The Washington Post this week defended its recent claim that, yes, 20 percent of college women will be sexually assaulted during their time in school, basing this confident assertion on new poll numbers gleaned by the Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. While the poll provoked a lot of "see, we told you so" from various media—the one-in-five number, debated since the early '90s, has become a major rallying cry again of late—others have criticized the poll's broad definition of sexual assault and the accompanying article's framing, which relied on the same bait-and-switch linguistics that plagues so much campus-rape research and reporting these days.
One in five women "say they were violated," the Post headline trumpets, going on to note in the first paragraph that by "violated" the paper means "sexually assaulted." The third paragraph tells us that 25 percent of college women and 7 percent of college men said they were victims of "unwanted sexual incidents in college," and in reality the "circle of victims on the nation's campuses is probably even larger," because many spoke of attempted attacks or suspected someone of violating them while they were incapacitated but weren't sure.
After indicting campus drinking, "hookup" culture, and Greek life for these numbers and stressing that "violence is widespread but rarely reported to the authorities," it isn't until around the 15th paragraph that the feature bothers defining what is meant by sexual assault ("unwanted sexual conduct" is never defined):
The poll defined sexual assault to include five types of unwanted contact: forced touching of a sexual nature, oral sex, vaginal sexual intercourse, anal sex and sexual penetration with a finger or object.
After they were read this definition, 5 percent of men and 20 percent of women said they had been sexually assaulted in college. Their assailants used force or threats of force, or they attacked while their victims were incapacitated.
But even here, the Post is dissembling a little. A look directly at the poll questions and results shows about 5 percent of students, including 9 percent of women and 1 percent of men, answer yes when asked if they have been victims of "unwanted sexual contact that involved force or threats of force."
About 9 percent of students, including 14 percent of women and 4 percent of men, say they were exposed to sexual contact when they were "unable to provide consent or stop what was happening because [they] were incapacitated." The poll did not define "incapacitated" to respondents here, but primed the question by explaining that it was "about your experiences with unwanted sexual contact … because you were passed out, drugged, or drunk, incapacitated, or asleep," and shouldn't exclude times "that you voluntarily consumed alcohol or drugs."
(The survey also asked about sexual contact established through "threats of nonphysical punishment, such as being fired from a job or damaging your reputation, or by making promises of rewards, such as raising a grade or inviting you to a party." Three percent overall, including 1 percent of men and 4 percent of women, said they had experienced this, but it was not taken into account when determining the 20 percent figure.)
Pollsters never actually asked a question about forced sexual touching or penetration that received a 20 percent "yes" rate from female students. And in the various questions the Post used to cobble together this figure, sexual assault was characterized in several different ways, from forced intercourse to any disfavored sexual contact after students had been drinking.
In the followup article, Scott Clement points out that "experiencing unwanted sexual contact was not the only requirement for an assault to be counted—respondents had to say the contact was either by physical force or threat or while they were unable to give consent" (because of having consumed alcohol or drugs, etc.). But within the categories Clement lays out, as in the original poll questions, there's a world of experiential variance possible. Did the "incapacitated" sexual contact happen after a victim was slipped some sort of drug, had been drinking to the point of passing out, or after they only had a few beers? Did the forceful "unwanted sexual contact" include being pinned down and raped, or grabbed by the arm at a party and pulled in for an undesired kiss? The poll gives all these experiences equal claim to the mantle of "sexual assault," defining as victims people who wouldn't necessarily define themselves that way.
In yesterday's defense, Clement noted that in follow-up interviews with 50 students, "few of those cases suggested that there had been only casual physical contact misconstrued as something sexual." But I don't think the fear is that the numbers reflect misinterpreted non-sexual touch. It's more that mutually-drunken encounters or mistaken advances—the perhaps overly agressive party kiss (which was what led to one of the claims against Columbia student Paul Nungesser), someone trying to take a makeout session to third-based without explicitly asking first—are being redefined as rape, and accorded the same status as more sustained, intentional, or explicit uninvited contact. Misconstrued signals, momentary lapses of judgement, and the awkward stuff of sexual and romantic liaisons immemorial are elevated to the malicious and criminal here—not based on the perceptions of those involved even but on the dispassionate categorization of pollsters.
In a 2014 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey in which respondents were directly asked whether they'd been victims of rape or sexual assault, female college students reported a rate of 6.1 incidents per 1,000, or about 0.6 percent. Clement explains that the Post didn't want to simply rely on self-reported rapes and assaults because "being sexually assaulted is not akin to being mugged or shot. Individuals have different understandings of what sexual assault means, and they might be unclear about whether their experience represented a crime. They might not even feel like they were victimized."
But if someone doesn't feel at all victimized by a particular incident, who is anyone to tell them that they were? And why are statistics based on this third-party categorization of experience supposed to be more "real" than those based on self-reported assessments?
By the Post poll definitions, I would be among those counted as a sexual assault victim and so would many other male and female friends of mine. Yet none of us consider ourselves victims of past sexual violence, not in the slightest. Lumping us (and everyone like us) into statistics on sexual assault victims distorts the picture significantly, and it's hard to fathom justification for such statistical sleights-of-hand that doesn't rely on wanting to inflate campus rape numbers.
We see a similar thing happen with statistics and stories about sex trafficking in America. The more ordinary prostitution is redefined as "sex trafficking," the more it looks like sex trafficking is on the rise and reaching epidemic proportions. Sex workers who object to being classified as victims are seen by those in power not as people who might have something valid to say about their own experiences but people who have been so victimized they can't even see they're victims and must be reeducated by the state about their victimhood. (For a great example, see this recent article out of Arizona, where victims advocate Brian Steele says that the first step "to recovery" for sex workers is teaching them "to see themselves as victims," and the director of Arizona's Anti-Trafficking Network points out happily that "you're going to have more victims as a result.")
People frequently ask: What's the harm? If sex trafficking is such a horrid crime, who cares if advocates sensationalize the stories or inflate the numbers a little? If rape is such a horrific crime—and one that's historically been denied or dealt with atrociously—why quibble over whether it's one in five or one in 150? If attention to an issue is good, more attention is better; if stressing the urgency of a problem is key, exaggerating the urgency of a problem can't hurt. It's for a good cause, and only someone who wants to downplay the seriousness of sexual assault (or make a name for themselves as a contrarian) would want to parse stats and stories or speak in anything other than black and white terms.
But that's utter baloney—and worse, it's baloney that harms the very causes these advocates claim to care about. Arguably, nothing has done more to set back activism around rape issues than the recent unraveling of high-profile "assault" cases from Rolling Stone magazine and the documentary The Hunting Ground (among others). When media and activists set out to highlight the most sensational examples, rather than most representative ones, they're bound to attract (and be attracted to) fabulists and sociopaths. The unraveling of these stories, the sketchy stats—it pushes a lot of people to question the need for such rhetorical hyperbole if the issue really is so serious or prevalent.
The biggest disservice here, however, has nothing to do with the so-called court of public opinion. It's more a matter of tailoring solutions, which can't be done effectively when we have no conception of the actual scope of a problem. You can't fix what you don't understand.
For instance, when you think sex trafficking is perpetuated by uber-Bad Guys who kidnap and confine their victims, it makes sense to approach the issue from a law enforcement perspective (more cops! More money for cops! Longer prison sentences for offenders!). If you realize that the majority of U.S. sex trafficking cases invole women in bad circumstances (runaway teens, domestic violence victims, drug addicts) who turn to sex work out of desperation and fall under the influence of someone controlling, exploitative, or opportunistically violent, the solutions start to look a lot different; instead of raiding strip clubs and conducting "john stings," maybe we could invest in more low-income drug-treatment centers or emergency shelters.
When it comes to campus rape solutions, too, context matters. A college where unknown assailants were preying on students via violence and force would approach the issue differently than one where most campus rapes were pepetuated by acquaintances. It's not controversial that the theoretical rapist lurking in the bushes and the rapist sitting across the dining-hall table will require different approaches in order to thwart. So why is it so supposedly uncouth to dare address different degrees of unwanted sexual experience?
Reading over the "survivor's stories" the Post compiled, I was struck by how many (from both women and men) involved some variation on 1) sexual contact starts mutually, 2) one party wants to stop or not go any further, 3) the hesitant party "freezes" and says or does nothing. (Many did not label their experience rape or assault, though the Post did.) Some people took issue with me pointing this out—don't I know there are no perfect victims? Don't I know people react to rape in different ways? All of which is very true, and useful to keep in mind! But I refuse to buy in that someone can give no indication whatsoever that they are disinterested in a sexual experience and afterward claim that it was assault.
This doesn't mean we shouldn't teach young people that good sexual etiquette means paying attention to your partner's non-verbal cues. We should also focus on teaching young people, especially young women, to assert their own sexual parameters and wishes confidently. It seems as much as anything, we've got an epidemic of young people who don't feel comfortable saying no. But none of these solutions are furthered by pretending that these sorts of situations are what people are, or should be, addressing when they're talking about campus rape. Lumping these people into the category of "sexual assault victims" may help make a point, but it doesn't help people, who require solutions tailored to actual realities and not the blurry-edged propaganda versions of them.
Which would you rather be: a victim of sexual assault who finds a friendly university administration and community, or someone who has never been or felt like a victim of sexual assault at all? The narrative and solutions we're building around campus rape may help with the former, but at the expense of funneling in a lot of people from the latter category.