One of the most often-cited statistics about sexual assault and rape on college campuses is that “one out of every five women is raped during college.” The number, which comes from a 2007 survey, was a catalyst for the #MeToo movement, increased awareness for sexual assault victims, and the increased enforcement of Title IX as a whole.
But it's misleading, methodologically flawed, and the people who conducted the survey know it, have admitted it, and have urged people to use more caution when throwing the results of the survey around as proof of the extent of the problem of sexual assault on campus.
The Study that Created the 1-in-5 Statistic
There is one statistic that advocates for victims of sexual abuse cite all the time when talking about campus sexual assaults and Title IX enforcement: One-in-five students get raped during college.
That statistic comes from a survey conducted by the Research Triangle Institute for the National institute of Justice. It was done back in 2007, and sent emails to a random sampling of undergraduate women at two large public universities, one in the south and one in the midwest. Those emails asked the recipients to complete an online survey about sexual assault on campus. The response rate from the two universities was 42.2% and 42.8%, totaling 5,446 respondents.
Of those respondents, 1,073 – or 19% – said that they were a victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault since entering college.
That finding got rounded up to the 1-in-5 statistic that is so routinely cited to in campus sexual safety arguments.
Attempted or Completed Sexual Assault is Not Rape
The most obvious discrepancy between the “1-in-5 women get raped in college” claim and the results of the survey is that the survey found 19% of women are the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault. This is not necessarily a rape. It can be, but is often something far less severe, like:
The Controversial Non-Respondent Bias
A key flaw in the survey was that it was an online one that people could take or ignore. This raises a crucial question: Were the ones who completed the survey, which explicitly said that it concerned with campus sexual assaults, more or less likely than non-respondents to have been victimized by sexual assaults?
On the one hand, victims of sexual assault are notoriously for underreporting their experiences to police. But would that be offset by the anonymous nature of an online survey? On the other hand, would non-victims ignore the survey so often that victims actually ended up being over-represented?
These drawbacks to the study and the cavalier way in which the results have been used by victims' advocates have forced two of the study's authors to publish an article in Time Magazine back in 2014, where they warned readers that “there are caveats that make it inappropriate to use the 1-in-5 number in the way it's being used today.”