This morning, the Association of American Universities published a huge research study on sexual assault and misconduct on college campuses. Over 150,000 students at 27 institutions of higher education participated in the web survey, which, among many other things, seems to corroborate the often-cited (and often-misconstrued) "1 in 5" statistic, which says that 1 in 5 women will experience sexual assault in college. The percentage of female undergraduate participants in the AAU study who report "sexual contact involving physical force or incapacitation since enrolling in the college" is 23.1 percent.
The AAU study is careful to point out that rates of sexual misconduct and assault vary widely from institution to institution and that making "estimates such as '1 in 5' or '1 in 4' as a global rate, across all IHEs [institutions of higher education] is at least oversimplistic [sic], if not misleading." Elsewhere in the study, the authors say that variation among participating universities is high, with rates of undergraduate women reporting sexual assault ranging from 13 percent up to 30 percent at each school. The study notes that "many news stories are focused on figures like '1 in 5' in reporting victimization. As the researchers who generated this number have repeatedly said, the 1 in 5 number is for a few IHEs and is not representative of anything outside of this frame."
What's more, while the number of respondents may seem enormous, the average response rate at each school was around 19 percent, which could indicate a non-response bias that would skew the results higher, though not necessarily.
So: What does this study mean? Its authors seem to offer a lot of information with a grain of salt because the research was incredibly large and involved. The survey considered factors including undergraduate students vs. graduate students; male students vs. female students vs. transgender/genderqueer/non-conforming/questioning students; class year; public universities vs. private universities; several different types of sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault; the frequency of reporting sexual assault and perceptions of institutional responses to reporting; and combinations of these various factors.
Developing the survey was also a strenuous process, with wording and vocabulary particular focuses. According to Dr. Sandra Martin, the survey design committee chair and professor in global public health at the University of North Carolina, the survey team consisted of experts on sexual assault and misconduct, expert survey designers and research methodologists, and "campus leaders directly responsible for responding to victimized students and addressing students' issues of gender, health and student affairs." This committee met once or twice a week via conference calls from November 2014 to March 2015 to discuss potential questions and how they would be phrased; words like rape and assault were avoided in favor of descriptions of acts or behaviors. Students at four universities also gave comments on the first draft of the survey.
There's a cultural obsession in this country to pick apart the 1-in 5 statistic.
Because, according to Martin, "a great deal of attention has focused on the problem of sexual assault on college campuses" recently, the committee also responded to current discussions on university sex education and reform. "At times, lively discussions ensued when debating whether or not to include particular types of questions," Dr. Martin said. "For example, several members advocated early on for including questions concerning failure to obtain affirmative consent regarding sexual contact, but other members were somewhat hesitant to do this since there was not a 'gold standard' method of asking about this. After reviewing the websites of many universities and finding that affirmative consent was mentioned in many school policies, and after a series of conversations about this, all the committee agreed to move forward with this innovative series of questions."
Controversy over the 1-in 5-statistic—and, in turn, the prevalence of campus sexual assault in general—has abounded since the figure was first published in the College Sexual Assault Study by the National Institute of Justice in 2007. That study, directed by Christopher Krebs and Christine Lindquist, had a much higher response rate than the new AAU study, but unlike the AAU study, it only considered senior undergraduate women at two universities. The pair outlined their study's limitations in a Time article last year, saying—just as the AAU study authors say—that their findings should not be considered "a baseline" for campus sexual assault.
Ultimately, the goal of the AAU study is not to confirm or deny the 1-in-5 statistic; other reports have more or less confirmed it—including the Washington Post–Kaiser Family Foundation poll in June of this year and the first report by the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault—using various frameworks. Campus rape activists urge people not to get caught up in research methodology and instead focus on the very real problem of sexual assault at American universities. While it is tempting to quantify uncomfortable topics like campus sexual assault with round numbers that are easy to understand, the point of the AAU study, said Dr. Martin, was to give schools "the information to inform their prevention and intervention policies and procedures."
"There's a cultural obsession in this country to pick apart the 1-in 5 statistic," said Dana Bolger over email. Bolger is the co-founder of the anti–campus sexual assault organization Know Your IX. "No number of studies, all confirming the 1-in-5, will ever be good enough for a particular segment of the American population, which insists that women lie, that justice is readily attainable, and that rape is an anomaly rather than an epidemic."