Those Who Deny That Campus Sexual Assault Is Dire Must Misread The Numbers

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Much as there are people who deny the existence of climate change, or the public health value of vaccines, there are those who have tried to cast doubt on the incontrovertible: sexual assaults are rampant on our college campuses.

Deniers insist that key statistics on campus sexual assault are inflated or indeterminate – and some journalists who should know better are buying into this myth. We saw this most recently in Alia Wong’s article last month in the Atlantic, which claimed: “Every statistic about campus sexual assault seems to be contradicted or challenged by another one” as well as in a 2014 article by Emily Yoffe in Slate which alleged that “studies suggesting this [is an] epidemic don’t hold up to scrutiny.”

The truth is that studies over several decades have repeatedly confirmed that, though exact percentages may vary, there are extremely high rates of sexual assault on US campuses.

National studies – including one released by the Department of Justice – show as many as one in four women are sexually assaulted in college. This follows the Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation study from June of 2015 and the more than 150,000 students who responded last year to the Association of American Universities survey, both of which clearly established that sexual assault in college is a serious public safety problem.

Rape deniers try to dismiss these studies because they include some “lesser assaults” like groping and forced kissing in their numbers. But the truth is those assaults are crimes and many are felonies.

There is one outlier study that deniers invariably point to – the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which found a much lower rate of sexual assault. What they never disclose is that this study has been severely criticized by the National Academies of Sciences, which – in a 278-page report – unequivocally concludes that the NCVS sexual assault prevalence numbers are unreliable.

Among other criticisms, the report found that the NCVS study failed to count sexual assault while incapacitated (which in one survey accounts for more than 50% of college sexual assaults). Moreover, it erroneously based its calculations on an average student attending college for 3.5 years, when the average student now takes nearly six years to graduate, resulting in a potential undercount of up to 40%.

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