Analyzing the research into sexual assault and college students |

Analyzing the research into sexual assault and college students

Kristin Jones
Rocky Mountain PBS I-News
Liz Hardin, center, an emergency department nurse, and Joanne Knuppe, right, an obstetrics nurse, watch forensic nurse Kim Nash, left, trims Emma Agnew's fingernails as Nash leads a training session for Sex Assault Forensic Exams on Oct. 2, 2014 at Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs, Colo. For the training, Agnew portrayed a woman who'd been assaulted. (Joe Mahoney/Rocky Mountain PBS I-News)
Rocky Mountain PBS I-News | Rocky Mountain PBS i-News

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.

There were high-profile allegations of assault at Florida State University and Columbia University that sparked nationwide protests. 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.

The disintegration of the dramatic UVA story fueled a backlash against the anti-rape movement. Conservative media critics began questioning the prevalence of sexual assault on campus, calling into question especially the statistic that 1 in 5 college women are sexually assaulted, and suggesting that false reporting may be much more common than advocates contend.

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

First, the consensus: Researchers agree that sexual assault and rape are most often committed by a person who is known to the victim, that most of these crimes happen without the use of a weapon, and that the majority of rapes and sexual assaults are not reported to police.

“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.”

Are 1 in 5 college women sexually assaulted? That number, cited by the White House and others, is based on a 2007 Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) study conducted by nonprofit 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 1 in 5 senior women had experienced a completed sexual assault since starting college.

Controversy over the study has focused on its relatively small scope; 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.

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 1-in-5 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 1 in 7 of the college seniors in the study were raped, still a stunning figure.

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. 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.”

The NCVS study also asked respondents directly whether they had been raped or experienced unwanted sexual contact, while the CSA study went into graphic detail about particular acts. The CSA method was intended to cue people who might not recognize what happened to them as sexual assault or rape.

So what’s the true prevalence of sexual assault among college students? It may be lower than 1 in 5 college women, but it’s also likely to be higher than what’s captured in the NCVS.

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. Krebs at RTI is working with the Bureau of Justice Statistics to launch a survey at 10 to 15 universities this spring, with the idea of testing a method that could be replicated at any college or university.

And the Bureau of Justice Statistics is considering including more behavioral cues, especially for sexual assault and rape, in a redesigned version of the NCVS, according to Michael Planty, who heads the victimization statistics unit.


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.

False reporting does happen. But how often? You can find estimates varying widely from less than 1 percent to 40 percent and higher. But some of the research showing high rates of false reporting crumbles under close scrutiny.

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.

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 further confuse matters, police officers in some jurisdictions have been knocked for inappropriately deeming cases “unfounded” — without an investigation — because an accuser engaged in risky behavior, delayed reporting, or had inconsistencies in her account.

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 estimated that around 4.5 percent of the reports were false.

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.

Despite the low rate of false reporting, few sexual assaults involving college students — or anybody else — result in a criminal conviction.

It’s hard to say how many. The best estimates are based on incomplete crime statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and social science research.

An analysis by Lonsway and Archambault estimated that 5 percent to 20 percent are reported, 0.4 percent to 5.4 percent are prosecuted, and just 0.2 percent to 2.8 percent result in incarceration.

But there is no national database that tracks rape reports to their final outcomes.

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

The Summit Daily News brings you this report in partnership with Rocky Mountain PBS I-News. Learn more at Contact Kristin Jones at

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