Academic journal article Independent Review

Campus Sexual Assault: What We Know and What We Don\\\t

Academic journal article Independent Review

Campus Sexual Assault: What We Know and What We Don\\\t

Article excerpt

Sexual assault on campuses in the United States is a hot-button issue. How big is the problem? It is hard to know because many assaults go unreported. Surveys of college-age students have the potential to overcome this problem. Unfortunately, as I show in this article, the most widely cited surveys used by policy makers have flaws, and there is disagreement among them when it comes to the incidence of sexual assault on the nation's campuses. Despite the shortcomings of these surveys, the media promote the idea that campus sexual assault is a commonplace and serious problem. In response, based on this incomplete and less-than-accurate data, the federal government has implemented a series of policies that are putatively designed to lessen sexual assault but that impose heavy costs on colleges and potentially undermine due process.

Sexual assault on college campuses has captured the nation's attention. The situation has been characterized by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and others as an epidemic, driven by what some have called a rape culture (Toffee 2014). To make matters worse, Annie Clark, founder of the advocacy group End Campus Rape Now, maintains that colleges routinely mishandle sexual assault cases. "You hear about Amherst, and then it dies down. You hear about Yale, and it dies down. We're tired of it just popping up and everyone says it's really horrible, then nothing happens," says Clark (qtd. in Kingkade 2015). Congressman Jarod Polis (D-Colo.) stated during a congressional hearing that colleges should be able to expel any student accused of sexual assault even if that student is innocent, although he later claimed he misspoke (Burness 2015). But critics of this position maintain that such charges are largely exaggerated and blown out of proportion. Whichever the case, it is difficult to know exactly how many of these offenses actually occur. Many crimes are seriously underreported, but sexual ones even more so. The vast majority of campus sexual assaults are not reported to either law enforcement or to school officials, which obviously makes it difficult to accurately gauge how many actually occur. In theory, one way to get more accurate readings is to conduct interviews and surveys asking a broader sample of respondents about their experiences on campus.

I begin by examining the two most prominent surveys, which have done the most to shape public opinion and public policy: the Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study and the American Association of Universities' (AAU) Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct. Both surveys are aimed directly at college students and for that reason have gained the most attention and are deemed to be important. Then I turn to another relevant though less-prominent survey described in the report Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization among College-Age Females, 1995-2013 (Langton and Sinozich 2014), based on data from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). The NCVS is administered every year and focuses on a number of violent crimes, including rape and sexual assault, and some of its findings differ considerably from the CSA Study and AAU Survey. I discuss the results and implications of each of these surveys, with the aim of providing a clearer understanding of what we know and what we don't about campus sexual assault.

The CSA Study

The CSA Study is a web-based survey developed by RTI International, a private firm, and funded by the National institute of Justice, the research, development, and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. The survey was administered in 2005 at two large public universities in the South and Midwest to students ages eighteen to twenty-five. In all, 5,466 women and 1,375 men took the survey, with an overall response rate of 42.5 percent, which is considered low by the survey's authors. The CSA Study uses sexual assault as an umbrella term, which includes a wide range of behaviors from rape (oral, anal, vaginal, and digital penetration) to attempted rape and forced touching of a sexual nature. …

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