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Hot on Campus | November 29, 2012

The true risk of rape

Crime

Critics contend inflated statistics overestimate the real risk while diminishing the brutal nature of the offense

©iStockPhoto/sjlocke

Caterina Rodriguez had only been in college for about six months when she became a statistic. After spending a night out drinking with her friends, Rodriguez made her way back to the dorm, bumping into a friend who had also been drinking. Their usually friendly conversation took an unwanted turn when he began making sexual advances. She tried to rebuff him but admitted being so intoxicated she almost passed out.

In an awkward exchange of emails the next day, he apologized for getting out of hand. Ashamed and heartbroken, Rodriguez never reported the incident.

According to a non-peer reviewed study repeatedly cited by campus police, women's advocacy groups and even the White House, one in four or five college women will become victims of rape or sexual assault before they graduate. Despite the statistic's widespread acceptance and the corroboration stories like Rodriguez's provide, the numbers aren't actually true.

College women have a much lower chance of getting sexually assaulted or raped than officials lead them to believe. Instead of being used to inform and educate, critics contend statistics about rape and sexual assault are used to advance an agenda decrying the victimization of women. Victim advocacy comes with power and money, incentive for inflating the number of potential victims. But Christian professors also say the statistic diverts attention from the truth about the "hook-up" culture--risky behavior greatly increases a woman's chance of being assaulted.

The oft-quoted statistic comes from "The Sexual Victimization of College Women" (SVCW), a study commissioned by the National Institute of Justice and released in December 2000. It has never been reviewed by scholars conducting similar research. Critics say the study has two major problems: It blurs the distinction between sexual assault and rape, and it makes mathematical assumptions even the study's authors describe as "problematic."

The survey, conducted in the spring of 1997, found 2.8 percent of college women experienced rape or attempted rape, based on definitions provided by the FBI Uniform Crime Report, during almost 7 months that made up the 1996-1997 school year. To get a statistic for the entire year, the study's authors simply doubled the quantifiable results. To get a statistic for a student's entire college career, they extrapolated the 5 percent over four to five years, arriving at a 20 to 25 percent chance of rape.

Three different government surveys of actual crime reports show the SVCW projections far exceed reported cases of forcible rape and sexual assault. According to the Department of Education, 12.3 million women enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities for the 2012-2013 school year. If the SVCW projection proved true, between 2.5 and 3 million college women would be raped or sexually assaulted each year.

But according to the 1995-2000 Violent Victimization of College Students Survey, an annual average of 24,800 college women became victims of "forcible rape and sexual assault" during that time, when the female college population averaged 4 million. The study, produced by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, revealed college students, between 18-24 years, suffered fewer acts of violence then their peers who did not attend college.

The Clery Report, a database created by the Department of Education to track crime related to universities, colleges and their students, shows just 3,584 forcible sexual offenses reported in 2010.

Researchers generally agree that rape and sexual assault are historically underreported crimes. But even allowing for a tenfold increase in each of the three government surveys, the number of rapes and sexual assaults would still fall significantly short of the SVCW projections.

Methodology in data collection and the definition of terms account for some disparity in the annual government crime data. But much more is at play when comparing the reported incidents of rape and sexual assault to the SVCW projections, said Patrick Henry College government professor Dr. Stephen Baskerville. Issues that should be addressed as a matter of human need have been politicized by those with a vested interest in estimating more victims than actually exist.

Baskerville and Dr. William Saxby, a professor of psychology and human sexuality at Colorado Christian College, agree feminists present college women with a false paradigm. Women are encouraged to be as sexually expressive as they want in dress, speech, and comportment, all the while being told they are victims of sexual harassment, or worse, when a man verbally acknowledges such expressions. Every new sexual "freedom" creates a new means for being offended, Baskerville said. And with each offense comes the opportunity for advocates to press for more regulations on and off campus.

"We have become our own worst enemy when it comes to our own sexual expression," Saxby said. "We became our own victim."

Saxby did not question the intent of the SVCW authors and even congratulated them for asking explicitly detailed questions in order to generate more specific and quantifiable answers from respondents. But like Baskerville, he took the authors to task on the vague terminology. The terms sexual assault, sexual victimization, and rape are used interchangeably in the report although their definitions are significantly different.

The definition of sexual assault varies between law enforcement agencies and among college administrators. Not all actions are criminal and include a broad array of offenses from a slap on the bottom to actual rape. Baskerville believes the ambiguity is intentional. By conflating the statistics and making sexual assault synonymous with rape, victim advocacy organizations present an exaggerated picture of the true risk of rape for college women, affording the groups influence among legislators and college administrators in crafting law and policy.

The majority of sexual assault and rape cases among coeds involve alcohol abuse by one or both parties - further complicating the issue of culpability and criminality. Rodriguez admits she became involved in the drinking culture along with many of her Christian friends when she arrived at Duke University in Durham, N.C. But she never wanted to "sleep around," which made her sexual assault experience all the more tragic.

Rodriguez, now a graduate student at Duke Divinity School, shares her experience with other women, warning them about the dangers of letting their guard down but also assuring them of the tangible, relentless love of a God who forgives and restores. If college administrators really wanted to help protect women, they would have an honest discussion of the risk of rape--the real threat and the situations perpetuating many attacks, she said.

"You would be able to have a real conversation about how you want people to see you as a woman," she said.

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