I-News Analyzes National Research on Campus Sex Assaults as Furor Grows

Last Updated by RMPBS News Staff, Kristin Jones on

The stunning account in December in Rolling Stone magazine of a brutal gang rape at the University of Virginia capped a year in which sexual assault on campus gained real traction as a national issue.

In the interest of fact-checking the political debate, Rocky Mountain PBS I-News has delved into current research on sexual assault among college students – its prevalence, false reporting rates, and the state of campus and criminal justice for the offense.

In 2014, The New York Times reported that Florida State University and the Tallahassee police had failed to investigate a sexual assault allegation against the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner, Jameis Winston. A Columbia University art student who said her school had botched her assault investigation gained attention by carrying a mattress with her whenever she was on campus.  The White House  published a list of institutions under federal investigation for mishandling sexual violence, released new recommendations for colleges and resources for students, and launched a public awareness campaign, “It’s On Us,” intended to stem assault.

And then the Rolling Stone story collapsed. Key details in the account of Jackie, the alleged victim at UVA, didn’t hold up to scrutiny by reporters from The Washington Post and other news outlets. Rolling Stone released a statement saying its trust in Jackie was “misplaced,” and then backpedaled to say that the mistakes were on the magazine, not the source.

Rolling Stone's story: A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA

The disintegration of the dramatic UVA story fueled a backlash against the anti-rape movement. Conservatives and media critics began questioning the prevalence of sexual assault on campus, calling into question especially the statistic that one in five college women are sexually assaulted, and suggesting that false reporting may be much more common than feminists contend.

So what’s the truth? In the interest of fact-checking the political debate, Rocky Mountain PBS I-News has delved into current research on sexual assault among college students – its prevalence, false reporting rates, and the state of campus and criminal justice for the offense.

The Questions

What is sexual assault? What is rape?
How prevalent is sexual assault among college students?
How common is false reporting?
Why do colleges and universities adjudicate sexual assault and rape?
Why aren’t campus sexual assault cases prosecuted?
Are there proven strategies for decreasing sexual violence on campus?

What is sexual assault? What is rape? | Back to questions

Legal definitions of sexual assault and rape vary by state. But generally speaking, sexual assault is any unwanted sexual activity, including fondling, groping and forced kissing. Rape is a form of sexual assault.

The FBI definition or rape, updated in 2013, is “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

Sexual assault or rape includes acts where victims are incapable of giving consent, because for instance they are underage, or sleeping, or incapacitated by alcohol or drugs.

Research on rape and sexual assault is hamstrung by barriers obvious and subtle (more on that below). But there are some areas of consensus:

  • Sexual assault and rape are most often committed by a person who is known to the victim.
  • Most rapes and sexual assaults happen without the use of a weapon.
  • The majority of rapes and sexual assaults are not reported to police.

Every serious large-scale study of rape and sexual assault agrees on the above points.

“The notion of the stranger in the bushes with the knife, while it happens,” says Callie Rennison, a criminologist at the University of Colorado Denver, “is not the norm.”

How prevalent is sexual assault among college students? | Back to questions

Because sexual assault and rape are vastly underreported, it’s difficult to measure how often it happens.

The number most frequently cited is that one-in-five college women is sexually assaulted. President Obama has used the number when introducing initiatives aimed at tackling sexual assault on campus, and it’s frequently used in the press. (I’ve cited it in my reporting.)

But that statistic has lately become a lightning rod.

The number is based on a 2007 Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) study conducted by non-profit research organization RTI International and funded by the Institute of Justice. An online survey from 6,800 students at two large public institutions found that roughly one in five senior women had experienced a completed sexual assault since starting college. A 2009 follow-up to the study found similar numbers.

Controversy over the study has focused on its relatively small scope; with only two schools surveyed, it’s not nationally representative, by definition. Christopher Krebs, the lead author of the study, says it was never meant to be.

“When you want to create a national estimate, which was never our goal, you take a much larger sample (of schools), and you would actually have to survey many fewer people at that school,” says Krebs. “We produced estimates for those schools, and shared them as such.”

Rich Lowry, of the conservative National Review, has called the number “bogus” because it includes things like attempted forced kissing.

That’s not true, says Krebs, and reflects a common misreading of the data. The one-in-five number includes only completed sexual assaults, not attempted sexual assault.

If you look at only completed rapes, notes Krebs, the headline from the CSA study is that one in seven of the college seniors in the study were raped, still a stunning figure.

Other surveys have come up with a prevalence that is in the same ballpark. A 2014 survey conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, found that 17 percent of its undergraduate women reported having been sexually assaulted while attending college. And a CDC study on intimate partner violence found that one in five women is raped in her lifetime.

It should be no surprise that studies with substantially different scopes and methods have come up with substantially different results. Most recently, a December 2014 analysis of the National Crime Victimization Survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated the rate of rape and sexual assault among college women (from 1995 to 2013) at around 6.1 per 1,000 in the prior 12 months.

So why the big discrepancy? There are some glaring methodological differences between these two studies.

The first obvious one is the time span. The NCVS study measures victimization rate per 12 months, versus the entire four or five year span of college assessed in the CSA study.

Second, the NCVS is focused on assessing rates of crime, so its approach is different. Its survey is intended to measure all kinds of criminal victimization, and it’s couched that way to its respondents. CU’s Rennison, a former staffer with the Bureau of Justice Statistics who has worked extensively with the NCVS data, says that means the survey probably misses some sexual assaults and rapes.

“The fact that it’s a crime survey means that if you don’t think what happened to you is a crime,” says Rennison, “you may not be willing to tell me about it.”

If a victim doesn’t think it’s a crime, why is it worth measuring? Why not only measure acts that the victim finds troubling enough to categorize as a crime?

The problem, says Rennison, is that misperceptions about rape – that it’s an act committed by a stranger with a weapon, for example – are common even among its victims.

“Say you’re on a date and the individual you’re on a date with assaults you,” says Rennison. “A lot of people think, that’s not really a sexual assault because I knew that person.”

A third difference is that the CSA study was an online survey, versus the NCVS’ in-person and telephone interviewing. Because of the stigma still associated with being a sexual assault victim, respondents might be less comfortable talking about it with an actual person.

Finally, the NCVS study asked respondents directly whether they had been raped or experienced unwanted sexual contact. The CSA survey, by contrast, went into graphic detail about particular acts and asked whether the students had experienced these acts. The CSA method was intended to cue people who might not recognize what happened to them as sexual assault or rape because, for example, it happened when they were very drunk and unable to give consent.

Rennison has argued that the focus on sexual assault of college students has distracted from the higher rates of victimization of lower-income women.

“College campuses compared to other places are relatively safe,” says Rennison, while her dig into the NCVS data shows that women in the lowest income bracket face around six times the risk of victimization as do high-income women.

Still, she adds, questions about the rates of assault shouldn’t detract from efforts to fight it, wherever it occurs: “This is a violent crime, it’s bad and it’s happening.”

The Bottom Line: We don’t know how many college students are raped or sexually assaulted each year, or during their college careers. It may be lower than one in five college women, but it’s also likely to be higher than what’s captured in the NCVS. Researchers agree that it happens far more frequently than is reported, that it exacts huge tolls on its victims in the form of physical and emotional trauma, and that it’s a crime that goes largely unpunished. Lower-income women are likely to be more often victimized than college students.

Follow-up studies are intended to address some of the critiques of previous large-scale studies, and to get closer to the true rate of sexual assault among college students. At RTI, Krebs is planning to launch a survey at 10 to 15 universities this spring, with the idea of testing a survey that could be replicated at any college or university. And the NCVS is being redesigned, and future iterations may incorporate behavioral cues, according to Michael Planty, who heads the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ victimization statistics unit.

How common is false reporting? | Back to questions

Many people who work in the sexual violence field will tell you that the rate of false reporting of rape is roughly in the same ballpark as false reporting of other crimes. But it’s impossible to know whether that’s true. And that’s because there are very few studies of false reporting of crimes other than sexual assault.

There are a few good reasons for this. Sexual assault, and especially rape, is frequently committed behind closed doors and with no other witnesses apart from the accused and the accuser. A case’s credibility often rests on whether the accuser is believed or not, so it makes sense to wonder about false reporting – though it has the unfortunate effect of subjecting sexual assault victims to scrutiny and skepticism that victims of other crimes don’t face.

False reporting does happen. But how often? You can find estimates varying widely from less than 1 percent to 40 percent and higher.

But a lot of the research out there relies on shoddy methods, is ancient, or both.

Men’s rights groups frequently cite a 1994 study conducted by (now retired) Purdue University sociologist Eugene Kanin, using 109 rape allegations made to the police department of a small Midwestern city from 1978 to 1987. Kanin found that 41 percent of the cases were false, based on the determinations of police officials. In all those cases, he said, the accusers recanted their allegations.

Like other small-scale, local studies, this one can’t be generalized to all rape cases. But Kanin’s study has also been blasted by other researchers in the field for its methodology. David Lisak, a former psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, has written that the study “violates a cardinal rule of science” by failing to describe Kanin’s efforts to evaluate the criteria of the police department. He also questions the police department’s practice of routinely asking accusers to undergo a polygraph – a practice that has been outlawed in many states because of its potential for intimidating victims into recanting their allegations.

Other studies have based their conclusions on police departments’ determinations that rape cases are “unfounded.” But “unfounded” isn’t the same as a deliberately false rape report and can include cases, Lisak notes, in which a person truthfully recounts an incident that nonetheless may not fit the legal definition of rape.

To confound matters further, police officers in some jurisdictions have been knocked for inappropriately not finding cases – without an investigation – because an accuser engaged in risky behavior, was unwilling to cooperate in the prosecution, delayed reporting, or had inconsistencies in her account.

A 2010 investigation by The Baltimore Sun found that Baltimore police deemed 30 percent of their rape reports unfounded – five times the national average  – sparking concern that reports weren’t being investigated. The Sun’s investigation sparked major reforms in the department, and rape reports and investigations soared.

One of the most recent and transparent studies on false reporting was published in 2014 by Arizona State University criminologist Cassia Spohn and two co-authors. They analyzed 81 unfounded rape cases from the Los Angeles Police Department in 2008, and found that the LAPD was making the appropriate call around three-quarters of the time. Some of the cases were uncertain. And in 10 cases, reports were filed as “unfounded” when there was evidence that the accuser had recanted due to fear or lack of interest, or when there was evidence a crime had indeed occurred.

Spohn’s study estimated that the rate of false reporting of rape to the LAPD in 2008 was around 4.5 percent.

That’s consistent with a 2010 review of international literature by Lisak and two researchers from End Violence Against Women International, Kimberly Lonsway and Joanne Archambault, concluding that methodologically rigorous research converges at a false reporting rate of around 2 percent to 8 percent.

Notably in Spohn’s study, the fabricated rape reports seemed to fit a pattern; many of the accusers alleged they were attacked by strangers, or with a weapon, or by multiple assailants. In other words, they seemed to tailor their descriptions to fit the stereotype of “real rape” – perhaps in order to be more believable.

The Bottom Line: We don’t know how many rape reports are false. But much of the research showing high rates of false reporting of rape crumbles under close scrutiny. Recent studies with up-to-date and transparent methodology show rates of false reporting that are quite low, though not non-existent.

Why do colleges and universities adjudicate sexual assault and rape? | Back to questions

Colleges don’t hold internal hearings for murder. Why do they adjudicate sexual assault?

Let’s skip right to the bottom line: Because the law requires it.

The Supreme Court decided in 1999 (Davis vs. Monroe County Board of Education) that Title IX obliges schools to keep students safe from a hostile environment created by sexual harassment – including sexual violence – at the hands of other students.

The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights hadn’t enforced this obligation with any vigor until the Obama administration. In 2011, the office published a “Dear Colleague” letter clarifying to schools that Title IX requires them to promptly investigate allegations of sexual violence, and to establish a grievance process with the aim of ending any hostile environment.

Critics say the OCR lacks teeth. Its only real enforcement tool is taking away federal funding, and that has never happened.

But the letter came as a new wave of student activists – led by the organization Know Your IX – were raising awareness of universities’ Title IX obligations and coaxing a wave of complaints. In 2014, the office for the first time published a list of colleges and universities under investigation for Title IX violations related to sexual violence, a kind of Hall of Shame that started at 55 institutions and grew to more than 80 by December.

The standard of proof for school hearings on sexual violence is lower than for criminal cases – requiring only a “preponderance of evidence,” meaning it’s more likely than not. That has sparked criticism that the proceedings lack due process; several male students have sued their universities saying that they’ve been treated unfairly.

But the Department of Education says the standard is appropriate because any college can choose the members of its community. Attending is not a right, and students are routinely punished and even expelled for actions that fall short of a crime – like plagiarism.

In fact, it’s rare for students to be expelled for sexual assault, even if a college judicial proceeding finds them responsible. Examining federal data from 100 schools in 2012 and 2013,The Washington Post found that students found responsible for sexual assault were more likely to be reprimanded than expelled. Only 12 percent of the sanctions in these cases were expulsions.

Beyond legal obligations, there are other practical considerations unique to colleges. College students may live in the same dorm or go to classes together, meaning that a rape victim (let’s say it’s a woman) may be forced into a situation where she is repeatedly encountering her attacker. Even if she reports the crime to police, the criminal justice system is unlikely to proceed at a pace that would keep this from happening. The campus judicial process is designed to move quicker, and to accommodate any needed changes in housing or class schedule.

That said, you won’t find many people  – accusers or accused  – who think colleges are doing a great job of adjudicating sexual assault. Some prosecutors also complain that campus investigations impede their work  – for example by letting a student know he is accused of sexual assault before police have a chance to question him.

And that begs another question:

Why aren’t campus sexual assault cases prosecuted? | Back to questions

Few sexual assaults involving college students result in a criminal conviction.

Some critics have contended that colleges and universities deliberately steer students away from the criminal justice system in order to sweep potentially damaging cases under the rug. The sensational and now-discredited Rolling Stone magazine story about a brutal gang rape at the University of Virginia suggested that college administrators there had embraced a self-serving “victim-centered” approach as a kind of cover for discouraging students from reporting to police.

Victims’ advocates, meanwhile, emphasize survivors’ choice in pursuing prosecution or not, with the idea that they were already robbed once of their self-determination.

Whatever the cause, most victims – college students or otherwise – choose not to report to police. To many people with an interest in justice, this is an unsatisfying situation. After all, shouldn’t rapists go to prison? And isn’t it the victims’ responsibility to report the crime and press charges in order to prevent another person from being victimized?

In fact, a science-minded rape victim might well look at the odds and decide that she’s better off saving herself the trouble of reporting the crime.

Of course, she will first have to do some digging through incomplete crime data and social science research to estimate these odds: There is no national database that tracks rape reports to prosecution or conviction.

“This is a major problem with our criminal justice statistics,” says Spohn, the Arizona State University criminologist.

But here we go: Of the rapes that are reported, only about one in four result in an arrest, according to an analysis by Lonsway and Archambault of 2008 Uniform Crime Report statistics, compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

From there, the data gets a little sketchier. The best information on outcomes from rape arrests is from State Court Processing Statistics, via the Bureau of Justice Statistics. But the data is only gathered from 75 of the biggest urban U.S. counties. In 2009, the latest available year, about 57 percent of those charged with rape were convicted of a felony, and 11 percent were convicted of a misdemeanor. Those are pretty high rates, comparable with other violent crimes.

Lonsway and Archambault note that the prosecution statistics miss some important things – for example, cases that are never referred for prosecution because police don’t find them credible, or cases in which the victim doesn’t want to cooperate, and prosecutors decline to file charges. Also, the State Court Processing Statistics don’t count sexual assault cases against victims who are unable to consent – because they’re minors, are incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, or are severely disabled. And those cases can be difficult to prosecute.

Piggybacking on a 2005 review of social science literature on rape conviction rates by Rebecca Campbell, Lonsway and Archambault make an estimate of outcomes for 100 rapes. An estimated five to 20 are reported, 0.4 to 5.4 are prosecuted, and just 0.2 to 2.8 result in incarceration.

Spohn’s deep dive into the outcomes of 5,031 reports of rape and attempted rape to the LAPD from 2005 through 2009 found similar results. Only 4.9 percent resulted in jail or prison time for the accused rapist. And that only counts reported cases.

According to Spohn’s LAPD study, besides the roughly 4.5 percent of reports that were fabricated, there were cases in which the victim recanted due to fear or intimidation, or was pressured to recant by police detectives, or wasn’t willing to testify. In a large number of cases, the police investigation never came to a conclusion. In others, the district attorney declined to prosecute, or charges were dismissed. Some charges resulted in an acquittal, and some convictions brought only a sentence of probation.

The Bottom Line: It’s not just campus sexual assault cases that go unpunished. Rape rarely results in jail or prison time for offenders – and not just because it’s so often unreported. A large majority of reported rapes get lost in the criminal justice system.

Are there proven strategies for decreasing sexual violence on campus? | Back to questions

Along with the flurry of attention to campus sexual assault in recent years has come a rush of activity by legislators and colleges to address the issue. Schools have surveyed their students, revamped their sexual assault prevention efforts, and overhauled their campus judicial processes.

Among the fastest-growing initiatives among colleges shifts the burden to the person initiating sexual activity to make sure that the other person wants it – and has actively signaled consent. The new standard is known as yes-means-yes, or affirmative consent. The idea takes pressure off the accusing student to establish that he or she actively resisted, or said no.

California’s governor last year signed a law that requires affirmative consent in all the state’s colleges, and all Ivy League universities except Harvard have also adopted a form of yes-means-yes.

Supporters of affirmative consent say that it removes some of the ambiguity that seeps into sexual assault cases on campus. Sexual assault victims often report feeling frozen, or being too drunk to resist effectively. Critics of the policy say it goes too far, and redefines as rape the normal gray areas of sexual activity, putting male students at risk.

Affirmative consent isn’t a new idea. Canada’s criminal code adopted “voluntary agreement” as the standard for sexual consent in 1992. There’s little evidence that affirmative consent lowers the rate of sexual assault, but there’s also no evidence that it leads to a high rate of false or unfair accusations.

Some other smaller-scale educational programs show some promise in decreasing the rate of intimate-partner violence and sexual assault, according to a 2014 survey of best practices from the Centers for Disease Control.

What doesn’t work is one-off educational sessions at the beginning of the school year. What does work are more comprehensive training sessions that educate potential perpetrators (as opposed to victims), their peers and the community about gender, sexuality and violence. A couple of programs developed for younger students, Safe Dates and Shifting Boundaries, are cited as potential models for colleges to adapt.

And what about justice? Can colleges do anything to improve the conviction rate in sexual assault cases—and potentially keep their students safer and healthier?

Yes, probably. They could start by making rape kits – or sexual assault forensic exams – available to their students.

Several studies have suggested that sexual assault forensic exams given by trained nurse examiners can make it more likely that cases proceed through the criminal justice system.

One of these studies, led by Michigan State University psychology professor Rebecca Campbell and funded by the Justice Department in 2008, examined outcomes in 297 sexual assault cases from a Midwestern community, and showed a significant increase in cases that reached trial or plea bargain after a sexual assault nurse examiner (or SANE) program was put in place.

SANE programs are also intended to provide medical care for hidden injuries, as well as contraceptives, STD treatment and emotional support for a trauma victim.

But only four of the top 100 colleges and universities as ranked by U.S. News and World Report in 2014 provide rape kits at their campus health centers, Rocky Mountain PBS I-News has reported. Others have SANE exams available at nearby emergency rooms, but some don’t; it’s not unusual for students to have to travel long distances or wait hours or even days for an exam.

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Insight with John Ferrugia is in-depth, independent and incisive. John and a team of investigative journalists present thoroughly researched stories of significance to Colorado.