Sex assault surveys not the answer

James Alan Fox and Richard Moran

August 11, 2014

Dozens of colleges and universities are reeling after having been cited by the Education Department for their apparently lax response to allegations of sexual assault. Meanwhile, Congress and the White House are on a moral crusade to eradicate the problem, making constant reference to a troubling statistic: that one in five women are victims of sexual assault during their college years.

What is disturbing about this figure is not just the alarming rate of occurrence, but also the widespread misunderstanding about its source and limitations. The estimated 19% sexual assault rate among college women is based on a survey at two large four-year universities, which might not accurately reflect our nation's colleges overall.

In addition, the survey had a large non-response rate, with the clear possibility that those who had been victimized were more apt to have completed the questionnaire, resulting in an inflated prevalence figure.

Moreover, the definition of sexual assault used in this and other studies was too broad, including unwanted touching and sexual encounters while intoxicated. A small percentage actually rose to the level of forcible rape. By lumping uninvited advances and alcohol/drug-influenced encounters together with forcible rape, the problem can appear more severe than it really is, creating alarm when cool heads are required.

Unreliable methods

Given the growing concern over sexual assault and the campus response, the Senate has moved to confront the issue. If the Senate has its way, the government will soon initiate an annual online survey of students from every college in the U.S. Unfortunately, of all means of collecting survey data, online methods are the most vulnerable to response bias.

What makes this ill-conceived survey of such concern is that the results are to be publicly released, with rates reported for individual schools. This carries significant implications for admissions and retention rates, as it is based on data of highly questionable validity. Indeed, flawed data are sometimes worse than no data at all.

Questioning the wisdom of an online survey does not mean that the problem isn't serious and worthy of enhanced efforts to protect victims.

On the contrary, colleges must do a better job of investigating allegations of sexual assault, while remaining sensitive to the traumatized victim; they must also be attentive to the due process rights of the accused.

In addition, colleges should educate students about the meaning, contributing behavioral factors, and consequences of sexual assault in all forms. Students need to know how alcohol affects cognitive functions, lowering men's inhibitions while reducing a woman's ability to recognize danger signs and resist unwanted advances. Men need to know that intoxication, even if voluntary, can negate legal consent, leaving them responsible for whatever happens in the bedroom.

Educate men and women

Colleges should coach young women to be aware of risk factors that increase the likelihood of sexual assault. The sizable majority of undergraduate victims of sexual assault had voluntarily used alcohol or drugs, rather than having unwittingly ingested a date rape drug.

The responsibility is not just on college officials. Students, men and women both, need to be guardians of their peers. Friends don't let friends drive — or "hook up" — while drunk.

Just as there are repeat sex offenders, there are repeat victims. Research has shown that prior victimization is a significant risk factor for future victimization. Having been raped before college increases the odds of being raped at college. Similarly, having been a drug- or alcohol-incapacitated victim of sexual assault before college increases one's chances of a similar experience during college. Colleges that teach these risk factors are not blaming the victim but empowering students to avoid sexual assault.

Rather than waste resources on some misguided national survey of campus sexual assault, the government can and should evaluate and recommend model programs for educating young adults. Discrediting and punishing colleges based on flawed data would not be effective in addressing the risks and consequences of sexual assault, and could even backfire by placing schools in a defensive, rather than proactive, posture.

We should assist colleges, not assail them.

James Alan Fox, a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors, is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University. Richard Moran is professor of sociology at Mount Holyoke College.

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