It’s not easy being the Messiah du jour, especially when there are so many emotions at play, but one would have thought that Oberlin educated Neil Barsky could control his urges long enough to gain some cred, if not protect his non-profit status, before losing control. Nope. It was less than a month ago when it debuted by attacking criminal defense lawyers as the bane of the system, but it has now gone for naked advocacy with Dana Goldstein’s post on dueling data on campus rape.
On Monday Emily Yoffe published a long piece in Slate arguing that the Obama administration and college officials have become overwrought in their concern about campus sexual assaults. Yoffe heaped particular scorn on one of the common talking points in the campus rape debate: the claim that one-fifth of all female students have been victimized.
Of the many things Emily Yoffe did, heaping scorn was not among them. If anything, Yoffe’s post was as neutral and unladen by colored adjectives as anything ever written on the subject. Goldstein’s use of words that carry a negative connotation is not accidental.
A federal report released today seems, at first glance, to back Yoffe. It estimates that fewer than one percent of women aged 18 to 24, and even fewer female college students — .6 percent — have been raped or sexually assaulted.
So Goldstein is reporting a new report that confirms that the pervasively reported statistics are, and always have been, utter nonsense? Not exactly.
What accounts for the phenomenal gap? And is the “one-in-five” claim as wildly off the mark as Yoffe implies? Maybe not. The two studies are based on surveys that asked different questions of different populations under different circumstances. And while Yoffe accurately pointed out the limitations of the “one-in-five” study, the .6 percent estimate has its own set of serious shortcomings. In short: don’t take either number as gospel.
Wait. The federal report says .6% of female college students have been raped or sexually assaulted, so the story in breaking the news of the report is “maybe not”?
The report released today by the Department of Justice is based on the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which relies on interviews with 160,000 Americans over the age of 12. The survey asks respondents if they are attending college, and classifies everyone who says “yes” as a college student, even if they are enrolled solely in online courses or spend only a few hours per week on an actual campus.
Well, that’s going to raise some very serious questions about . . . oh, wait. 160,000? That’s a pretty good sample. Actually, that’s a huge sample. The larger the sample, the more valid the survey, and this one is pretty big. But what of the fact that the survey included “attending college” as “enrolled solely in online courses or spend only a few hours per week on an actual campus”? Well, that is “attending college,” but more to the point, with a sample size that large and the relative numbers of students “attending college” strongly skewed in favor of full-time, on-campus students as opposed to online or “a few hours,” because that’s where the people are, what difference would this make in the outcome? Assuming all “attending college” respondents were full-time, on-campus, and every single one of them claimed to be raped, it would up the percentage by one point?
Edit: Apparently, the head-to-head comparison shows that students in college are less likely to be raped or sexually assaulted, so the campus numbers excluding those college outsiders would likely be lower, not higher.
Still, there are advantages to the CSA approach. Although its sample is small, it is tightly focused on full-time students at traditional brick-and-mortar universities. Full-time students who live on campus are the students at the center of the national conversation about college sexual assault. Previous research shows that female students who live in dorms or sorority houses are more likely to be sexually assaulted than female students who live with parents or in off-campus residences. The CSA may have come up with a higher estimate of victimization, in part, because its student respondents at traditional colleges were more vulnerable.
So ignore the study with a huge sample size in favor of a study with a miniscule sample size, because maybe it could possibly make a tiny difference? Except the CSA study wasn’t only monumentally flawed because of its size, but because it neglected to make the necessary definitional distinction to merit credibility.
Yoffe critiques the CSA for asking respondents about low-level sexual assaults, including “rubbing up against you in a sexual way, even if it is over your clothes.” The NCVS also inquires about a broad range of sex crimes, ranging from rape to unwanted touching. Where the two surveys differ is in how specific and graphic their questions are. The NCVS simply asks if respondents have been the victims of “rape” or have been forced to engage in “unwanted sexual activity” such as “grabbing, fondling, etc.”
The fault with the NCVS study is that it involves, you know, actual, if similarly vague, touching?
The CSA is much more detailed. It inquires about sexual penetration with body parts or objects in specific orifices. It also prompts women to reflect on whether they have ever had sex while they were unable to consent due to being “passed out, drugged, drunk, incapacitated, or asleep.” By excluding questions about the victim’s substance use, the NCVS may have missed some crimes. Separate research suggests 44 percent of American college students binge drink, and that binge drinking is associated with unwanted sexual contact.
Aha! Finally a difference we can sink our teeth into, the NCVS didn’t specifically mention drunk (which can happen to college students), so respondents may have assumed it only meant rapes while stone sober, as opposed to the CSA which meant rape after both students had a few beers, which means the female student is not responsible for her actions and the male student in otherwise consensual sex raped her. Well then. What comes of this ridiculously strained attempt to spin a valid study, in contrast to one that has been so thoroughly debunked as to render anyone attempting to use it to bolster the campus rape hysteria (yes, President Obama, that would mean you), is that Goldstein has forsaken any claim, either for herself or as a representation of the Messiah du jour, of fairness or neutral credibility in an effort to play spinmeister for the forces of campus rape advocacy. The fact of this new National Crime Victimization Survey is huge, which explains why no one is talking about it. That the Marshall Project spent its political capital attempting to negate its findings reflects the sad but clear fact that it’s engaged in banal feminist advocacy, no matter what its press release says.
Update: Via Pete Metrinko, The Hill notes the NCVS study with the headline “DOJ: 80 percent of campus rapes unreported.” This is a logical fallacy. While the negative results of a survey, that respondents state they were not raped or assaulted, produces a valid response, the positive response, that they were raped or sexually assaulted, does not prove the claim that they were. They may feel that they were, but rape and sexual assault are crimes, that exist upon conviction.
Had the headline read, “80 percent of claimed campus rapes (or sexual assaults) unreported,” it would be accurate. That said, the use of that headline in light of the report is absurd and reflects unmitigated bias.
Update 2: Mark Bennett has tried his hand at re-crunching the numbers, using assumptions (such as 90% of all rapes and sexual assaults go unreported) that are far more generous than reason would suggest is appropriate, multiplied the numbers by 5 to assume that it is cumulative over a 5 year college career, the best he can come up with is a rate of 3.5%. Interestingly, he notes:
The “one in five” number will probably never go away. It’s been challenged and debunked before, and still it gets trotted out as gospel truth. But the actual numbers are much smaller and would be smaller still if respondents got to define “sexual victimization” themselves.
When I first read this, I thought Mark had it backwards, but surprisingly to me, it turned out to be counterintuitive:
What the studies have done is said, in effect, “sexual victimization includes an unwanted come-on,” defining sexual victimization more broadly than people define it in everyday life. “[I]n a comparable survey, the federally sponsored 2007 Campus Sexual Assault study, two-thirds of the women classified as victims of drug- or alcohol-induced rape and 37 percent of those counted as forcibly raped did not consider the event to be a crime.”
In other words, the studies are broader and more expansive as to what constitutes “sexual victimization” than normal respondents would be if left to their own definitions. Most women would not include an “unwarned come-on” as sexual victimization, but rather as something that just happens in the ordinary course of life and no big deal.