In the present sexual and cultural climate, this question is particularly politicized, as a recent New York Times article vividly brought to our attention.

Just in time comes perhaps the best review of the sexual assault literature, written by Charlene Muehlenhard and colleagues. There are literally thousands of articles on sexual assault experienced by young women, some scholarly and others considerably less so. Muehlenhard has taken the best of these—meaning good samples, good measures, good overall methodology—to review. In this first of a two-part post I summarize their results; the next post addresses critics of the “one-in-five” statistic.

First, their conclusion in their own words: “Based on a review of the studies that most directly addressed this question, one in five (20 percent) is a reasonable estimate of the percentage of undergraduate women sexually assaulted while in college.” They also note that 25 percent might be a better estimate if reflecting the entire four years of college (based on studies that limited their sample to college seniors).

Second, risk varies by campus (some are more dangerous places for women than others, ranging from 13 percent to 30 percent sexual assault rate), year in school (freshman year is the highest), sexual orientation (bisexual women are highest), gender identity (transgender and genderqueer are highest), race (Asian women have the lowest), and disability (with disabilities are highest) status.

Third, there is little evidence that sexual assault has increased over generations—rather, the recent attention given to the reporting of sexual assault accounts for the seeming upsurge. Government policy decisions (both encouraging and discouraging attention to sexual assault on college campuses), lawsuits by young men and their families claiming “wrongful” treatment, and universities being mandated to investigate sexual assault reports have been critical to our current awareness.

Fourth, the prevalence of sexual assault is not notably higher among college students than among high school students—though data on under-18-year-olds are more problematic because of difficulty obtaining parental consent to conduct research.

Fifth, sexual assault is not higher among college women than nonstudents—we just know more about the former because of their accessibility to our research protocols.

Muehlenhard and colleagues are certainly aware that although presenting a one-in-five statistic can be problematic, it also has its advantages. “Summarizing this risk with one number has advantages; it is a concise way to quickly convey the extent of the problem.”

The disadvantages are critical:

One, the statistic is not uniform across women or campuses.

Two, it ignores the ways in which it varies among women, including issues that were not covered in their review: gender expression, personality characteristics, social class, physical appearance, and attire.

Three, the statistic does not indicate how sexual assault is defined.

Four, it does not address the continuum nature of sexual assault. “If sexually coercive behavior is conceptualized as a continuum, the idea of trying to find one statistic reflecting the prevalence of sexual assault becomes less meaningful.”

Five, related to the above—and their concluding statement—is how attending to a single statistic can mislead us in the following manner: “Focusing on a prevalence number implies that there is a clear distinction between sexual assault, which is often assumed to be traumatic, devastating, and life-changing, and other [sexual assault] experiences, which are often assumed to be trivial or acceptable and are left unexamined.”

Despite the evidence, critics of the one-in-five statistic have been persistent, loud, and notable. In my next post I summarize how Muehlenhard and colleagues address their points.

References

Muehlenhard, C. L., Peterson, Z. D., Humphreys, T. P., & Jozkowski, K. N. (online). Evaluating the one-in-five statistic: Women’s risk of sexual assault while in college. Journal of Sex Research. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2017.1295014

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