07 January 2015

Campus Rape: Numbers, Virginia, and Duke

Stephen Kershnar
Campus Rape by the Numbers
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
January 5, 2015

As of late, campus rape has been all over the news. The media discredited an article by Sabrina Erdely of Rolling Stone on a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity. This followed up a national furor over an alleged gang rape by Duke lacrosse players in 2006. This allegation was proven false. Lena Dunham’s story about rape at Oberlin College turned out to be problematic. President Barack Obama weighed in with the claim that 1 in 5 of women in college (200 per 1,000) have been sexually assaulted while at college. With these swirling stories, let’s consider what we know about campus rape. 

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that from 1995 to 2013, approximately 6 females per 1,000 ages 18 to 24 who were enrolled in college were subject to rape or sexual assault victimization and 2 per 1,000 were raped.

A chilling figure is that 4 of 5 of these rapes or sexual assaults went unreported. Among collegiate women’s reasons for not reporting it were that was a personal matter, they feared reprisal, and they did not want to get the offender in trouble with the law. The last reason is likely related to the fact that the victims knew most of their attackers (78%) and some were intimate partners (24%).

Women who did not attend college were significantly more likely to be raped than women in college, but were also more likely to report it. As a commentator at the Federalist pointed out, this suggests that the notion that colleges and universities are hotbeds of rape culture relative to other parts of our society is incorrect. Women in college are safer from rape than women not in college. Even when women in college are raped, most of the time it doesn’t occur on campus.

There is some good news here. The frequency of rape or sexual assault is dropping sharply for college-age women. My guess is that it is related to the sharp drop in overall crime rates. 

The estimates of the frequency with which women falsely accuse men of rape vary greatly. The most plausible estimates are 2-8% as judged by the government studies in Britain and Australia and by psychologist David Lisak. This is unsurprising because the lower number is in line with false reports of other crimes. Still, 2-8% is a big range and even these numbers come from studies that are fairly limited in their ability to figure out whether an accuser is lying. 

The rate of men who were raped or subject to sexual assault on campus is roughly 1.4 males per 1,000. They are thus raped at nearly 1/4th the rate of women. This is surprising in that one would not expect one man is raped for nearly every four women who are raped.

Daily Mail, a British paper, argues that when sexual abuse in prison is taken into account, more men are raped in the U.S. than women. Using 2011 Department of Justice number, it asserts that 40 out of 1,000 prisoners were sexually abused. This figure is outrageous. Wardens and other prison authorities should make reducing this disgusting figure a priority and failure to do so should lead to prompt dismissal.

The demographics are fairly predictable. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the poor are much more likely than the middle class and rich to be raped or sexually assaulted. Specifically, for every rich or upper middle class person who is raped, approximately 20 poor people are raped (2009 figure). My guess is that poor women are far more likely to come into contact with the dregs of the male population.

BJS reports that blacks are much more likely than white men to be rapists. This is unsurprising given the widespread differences in crime and violence. More surprising is that BJS numbers indicate that black men rape white women in significant numbers, but white men rarely, if ever, rape black women. It is unclear why.  

An interesting issue is what penalty should be given to one who commits rape or sexual assault. In Britain, The Guardian reports that the average rapist is imprisoned for 8 years. BJS reports that in 1992 the average rapist in the U.S. was sentenced to 10 years in prison and ended up serving a little more than 5. I cannot find a more up-to-date figure. In theory, various punishment theorists argue that justice requires that punishment should fit the crime. Some theorists have interpreted this to mean that wrongdoer should suffer by an amount equal to what was done to the victim.

Is an eight-year sentence more or less harmful than a rape? This is hard to say. My guess is that most people would think the sentence is more harmful, but this is just a guess. If so, then this theory would say that sentence is too harsh and thus unjust. If most people would think the same for the five-year sentence, then it too is too harsh.

While the college rape statistics are still too high, they do not justify closing down fraternities, doing away with fair trials on campus for accused offenders, or making students so fearful that they refrain from going to parties. There are more pressing threats. Writing for U.S. News and World Report, Mike Bowler points out that roughly half of college students never graduate. Therese Borchard writing for PsychCentral reports that 25% of college students have a diagnosable mental illness. Depression and eating disorders are particular threats. Students are likely better off focusing on these threats, although addressing one set of threats doesn’t preclude addressing another.  

While campus rape is a horrendous crime, the numbers are nothing like the 1 in 5 number that Obama and others cite. Colleges are not hotbeds of rape. In fact, college women are less likely to be raped then women who do not go to college. Surprisingly, men in college also risk being victimized by rape or sexual assault. The frequency of such attacks in prison is a national disgrace. 

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