Victims' Advocates Often Claim that 1-in-5 Women are Raped in College, But Does the Study Actually Say That?

Posted by Joseph D. Lento | Mar 07, 2020 | 0 Comments

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.”

Title IX Defense Lawyer Joseph D. Lento

Joseph D. Lento is a Title IX defense lawyer and national Title IX advisor. Call his law office at (888) 535-3686 or contact him online.

About the Author

Joseph D. Lento

"I pride myself on having heart and driving hard to get results!" Attorney Joseph D. Lento passionately fights for the futures of his clients nationwide. Attorney Lento and his team represent students and others in disciplinary cases and various other proceedings at colleges and universities across the United States. Attorney Lento has helped countless students, professors, and others in academia at more than a thousand colleges and universities across the United States, and when necessary, he and his team have sought justice on behalf of clients in courts across the nation. He does not settle for the easiest outcome, and instead prioritizes his clients' needs and well-being. Joseph D. Lento is licensed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, is admitted pro hac vice as needed nationwide, and he can help you or your student address any school-related issue or concern anywhere in the United States.


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