reports is the level of inclusivity of the definition of sexual assault. The definition used in the NCVS emphasized felony forcible rape and non-consensual penetration. In the data reported, the survey did not include assault that occurs when the victim is incapacitated from alcohol or drugs. Studies like campus climate surveys and the CSA use a broader definition of sexual assault and include data on unwanted sexual contact that may not be captured in crime surveys.

In response to concern that the rate of sexual assault is undercounted in the NCVS survey, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) at the Department of Justice asked the National Research Council to conduct an expert panel to investigate the accuracy of the survey. The investigation concluded that certain aspects of the survey’s methodology, namely the use of ambiguous crime terms, resulted in an underestimated rate of victimizations. The panel presented recommendations to the structure of future surveys and the BJS embarked on a multiyear project to develop more consistent language and better processes to measure campus sexual assault statistics.

In 2014, the Office on Violence Against Women funded BJS to develop a pilot campus climate survey that would address data collection issues and that could be implemented by schools. BJS developed the Campus Climate Survey Validation Study (CCSVS), a test survey instrument to accurately collect data on campus climate and sexual assault. The CCSVS measured rates of sexual assault, rape, and sexual battery. The study found that among the female students sampled, the average prevalence rate of experiencing sexual assault since entering college was 21%- a figure consistent with the 1 in 5 statistic.  This most recent study validates the early findings of the CSA and numerous campus-specific surveys as well.

Rather than disputing the magnitude of the issue, our focus should be on addressing the impact that this violence has on our students. An ongoing debate about the accuracy of data reported is merely a distraction from the unacceptable reality: sexual assault is an undeniable problem on our college campuses.

This post is part of our “The Heart of the Issue” series, blogs authored by the Biden Fellows. Each Fellow has a close connection to one or more of the Biden Foundation’s policy pillars, and their updates will bring you straight to the heart of the issues that drive our work forward. Read the previous issue here.