Are 20 percent of college women sexually assaulted? [With Comment by John]

The Washington Post is claiming, based on a poll, that “twenty percent of young women who attended college during the past four years say they were sexually assaulted.” That’s an alarming finding.

But is it valid? Scott Greer and Blake Neff of the Daily Caller point to flaws in the Post’s study that undermine the 20 percent claim.

First, the Post didn’t asked the female students polled whether they were sexually assaulted. Instead, it asked them whether they had ever experienced various aggressions, one of which was forced touching of a sexual nature. Forced touchings presumably encompass forced kissing, unwanted contact while dancing (e.g., grinding), and fondling. A “yes” answer meant that the student was sexually assaulted whether she thought so or not.

Second, two-thirds of the respondents who reported having experienced unwanted sexual contact said they couldn’t grant consent because they were “incapacitated.” This includes being drunk.

Combine this caveat with the definition of sexual assault used by the Post, and it means that the Post counts some cases in which an intoxicated female student is kissed without objection by another student as “sexual assault.” It also apparently counts some instances in which an intoxicated female finds herself “grinding” with another student on the dance floor.

These characterization are debatable. Many fair-minded people would reject them.

But the Post doesn’t intend to be fair-minded; it intends to alarm. That’s why, as Greer observes, its report uses language and imagery that conjures up rape — not drunken kissing or inappropriate dance moves. It isn’t until half way through the article that the Post specifies what incidents it believes constitute sexual assault.

Excessive drinking and unwanted sexual advances (and beyond) are real problems on college campuses around the country. The Post’s study confirms this. 37 percent of respondents (and 41 percent of females) see sexual assault as a problem at their college; 56 percent view alcohol and drug use as a problem.

But by presenting a misleading statistic designed to overstate the magnitude of the problem, the Post does its readers and the larger public a disservice.

JOHN adds: That 20% number has been kicking around for a while; the Post apparently tried to validate it by carrying out its own misleading poll. What bothers me most about these endless stories about sexual assault on campus is that they are classist. FBI data indicate that–as one would expect–young women who are not attending college are significantly more likely to be raped than their peers who are college students. Why does no one seem to care about them?

Living in a campus environment offers women some protection against sexual assault. Whether it offers enough protection is a legitimate topic of discussion with regard to any individual institution. But the press’s obliviousness to the greater problem of sexual assault directed at non-students is a disgrace.