One of the reasons that Rolling Stone's discredited story about a vicious gang rape at the University of Virginia (UVA) was initially believable is that many of us take it for granted that colleges are a hotbed of sexual assault.
As Sen. Kristen Gillibrand of New York has said, "Women are at a greater risk of sexual assault as soon as they step onto a college campus."
This is simply not true, according to the latest figures on sexual assaults released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Surveying women between the ages of 18 and 24, BJS found that "The rate of rape and sexual assault was 1.2 times higher for nonstudents (7.6 per 1,000) than for students (6.1 per 1,000)." Other findings form the report include:
- For both college students and nonstudents, the offender was known to the victim in about 80% of rape and sexual assault victimizations.
- Most (51%) student rape and sexual assault victimizations occurred while the victim was pursuing leisure activities away from home, compared to nonstudents who were engaged in other activities at home (50%) when the victimization occurred.
- The offender had a weapon in about 1 in 10 rape and sexual assault victimizations against both students and nonstudents.
- Rape and sexual assault victimizations of students (80%) were more likely than nonstudent victimizations (67%) to go unreported to police.
Until the numbers decline to zero, there is no such thing as "good news" in data about rape and sexual assault. However, the trends as measured by BJS are going in the right direction. Between 1997 and 2013, the rate of rape or sexual assault against women dropped by about 50 percent. Again, too high, but going in the right direction. The decline in the rate of sexual assault is part of a widely observed decline in violent crime more generally, which is down about 60 percent over the past 15 to 20 years.
There are many caveats in the data for all sorts of reasons (chief among them is that precisely because most assaults are committed by people known to the victims, the crimes are underreported). But this sort of information is essential to any and all discussions about law enforcement and campus policies related to sexual contact.
Much of the push for the erosion, if not total evisceration, of due process on college campuses comes from the false belief that campuses are uniquely dangerous for women. That not only does a disservice to (mostly male) suspects brought up on charges of abuse and worse, it also discourages women in their academic pursuits and poisons an environment that is already toxic to begin with.
One of the key findings of recent research on sexual offenders is that such acts are not widely dispersed among a general population but are mostly committed by a small number of serial predators. Recognizing that and building it into campus awareness programs aimed at both potential victims and potential witnesses is one way to build better, more equal relations among women and men on campus and off.