Conservative Women Argue Sexual Assault Numbers Are Overblown

Some female conservative pundits are questioning the White House's facts on sexual assault — namely, that one in five women will be sexually assaulted by the time they leave college.

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At a press conference last week, Vice President Joe Biden released the White House's recommendations for curbing sexual assault on college campuses. Now, some female conservative pundits are questioning the facts that the White House based its recommendations on — namely, that one in five women will be sexually assaulted by the time they leave college.

On Tuesday, Cathy Young complained in Time that the White House's recommendations are "marred by flaws, including alarmist statistics, fuzzy definitions and a polarizing ideology of presumed guilt." Naomi Schaffer Riley writes in The New York Post today that "liberals" have "embraced the claim that every drunken hookup is rape." Christina Hoff Sommers posits that the one-in-five statistic is "wildly at odds" with national crime reports, in a "Factual Feminist" video for the American Enterprise Institute. All three women agree that sexual assault on campus is a problem. They just don't think it's as much of a problem as the White House and the CDC are making it out to be.

So, where does the one-in-five statistic come from? Riley and Sommers aren't even sure. (A public health professor at the University of Arizona in the '80s? The CDC?) Young was the only one to correctly identify that the statistic comes from the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study, which was conducted for the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice. Researchers surveyed both college men and women ages 18 to 25 at two large public universities — one in the Midwest, and one in the South. They found that among senior women,

Almost 20 percent ... experienced some type of sexual assault since entering college, with 6.9 percent experiencing physically forced sexual assault and 16.0 percent experiencing incapacitated sexual assault.

This is the research that Obama cited in during remarks at the White House in January and Biden cited at the press conference last week. The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler points out that the research isn't definitive — responses to the study were slightly low, and two universities may not be representative of colleges across the country — but it's the most up-to-date study about sexual assaults on college campuses, specifically.

Young, Sommers, and Riley, think the one-in-five statistic is wrong because "incapacitated sexual assault" shouldn't always count as sexual assault. Riley writes that most likely, "there’s been no epidemic of assault but instead a preponderance of sexual encounters fueled by bad judgment and free-flowing alcohol." Young agrees:

A far better solution would be to draw a clear line between forced sex (by violence, threats or incapacitation) and unwanted sex due to alcohol-impaired judgment, miscommunication or verbal pressure. For the former, victims should be encouraged to seek real justice: a rapist deserves prison, not expulsion from college. For the latter, the answer is to promote mutual responsible behavior, not female victimhood.

Sommers says, "few people would say that intoxicated sex alone constitutes rape."

Update, 2:06 pm: Sommers tells The Wire that in her "Factual Feminist" video, she was contesting the accuracy of this CDC study which shows that one-in-five women are raped at some point during their lives. But she does indeed contest the accuracy of the Campus Sexual Assault Study, which she discusses here.

Original: More research should be done to determine the incidence of sexual assault on campus. In fact, one of the White House's recommendations is that each college in America conduct climate surveys to determine the scope of the problem on each individual campus. Sen. Claire McCaskill, who has been pushing for sexual assault reform measures in the military and on campus, is conducting her own sexual assault survey of 350 colleges and universities currently. More information will only help colleges address what is clearly a widespread problem (55 colleges and universities are currently under investigation for mishandling rape cases).

Dismissing sexual assaults involving alcohol, however, is only going to discourage victims from coming forward. You can't get good numbers about a crime if you're committed to proving that crime doesn't really happen.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.