How Many Women Are Really Assaulted On Campus?

The prevalence of sexual assault is always difficult to gauge due the extremely low rate of reporting, especially on college campuses. However, a new poll from The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation now backs up the statistic that one in five college women is sexually assaulted. And it's not the first in the recent months to back up the long-cited stat, either.

The fact that one in five female college students is sexually assaulted while at school was first cited by a Department of Justice study in 2007. However, as The Washington Post themselves pointed out last year, the department's methodology was not the strongest — the number was based on a single survey among students at only two universities, and it didn't have the highest response rate. So while it wouldn't be fair to say the stat was definitely wrong, it also wasn't the most reliable piece of evidence, either.

Now, though, the Post has conducted their own poll with the Kaiser Family Foundation, one that was conducted over the phone with over 1,000 randomly selected men and women between the ages of 17 and 26 who were currently enrolled in a four year college. All told, participants "attended more than 500 colleges and universities, public and private, large and small, elite and obscure, located in every state and the District of Columbia." So a pretty wide sample.

And what did they find? That after being read a definition of sexual assault that included "forced touching of a sexual nature, oral sex, vaginal sexual intercourse, anal sex and sexual penetration with a finger or object," 20 percent of women and five percent of men in the poll said they had been sexually assaulted while in college.

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The Post writes,

The Post-Kaiser poll, one of the most comprehensive to date on an issue roiling the nation’s colleges, provides evidence that sexual assault is often connected to factors woven deeply into campus culture. Most notably, two-thirds of victims say they had been drinking alcohol just before the incidents.

Other potential risk factors, the poll found, are casual romantic encounters known as “hookups” and the presence on campus of fraternities and sororities.

This poll is also consistent with other recent studies of campus sexual assault, including one from MIT last fall in which 17 percent of female undergraduate reported having experienced some form of sexual assault; one from Harvard last month showing 14 percent of female seniors said they had been assaulted; and one from this year conducted at an upstate New York university in which 19 percent of women said they had been assaulted during their freshman year alone.

The Post-Kaiser poll, however, is a national poll, and therefore carries even more weight. As activists have long suspected, sexual assault on campus is a widespread and pervasive problem (particularly, though not exclusively for women), and it's great that we are slowly acquiring more and more evidence to back up those claims. Because even though statistics on sexual assault are difficult to ascertain for certain, the more information we get, the better we are able to approach the problem — and to make clear that there is indeed a problem.

So as much as it sucks that the rate of sexual assault really is that high, it's good that the numbers behind the statistics are getting more and more substantial.

Image: Getty