According to some statistics, sexual assault is virtually nonexistent at U.S. colleges and universities. An Inside Higher Ed survey of hundreds of college presidents last year found that only 6 percent of respondents believe it’s prevalent on their respective campuses. And according to a recent American Association of University Women (AAUW) analysis of newly released Education Department data, the vast majority of colleges and universities in the U.S.—91 percent—reported zero incidents of rape last year.
Few would doubt that these numbers seriously underestimate how often sexual assault happens in college. After all, it’s conventional wisdom that, nationally, one in five female students will experience sexual violence before graduating. “If the data was accurate it’d be something to celebrate, but we know it's not accurate,” Lisa M. Maatz, the AAUW’s vice president of government relations, said earlier this month, commenting on the AAUW’s revelation.
The problem is that every statistic about campus sexual assault seems to be contradicted or challenged by another one. According to the results of a campus-climate survey released last October, Stanford University, for example, found that just 2 percent of respondents had experienced sexual assault since starting their degrees at the university, while another 14 percent had been subject to another form of sexual misconduct. Several activists were quick to condemn the university’s report as incomplete, “misleading,” and even “dangerous,” outrage that got the attention of a small handful of news organizations. A Buzzfeed report on the controversy pointed to separate data showing that 43 percent of the college’s undergraduate women had experienced a serious incident of sexual wrongdoing.