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Conservatives Are Obsessed With Debunking the 1-in-5 Rape Statistic. They're Wrong, Too.

A report from the Independent Women's Forum, where facts are stupid things

Christopher Ruppel/Getty

The Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative non-profit, hosted a panel Thursday called “An Honest Conversation about ‘Rape Culture’ and Sexual Violence.” Instead, it was a conversation about whether "rape culture" exists, as several panelists targeted a statistic the Obama administration used in its April report on campus sexual assault: that one in five women is sexually assaulted in college.

That statistic is partly why the panel was convened in the first place. Nationally syndicated columnist George Will doubted the number in a recent opinion piece where he also mocked the "supposed campus epidemic of rape, a.k.a. 'sexual assault.'" In response to the backlash against Will—The St. Louis Dispatch dropped his column—the Independent Women’s Forum organized this supposed “straight talk” panel. After moderator Sabrina Schaeffer introduced the four panelists, Christina Hoff Sommers, a former philosophy professor best known for her critiques of late-twentieth-century feminism, began by challenging the legitimacy of the “one in five” statistic.

“Inflated statistics lead to ineffective policies and worse than that, they can breed panic and overreaction,” Sommers said, “and that’s what I think we have right now. I believe that the rape culture movement is fueled by exaggerated claims of intimacy and a lot of paranoia about men.” 

The statistic is based on a study by the U.S. Department of Justice from 2005 to 2007, when researchers conducted an anonymous web-based survey at two large public universities (one in the Midwest and one in the South). Of 5,446 women between the ages of 18 and 25 who responded (a response rate of about 42 percent), about 19 percent reported experiencing an attempted or completed sexual assault since entering college—12.6 percent reported an attempted sexual assault and 13.7 percent reported an actual sexual assault (there was some overlap). The study’s definition of sexual assault also included non-rape acts.

Therefore, based on this survey, only 13.7 percent of women respondents had been sexually assaulted. However, these survey results included freshmen, sophomores, and juniors. In 2009, researchers released a more complete analysis of the data, which showed that of senior women who responded, 19 percent had experienced an actual sexual assault. Hence the Obama administration's assertion that one in five women is sexually assaulted in college.

Panelists Stuart Taylor, the co-author of Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Caseand Cathy Young, a commentator on feminist issues, also attacked the statistic in their remarks, but Sommers focused solely on it. She pointed to the survey’s relatively small sample size and low response rate, cautioning against extrapolating its findings to all women on all college campuses. And she said there are “striking similarities” between "rape culture" and #YesAllWomen today and the daycare sexual-abuse hysteria in the 1980s. “It appears to me we are in the throes of one of those panics where paranoia, censorship, false accusations flourish,” Sommers said. But Sommers gave no statistics about these false accusations, and neither did Taylor when he spoke of them, instead using five examples of accused men who filed lawsuits against the colleges that found them guilty. When I spoke with him after the event, he said he didn’t know of any studies on the prevalence of false sexual-assault accusations, instead referencing a list of 22 such lawsuits aggregated by the Community of the Wrongly Accused.

Other studies have found similar sexual-assault rates on college campuses. Politifact, the Tampa Bay Times fact-checking website, analyzed the legitimacy of the one in five statistic. Reporter Steve Contorno found that other studies have reported results similar to the DOJ study. A 2007 national survey by the Medical University of South Carolina included 2,000 college women, and found that 11.5 percent of women attending college had been raped (including 5.2 percent in the past year), similar to the number of women in the DOJ's survey, which found that 3.4 percent of women were victims of forced rape and 8.5 percent experienced incapacitated rape (the university’s study did not analyze non-rape sexual assault). And a 2010 Center for Disease Control report found that nearly one in five women are raped in their lifetime, while almost 45 percent experience non-rape sexual violence.

CDC Stats
Center for Disease Control 2010.

Mercifully, the panel’s final speaker, Andrea Bottner—a lawyer and the director of the Office of International Women’s Issues during the Bush administration—deviated from the three conservatives before her. “I’m not as outraged about the White House’s use of these numbers,” she said. “Frankly, I think it’s the wrong statistic to be focusing on.” Instead, Bottner said we should focus on the 60 percent of U.S. rapes that are never reported. (In fact, based on an analysis of the the U.S. Census Bureau’s National Crime Victimization Survey, the National Research Council reported in November that about 80 percent of sexual assaults go unreported. But close enough.)

Quantifying sexual assault is admittedly challenging—underreporting, varying definitions of assault, and concerns about anonymity make gathering data difficult. But rather than obsess over the "one in five" statistic, Bottner said, the conversation should focus on helping those “suffering in silence” after being sexually assaulted. Her fellow-panelists would be wise to follow suit.