Sexual Assault on Campus: A Case of Battered Statistics Syndrome

Dear Mr. Dad: I’ve been reading about the recent White House study showing that one in five women will be the victim of rape at some point in her life. As a mother of twins (a boy and a girl) who are graduating high school, I’m scared for my daughter’s safety and I’m worried that my might do something unspeakable. What can I do to protect both of my children?

A: The first thing to do is calm down. For as much media coverage as the White House study got, it is one of the most flawed, inflammatory, and just plain incorrect pieces of “research” I’ve ever seen.

Let’s start with the numbers. To come up with its 1-in-5 statistic, the White House task force relied on a 2011 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) which used a very broad definition of “sexual violence,” Besides forced genital and oral sex (whether by violence, drugs, or threats—the kinds of things that most people would consider rape), the CDC included “forced kissing” and “rubbing up against you in a sexual way, even if it is over your clothes.” That behavior shouldn’t be tolerated. But dirty dancing is not rape. To suggest that it is just plain wrong.

The CDC study also includes as victims of “sexual assault” women who answered Yes when asked whether they had ever had sex with someone who had pressured them by “telling you lies” or by making “false promises about the future they knew were untrue,” or “by showing they were unhappy.” Again, not nice, but regretting a sexual encounter after the fact doesn’t make it rape.

Besides relying on the results of ambiguous questions, the White House also claimed that just 12% of campus sexual assaults are reported—meaning that 88% aren’t. Mark Perry, a professor of economics at the University of Michigan—a guy who know a thing or two about statistics—carefully looked at the data and came up with a very different story. Between 2009 and 2012, there were 137 sexual offenses reported at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. If that’s 12%, the other 88% would be 1,004, bringing the total to 1,141. Dividing that by the 22,330 female students and the University (51.6% of 43,275), reveals that a female student’s actual chance of being sexually assaulted is 5.1%–a quarter of what the what the White House is claiming—and that’s still counting dirty dancing and being lied to as rape.

The report has a number of other flaws. For example, it completely overlooks a growing body of solid research finding that sexual assault on campuses is hardly a one-way street. In fact, young men and young women are equally likely to admit to having pressured someone else into having sex.

But a more serious problem is the report’s recommendations to essentially strip accused male students of their legal rights. The report states that “[t]he parties should not be allowed to personally cross-examine each other.” Um, the Constitution’s 6th Amendment, however, grants anyone accused of any crime anywhere that exact right.
Obviously, this is a much bigger issue than I can tackle here. But the bottom line is this: talk with your son and your daughter about unwanted sexual advances and about the statistical distortions the White House is peddling. As a parent, I’m sure you don’t want your daughter thinking of herself as a victim—and I know you don’t want your son to become a victim of overzealous college administrators who see every young man as a rapist waiting to happen.
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