Culture

The “1 In 4 Women Will Be Sexually Assaulted In College” Statistic Is Actually A Lie

By Jaimee Marshall··  11 min read
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The “1 In 4 Women Will Be Sexually Assaulted In College” Statistic Is Actually A Lie shutterstock

The United States is not a rape culture. I understand this is an unpopular and provocative opinion, but hear me out.

For years, powerful and influential organizations, activists, institutions, and even the president of the United States have touted the idea that “rape culture” is a widespread problem in this country.

We’re told that it’s ingrained into the very fabric of our society, especially where our youth spend what’s supposed to be the best four years of their lives – college. However, when we further examine what it means to live in a rape culture and break down the dishonest statistics surrounding sexual assault on college campuses, you’ll find that the reality of the situation is very different from the rhetoric surrounding it.

Defining Rape Culture

Rape culture is understood as the idea that rape and sexual violence, particularly against women, is normalized, excused, and encouraged within popular culture and the larger society. Activists often point to the objectification of women in media, widespread cases of sexual assault, questioning the legitimacy of survivors’ accusations, and the acquittal of rapists and other sexual predators as evidence of rape culture.

In the U.S. and the broader West, sexual assault is in no way tolerated, encouraged, or promoted. We fire rapists from their jobs, send them to jail, expel them from university, and make them social pariahs, sometimes based only on an accusation. While sexual assault and inappropriate sexual behavior does happen (which is awful and we should be taking steps to reduce levels of sexual assault as much as possible), it’s another thing entirely to say we live in a rape culture.

In the U.S., sexual assault is in no way tolerated, encouraged, or promoted.

Demanding evidence and questioning the events leading up to an alleged rape or sexual assault is not victim-blaming. America has the highest rate of incarceration in the entire world. Countless people have been imprisoned based on false accusations, whether that be for a sexual, violent, or drug crime. Demanding that we lower the standard for the burden of proof would create a society most of us wouldn’t want to live in.

Do We Live in a Culture That Encourages Inappropriate Sexual Behavior?

Many activists will stop me here to refute my dismissal of rape culture and say that I’m mischaracterizing what is meant when people use the term “rape culture.” While society may not explicitly condone rape or sexual assault, surely it conditions men to believe they’re entitled to women’s bodies and conditions women to believe that being violated is their fault, which are factors that directly contribute to the problem. Is this true, though?

I often see signs, Twitter bios, and other slogans condemning the tendency to say “boys will be boys” and “she was asking for it.” The problem with these slogans is that no one actually holds these positions. It’s merely a strawman of the backward society that pits everything on women and lets men get away with rape that no longer exists.

How does the fact that inappropriate behavior occurs constitute a rape culture when every facet of the culture explicitly condemns and punishes it, regarding it as one of the most heinous crimes imaginable? These claims are incompatible with what we see from our media, educational systems, and courts.

Does #MeToo Corroborate Rape Culture?

High-profile cases such as Harvey Weinstein and Larry Nassar have awoken a movement in which survivors of sexual assault feel it’s time that women are heard. Powerful, wealthy men got away with abusing and traumatizing countless women for years while many people in these industries were aware of what was going on. Does this corroborate the assertion that we live in a rape culture?

The only thing this demonstrates is that those in positions of power and money aren’t held to the same standards as the rest of us. These men have been outed, imprisoned, and their reputations are forever tarnished. While it took far too long to bring them to justice, it’s because we live in a culture that abhors sexual violence (or any violation of one’s sexual autonomy) that the whistle was blown on these vile men and that they’ll live the rest of their lives in a prison cell.

Those in positions of power and money aren’t held to the same standards as the rest of us. 

The women who came forward to tell their stories were brave, there’s no question about that. However, the #MeToo movement has also led to public lynchings, false accusations, and attacks on due process. If we should learn anything from these high-profile cases, it’s that rich bad men are upheld when good people stand by and do nothing.

Manipulated Statistics and Bad Studies: “1 in 4 Women Are Sexually Assaulted”

Even more problematic than disingenuous arguments is the manipulation of statistics to fearmonger and put public pressure on college campuses, as well as the law, to weaken due process based on hearsay. We’ve all heard the ever-so-popular claim that “1 in 4 women will be raped during college.” Sometimes the statistic is regarded as 1 in 5 and the “while in college” is completely left out.

It’s commonly propagated by news media and politicians who use it as an excuse to push their agendas into universities and through Congress, completely ignorant of its origin. The truth is, the 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 statistic comes from studies that rely on online surveys that ask a series of questions relating to self-reported sexual assault. The Association of American Universities (AAU) conducted the Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct in 2015.

Students spanning 27 different universities were surveyed about their experiences with sexual assault while in college. The study came away with the conclusion that 1 in 4 college seniors reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact since they entered college. However, it suffers from a flawed methodology and a non-response bias, as those who have been sexually assaulted are more likely to participate in the survey.

The authors of the study themselves warned that the methodology was flawed.

Only 19.3% of the 779,170 students offered the survey filled it out. The questions asked to determine if students had been sexually assaulted ranged from questions about forced penetration to questions about unwanted touching, hugging, or rubbing against someone.

While any sort of unwanted contact of a sexual nature can be deemed sexual assault, there are certainly varying degrees, yet all of these experiences were lumped together. The authors of the study themselves warned that the methodology was flawed and was a non-representative sample of people that could not be extrapolated to anything beyond their very narrow frame. However, this hasn’t stopped the public from weaponizing these statistics to further their own agendas.

Relevant Stats on Sexual Assault

The most reliable data available on the rates of sexual assault come from the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice statistics from 1995-2013 which have found that 1 in 53 college women will be sexually assaulted during college. They also found that the rate of both rape and sexual assault was 1.2 times higher for women who did not attend college. According to data from the FBI, overall rates of sexual assault and rape have been on a steady decline for a few decades.

The Justice Department found that 1 in 53 college women will be sexually assaulted during college.

These stats are still way too high. Ideally, no one would ever be sexually assaulted. However, the situation is vastly different from the propaganda we constantly hear about this topic. 1 in 53 is not the same as 1 in 4. This is not to trivialize sexual assault or say that it never happens. What I am saying is that believing you have a 1.89% chance of getting cancer would garner different behavior than the belief that you have a 25% chance of getting cancer.

Should You Believe All Women?

The push to “believe all women” treads on toxic and dangerous territory. It purports that women always tell the truth and that men are always guilty. Of course, this is not always the case. We’ve seen the devastating consequences it can have on the livelihood of those who are condemned by these witch hunts.

One prominent case of the many that I can name comes to mind – the since-retracted story published by Rolling Stone in 2014 detailing a brutal gang rape of a freshman college student at UVA by the fraternity Phi Kappa Psi. The only problem? The writer never verified that the events ever happened and used the alleged victim Jackie as their sole source without corroborating details from other sources. The story was retracted six months after its publication and no one was initially fired following the revelation that the story was defamatory.

Rolling Stone has since settled millions of dollars in defamation lawsuits to many different parties, including the school’s dean, the fraternity, and specific members of the fraternity. They’ve stated that they had been too accommodating of Jackie because she claimed to be a victim of a horrendous crime and did not want to retraumatize her by pushing for evidence of her claims and failed to uphold journalistic integrity. It was belief in rape culture rhetoric that led to the editor’s confirmation bias with no regard to those who were falsely accused.

Kangaroo Courts on College Campuses

In 2011, a disturbing dismantling of due process swept through the nation’s college campuses. The Office of Civil Rights sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter to all college campus administrators and detailed how they ought to deal with cases of sexual assault going forward under Title IX.

It essentially repealed all forms of due process for the accused, including the right to confront their accuser, provide evidence of their innocence, and challenge evidence presented by the college. The accused were also not entitled to a hearing and witnesses would not have to be cross-examined nor was there any sworn oath or punishment for lying.

The accused did not have the right to see the evidence in or against their favor and the evidence collected could not be challenged. The burden of proof required to determine the guilt of the accused was also lowered from the higher standard used in the court of law – beyond a reasonable doubt – to a preponderance of guilt, meaning it’s merely more likely than not that the sexual assault happened. The person who decides the fate of the accused only needs to be 50.01% sure that they committed the crime rather than almost certain.

From 2011-2017, almost all forms of due process for the accused were repealed on college campuses.

To make matters worse, the panel that oversaw the hearing (when there was one) was made up of Title IX coordinators and administrators whose interest was to keep Title IX funding. Sometimes one person would decide the fate of the accused, acting as both investigator and prosecution.

While former education secretary Betsy Devos rescinded the letter in 2017 and proposed a new set of procedures that required minimal protections for the accused, it caused an uproar of condemnation from the public accusing her of silencing survivors. The Biden administration, after facing public pressure, has issued an executive order to roll back the Trump administration’s Title IX changes with the fate of these protections now up in the air.

Closing Thoughts

Unfortunately, the rape culture rhetoric propagated by so many in popular culture has led to a host of well-intentioned cases of overreach, where simply being accused of a crime can have your entire life dismantled. Cautioning for a little responsibility in how we handle these situations leads to unproductive outrage from mobs demanding that someone pay.

Shady campus kangaroo courts, irresponsible reporting, and manipulated statistics have done irreparable damage to the sacred value of due process in American society. Rape cultures do exist in other parts of the world – places where not only do rapists not face justice but where victims are shamed, punished, or sometimes killed.

Being raped in other parts of the world is viewed as shameful, as bringing dishonor upon your family, and can result in victims being forced to marry their rapists. That doesn’t happen here because the United States is not a rape culture – and that’s something to be celebrated.

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