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Sexual Assault on Campus: How Common is it Really?

Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars reports some surprising new statistics on sexual assault in an essay published today. He starts by framing the current debate over whether there is, in fact,  a “rape culture’ on our nation’s college campuses as some allege:

How frequent are sexual assaults on campus? President Obama recently cited the estimate that one in five women enrolled in college suffer sexual assault by the time they graduate. The Bureau of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey, based on reported crimes, put the rate at 1 in 40. Reported crimes inevitably fall short of the actual incidence, but how much short?

The 1-in-5 statistic has prompted a lot of well-argued skepticism, and the figure indeed has a dubious pedigree. It is derived from opinion surveys in which those asking the questions took license to interpret some answers as implying that sexual assaults had occurred even if the respondents didn’t say so. To say the least, there is room for doubt about how good an estimate 1-in-5 really is…

Wood then highlights the research of sociologist Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas, who despite being quite unpopular among the progressive left, has some statistics that seem to back up, to a great extent, the “1 in 5” claim that we’ve grown accustomed to hearing so often from feminists in the realm of higher ed.

Regnerus has been working on a new, very large survey project, “Relationships in America.” It is a nationally-representative study of 15,738 American adults, and it is just a few months old. Regnerus plans to use the data for a book he is working on about young adult sexual behavior. The book is a few years away and his data is unpublished at this point but, at my request, he pulled out of his data the respondents’ answers to a key question, “Have you ever been physically forced to have any type of sexual activity against your will?”

The question doesn’t specify age or circumstance, but it tracks pretty closely with the issue of the hour. To get closer to the question of sexual harassment in college in the recent past, Regnerus focused the data on the 711 women in the study who have a four-year college degree and who are 33 or younger. In this group, 16.5 percent of the women (just about one in six) said yes.

Of course, some of those who said yes could be reporting a post-college sexual assault. To check that, Regnerus cut the sample to 156 women who had at least a four-year degree and were no older than 25. When he did this, the percentage who reported assault ticked up slightly to 18 percent.

Regnerus then went back and checked the data from his earlier study (the one that caused the ruckus over parents in same-sex relationships). He had asked the same question then and in the cohort of 116 women who had a four-year college degree and were no older than 25, he found 19 percent who said they been physically forced to have sexual activity against their will.

In both studies, the data do not allow us to distinguish between assaults that happened in college and assaults that happened at home, in high school, or elsewhere.

These statistics are not bent around anyone’s effort to prove a point. They are available by happy accident. In their light, President Obama’s figures appear to be a slight exaggeration, but close enough…

Click here to read Peter Wood’s full essay at NAS.org.

Much as I attempted to do on this blog last week, Wood tries to step outside the all-or-nothing approach to the argument over the so-called “rape culture” on American college campuses. Radical feminists, we suspect, are too eager to exaggerate the frequency of sexual assault for their own political purposes. Heather Mac Donald and George Will have both pointed out some of the extremes of the left on this issue. But Wood, like myself, seems to think that such exaggerations, where they may exist, shouldn’t cause us to turn a blind eye to the very real and far too common problem of sexual assault on campus.

Most of all, Wood is correct to point out that conservatives ought to be focusing on the real source of the problem, which is the lack of “character development and moral self-governance.” Feminists go about decrying “rape culture” and portraying men as predators and women as victims. Conservatives shouldn’t respond by saying this is a made-up problem. Instead, they ought to expose the elements of college culture that make sexual assault more likely–including the rampant abuse of alcohol, the dominant trend of loveless, relationshipless sex known as the hook up culture, the cultural mainstreaming of hardcore pornography–all problems, mind you, that the radical progressives have no interest in addressing or even acknowledging.

If Regnerus’s numbers are accurate, the truth is we do have a major problem with rape on college campuses. And if that is the case, both liberals and conservatives alike owe it to America’s daughters to face the problem honestly, without denial or exaggeration, and with the willingness to place proper blame on the moral corruption that has ensnared both young men and young women, and which, over the last two decades in particular, has radically altered and debased the sexual culture of which we are all a part.

Nathan Harden is editor of The College Fix and author of the book SEX & GOD AT YALE: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad.

Follow Nathan on Twitter @NathanHarden

(Image: Kijkwijzer.WMC)

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