The Problem With Campus Sexual Assault Surveys

Why the grim portrait painted by the new AAU study does not reflect reality.

campus sexual assault.

Are college campuses as dangerous for female undergrads as the AAU numbers suggest?

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by Sylvie Bouchard/Thinkstock.

This week, headlines in newspapers across the country trumpeted the troubling findings from a massive new survey on campus sexual assault. “1 in 4 Women Experience Sex Assault on Campus,” declared the New York Times. “One in four female undergraduates reports sexual misconduct, survey finds,” reported the Los Angeles Times.More than 1 in 5 female undergrads at top schools suffer sexual attacks,” offered the Washington Post. Conducted last spring by the Association of American Universities, the survey of students on 27 campuses, including all but Princeton University from the Ivy League, would seem to confirm the assertion by President Obama that “1 in 5” young women are victimized during their college years. This was the key statistic the president cited when he announced last year that campus sexual assault would be a signature issue for his administration.

That number has come in for much debunking. While reporting a story on the perceived epidemic of sexual violence on campus last year, I interviewed Christopher Krebs, the lead author of the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study, from which the 1 in 5 number was first derived. “We don’t think one in five is a nationally representative statistic,” he said, noting that he’d conducted his surveys on just two campuses. The more wide-ranging AAU survey would seem to sweep away the doubt. But its authors also explicitly warn against making the kind of national claims suggested by this week’s headlines: “[M]any news stories are focused on figures like ‘1 in 5’ in reporting victimization,” they write, then advise that it is “oversimplistic, if not misleading” to conclude that any study, including their own, proves that 20 or 25 percent of female students are victims. 

This week, I spoke to David Cantor, co-principal investigator of the AAU study. He explained that the 27 campuses he and his colleagues looked at are not nationally representative; the set of schools was relatively large, but it was not randomly selected from the full complement of American universities. All but one of the schools participating in this survey are members of the AAU, an organization of leading research universities. While 150,000 students filled out the survey, it was offered to almost 780,000 students, which makes for a disappointingly low response rate of around 19 percent. That, too, is a problem, Cantor said, because it raises questions as to whether those students who did take the survey were more inclined to have been victims of sexual assault, thus inflating the results. He said there is evidence this is the case, explaining that analysis of the survey turned up “some indication that people who did not respond were less likely to be victims.”

The AAU survey found that across all 27 institutions, 23 percent of female undergraduates experienced nonconsensual sexual contact as a result of force or incapacitation. This contact ranged from penetration to kissing to being groped over one’s clothes. (Many critics of campus surveys like this one note that the studies ratchet up the incidence of sexual assault by lumping together acts that could be considered rape with less serious violations like unwanted touching.) That 23 percent—on the bubble between “1 in 4” and “1 in 5”—is an average among the 27 schools, which had individual rates ranging from 13 percent to 30 percent. Some of the highest rates for nonconsensual sexual contact in the AAU survey were found at some of the nation’s most elite universities. Of the 27 schools, Harvard University, Yale University, and the University of Michigan reported overall rates of nonconsensual contact to be 26, 28, and 30 percent, respectively, for female undergraduates. (The lowest was the California Institute of Technology.) The study also confirmed the role that alcohol plays in unwanted encounters: “Nonconsensual sexual contact involving drugs and alcohol constitute a significant percentage of incidents,” the authors write.

The AAU report provides separate statistics for the incidence of unwanted penetrative sex. (The report deliberately does not use the word rape, Cantor told me. This was at the universities’ request, because the schools are addressing conduct violations, not criminal matters.) The finding across all the schools was that for the 2014–2015 academic year, the rate of such completed, physically forced encounters among female undergraduates was 1.3 percent, and for those reporting such acts during the entirety of their college years it was 3.2 percent.

The AAU survey notes that previous attempts to pin down campus sexual assault incidence have produced different conclusions and acknowledges that survey results vary based on the definition of nonconsensual activity, the sample size, and the wording of the questions, among other factors. This is illustrated dramatically by the release last December of a special report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics titled “Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization Among College-Age Females, 1995–2013.” It found that contrary to frequent assertions, including by some elected officials, about the particular dangers female college students face, they are less likely to be victims of sexual assault than their peers who are not enrolled in college. The report found that among women aged 18 to 24, those not in college were 1.2 times more likely to be victims of sexual violence than those in college. The good news was that incidence for both groups was far lower than anything approaching 1 in 5: 0.76 percent for nonstudents and 0.61 percent for students.

Another confounding factor in the attempt to determine the incidence of sexual violence is the discrepancy between what women assert on surveys and what they report to the authorities. Studies consistently show that most women who say in surveys that they were victimized do not file complaints to the authorities, and this is the case with the AAU survey as well. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 20 percent of student rape and sexual assault victims went to the police. The AAU survey found that 25.5 percent of women who said they experienced nonconsensual penetrative sex by force reported this to someone in authority at their university. In the AAU survey, the women who said they experienced nonconsensual penetration but did not report it were asked why. The most common answer, chosen by 58.6 percent of aggregate respondents was, “I did not think it was serious enough to report.” At Yale, this answer was chosen by 65.4 percent of the respondents who said they had experienced forced penetration. What are we to make of respondents who attest that they’ve experienced such a vile assault yet don’t find it serious enough to report?

Even given the established reluctance of victims to report, there is an inexplicable chasm between the depredations that the survey portrays as a common experience and the low rate at which women go to the authorities. Let’s look again at Yale. About 60 percent of Yale’s female undergraduates completed the AAU survey, a total of 1,721 women. Of those, Yale says 14.3 percent, or 246 women, said they experienced nonconsensual penetration or sexual touching during the 2014–2015 academic year. But also according to Yale, which makes public all reported complaints of sexual assault in a semi-annual report, only 14 undergraduates reported to university authorities having experienced any kind of nonconsensual sexual encounter during that same academic year. Of those complaints, one was withdrawn, and at least one was an accusation by a male student against a female one.

In response to the AAU survey, the president of Yale, Peter Salovey, issued an open letter that read in part: “I am deeply distressed—as I know you are—by many of the survey findings. … The prevalence of such behavior runs counter to our most fundamental values. It threatens individual students, our learning environment, and our sense of community.” He said the university would redouble its efforts to prevent sexual assault through training and services and by increasing staff dedicated to the issue.

His remarks were echoed by his fellow college presidents. But if these heads of institutions of higher education truly believe the survey results, their collective response constitutes a dereliction of duty. What the AAU survey describes is an epic criminal justice calamity that should prompt emergency action. If 1 in 4 women on their campuses can expect to be victimized each year, college presidents should reinstate the long-abandoned sexual segregation of dorms; there should be a strictly enforced ban on underage drinking; and a large and visible law enforcement presence should prowl campus as a deterrent to sexual predators. But no college president would suggest such things.

I suspect that’s in part because they recognize that there is a fundamental problem with sexual assault surveys. These surveys are trying to describe the most intimate activities of people by forcing them to answer binary questions about behavior that can be ambiguous, complicated, and confusing. When taking a survey, if a woman checks a box stating she experienced something that meets the legal definition of rape, it does not mean researchers know she was raped. Surveys don’t allow for he said/she said; they don’t even allow for she said. Perhaps those women who checked a box that suggested they suffered a serious sexual violation like unwanted penetrative intercourse and then also checked a box saying the attack wasn’t serious enough to report were trying to convey to researchers that these interactions cannot be reduced to checkmarks. And perhaps the discrepancy between the far higher rate of reporting of sexual assaults in the survey and the low reporting figures tallied by universities by federal law, as described by Stuart Taylor Jr. in the Post, suggests that anonymous surveys can’t be relied upon for a wholly accurate reflection of reality.

Young women are indeed the victims of sexual assault at the hands of young men—on campus and off. These are terrible crimes, and we should urge, and help, those who are victims to report this to the police. But there is a danger when the findings of surveys like AAU’s are treated as proof that vast numbers of female college students are victims of sexual violations. It puts schools under increasing pressure to prove that they are doing something about this alleged epidemic, and this, in turn, has led to the creation of policies that offer little due process, but severe punishment, for men accused of misconduct. Parents of high school students are surely looking at the AAU list as their children make application decisions. The headlines say these parents should be worried about what will happen in college to their daughters. Surveys like this one, and the way they are described in the press, suggest that they need to worry about their sons, too.