A More Complex Picture Of College Rape


Contrary to the conventional wisdom, new data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics suggest that college women are actually less likely than their non-student peers to become victims of sexual assault:

The report estimates that 6.1 of every 1000 college students are raped or sexually assaulted every year; assault is slightly more common among college-age nonstudents (7.6 per 1000). Those rates are lower than other studies of college women, including federal studies, have found. The BJS says this is probably a difference of methodology: the crime victims study, which this report is based on, simply asks women about “unwanted sexual activity,” while other studies list specific behaviors or scenarios women might have experienced.

However, the BJS data also confirm that most rapes go unreported, as the above chart illustrates:

Sexual assault victims are typically much more likely not to go to the police than victims of other crimes … But reporting rates are especially low among college students.

Among young non-student women, according to the new report, 67 percent didn’t report their assaults to the police — that’s a little higher than the average for all sexual-assault victims (which is about 65 percent) but it’s about comparable. Among college students, however, 80 percent of victims didn’t go to the police.

Furthermore, it doesn’t look like college students are reporting assaults to college officials, either. 14 percent of nonstudents said that they didn’t report their assault to the police, but did report to another official (which the survey doesn’t define). But only 4 percent of students said they went to another official or administrator.

As Brandy Zadrozny observes, the data also show that college-aged men are significantly more likely to get assaulted than non-students in the same age group:

Though fewer college-age men are raped or sexually assaulted than women, it happens to about 9,400 men annually. Men ages 18 to 24 enrolled in college were more likely to become a victim. Men in college were raped or sexually assaulted at a rate of 1.4 per 1,000, almost five times the rate of non-students (0.03 per 1,000). Men made up 17 percent of rape and sexual assault victims in college and just 4 percent for nonstudents.

Libby Nelson explores why different surveys turn up such markedly divergent numbers on rape:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s study on intimate partner violence finds much higher rates of sexual assault in the general population than the crime victimization survey does. The difference lies in how the questions are worded. Researchers in other surveys, including the CDC’s, don’t necessarily use the term “rape” or “sexual assault” at all. Instead, they ask much more specific questions about what happened, such as “when you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people ever had vaginal sex with you?”

Christopher Krebs, the lead researcher on the Campus Sexual Assault Study, a study of two colleges that led to the widely cited “1 in 5” statistic, says the term “rape” carries heavy baggage. “Women often think of rape as something perpetrated by a stranger, someone they don’t know, someone jumping out from behind a bush or behind a car,” he says. “They think of something that happens that’s violent: they had to be hit or kicked or threatened. They think of it as something that happens when you’re around people you don’t know.”