I dislike headlines like this because they are what people remember. They are easy. And they are easy to refute by those who wish to diminish the severity of this problem and/or blame the victims. Because headlines like this are never truly accurate. Because what sound study can be summed up with one statistic? There are always limitations.
This, I realize, is a disconnect between the interests of the media and the interests of researchers and research institutions. It is not likely to change. Headlines will not become more nuanced and reflective of actual findings.
I proceed regardless. I proceed in part because the last study's one remembered statistic is still with us: 1 in 5. It is used in endless articles about the topic, documentaries, conversations among advocates, policymakers, and in political speeches. And again, those who wish to refute those numbers can do so because the study was not perfect. It was small. It surveyed students at 2 universities--large universities, but two--in different geographic regions. It was a web-based survey which yielded a low response rate. It was typical of web surveys but low in comparison to other data collection methods. But the published study says that the results are not generalizable to other universities. One of the researchers, as recently as last year, has said to the media that the 1 in 5 statistic is being used out of context. It has not been recognized for what it was: a foundation. A request for more information. A call for additional research. It was not an ideal study. No study is. But headlines do not say that and neither do--usually--paragraphs one through three. The asterisks come later in these reports.
So now we have a new study. The Association of American Universities commissioned a study to look at rates of sexual assault at its member schools. This is where the new 1 in 4 statistic comes from. Here are the asterisks:
- Small sample, low response rate. Only 26 schools participated. The response rate was less than 20%. The report speaks to non-response bias and suggests that the 1 in 4 could be over inflated because those who experienced or were affected by sexual assault could be more likely to fill out a survey about it.
- Definition of sexual assault. As the articles did get to, the definition used by the survey was "broad." That means comparisons among other studies that do not use the same definition or among individual schools may not be possible. (More on why the so-called broad definition is a good thing below.)
Here is what I take from the study:
- The broad definition is good because it accounts for a range of behaviors and actions, which is important to people who have experienced sexual assault. The hierarchy that is created among different acts and between sexual assault and harassment is unproductive and arguably damaging. With the prevalent belief that being penetrated by a penis is the only definition of sexual assault, some victims are left wondering whether digital penetration or forced oral sex counts or that they should get over it because "it could have been worse." Additionally, the study reported the numbers from different categories of assault. The 1 in 4 is inclusive; but that number is broken down in the report.
- The concern by some students that the study was too explicit in its description of sexual assault is connected to the confusion I speak of above regarding the question of "what counts." It is also concerning because it speaks to how difficult it is to actually talk about and describe what happens in actual sexual assault. And if people find that difficult to do in an anonymous survey....There are clearly implications here about the difficulties of reporting and the need for really good training for those who are handling reports provided by victims.
Before I write what I am going to write, I want to acknowledge that this study is a good thing in that it attempts to discover patterns about what is happening on campuses. There has been critique that the schools that participated do not have to release the findings particular to their campuses. (Some of them have and will.) But the goal of the AAU study was not to condemn or humiliate individual schools, it was to discover the proverbial bigger picture. School themselves should be going beyond quantitative surveys with low response rates and response bias. They should always be in the process of assessing the campus climate.
That being said: does it matter that this number is different from the long-reported 1 in 5?
If you told a young woman that she had a 20% chance of being sexually assaulted versus a 25% chance would it make that much of a difference to her? To her parents? 1 in 4 versus 1 in 5. It is not more or less of an epidemic. It is does not (or should not) provide more justification for training programs in bystander intervention.
Perhaps it matters in the way 1 in 5 mattered: to politicians and activists who cite it as a call to action. Maybe if it matters if 1 in 4 means Congress will appropriate more money to hiring OCR staff or if foundations earmark more money for studies of college sexual assault. But I would imagine that every congressional hearing or meeting where this new study and statistic is cited, there will be opponents who say that the number of wrong, the study problematic. And that is what I fear. Because that takes attention away from the likely reality for that one woman, in a group of 4 (or 5 or maybe even 6!) of her female peers, who will--statistically speaking--will be sexually assaulted during her time on campus.