In 2017, Duke University released the results of a 2016 survey, which purportedly found that 40 percent of its female undergraduates were the victims of sexual assault. Assault on college campuses is a real problem, and every incidence of it should be punished. But this number, as KC Johnson noted at the time, “would mean that each year, a female undergraduate at Duke is 5.5 times more likely to be a victim of violent crime than a resident of St. Louis, which FBI statistics listed as the nation’s most dangerous city in 2016.”
College campuses are not, in fact, more dangerous places than inner cities. Scholars who have studied data from the National Crime Victimization Survey found, unsurprisingly, that female non-college students remain at higher risk of violence and sexual assault than female college students.
But that hasn’t stopped college administrators and professional activists from promoting a culture of fear on campus. This week, Duke University officials announced the results of the school’s most recent student survey, conducted in 2018, which found that 48 percent of female undergraduates report that they have been sexually assaulted, a significant increase from the 2016 survey.
As with all such surveys, the response rates and the definitions used in crafting the questions are critical. Duke distributed its survey to all undergraduate and graduate students over the age of 18 and reported a response rate of 40 percent. But voluntary surveys such as these are particularly vulnerable to “response bias;” depending on the issue being surveyed, some groups are more motivated to respond to the survey than others (in this case, students who felt they had been assaulted). As well, the definition of sexual assault in the survey—“any unwanted, non-consensual sexual contact”—sounds straightforward, but could encompass a range of behavior from rape to brushing up against someone.
In other words, Duke’s latest survey tells us little about the reality of sexual assault on campus. It does, however, reveal the growth of a disturbing tendency to deploy advocacy statistics and promote fear on campus while ignoring the real sources of danger for college women (the survey noted in passing that students reported most of the assaults occurred off campus and most involved drug or alcohol use by one or both parties).
And yet the narrative about women’s risk of assault on campus continues apace, in part because those who promote it can’t be bothered by questions about the integrity of statistics or definitions of assault. As a New York Times reporter tweeted, “yes—this is one survey with a 40 percent response rate, and the decision whether to respond to it may have been affected by what your answer was. So take the exact percent with a grain of salt. But study after study confirms that a grotesque proportion of women experience sexual assault.”
This use of inflated statistics might not seem as egregious as the hoaxes or false rape claims that have been made on campuses, including, infamously, at Duke. But they are pernicious in a different way. Hyped-up claims about the risk of sexual assault make it more difficult for the public to take this problem seriously and deal with it effectively. As Stuart Taylor, Jr. has argued, “Such advocacy-laden surveys on campus sexual assault—and breathless media reports overstating their already exaggerated findings—have become the norm in this era of hysteria about the campus sexual assault problem.” The provosts who cry wolf with questionable statistics are defining assault down.
Words matter. It’s clear from this recent survey that students are now comfortable embracing more expansive definitions of assault than would never pass muster in criminal law. And activist-minded university administrators are actively encouraging them to do so. As Duke’s vice president for student affairs, Larry Monetal, told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “I believe we have empowered victims to recognize behaviors they felt were normal that they realize now were a violation . . . They’re also more willing now to acknowledge they’ve been victimized.” Among the interactions Monetal affirmed constituted an assault: A “deliberate brush on the dance floor or a party that made them uncomfortable.”
It also generates an unrealistic assessment of risk (and a fair amount of cognitive dissonance) by college students. Despite the supposedly rampant sexual assault problem at the university, Duke officials acknowledged, “Nearly all students reported feeling safe on campus, but less than half of female undergraduates in the survey’s most recent edition said that Duke was doing a good job of preventing sexual assault.” If the university is not doing a good job, how can we explain the survey numbers that show students overwhelmingly report feeling safe on campus? After all, “89 percent of female undergraduates said” they felt secure on campus, and “more than 90 percent of both male and female graduate students” agreed.
Finally, bad statistics lead to bad policy-making. For example, the sweeping federal legislation known as the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, a bipartisan bill that has been heavily promoted by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand. Critics of the bill have noted that it would dramatically increase the federal government’s reach and control of decision-making over students on campus. As Emily Yoffe, who has done extensive research on the data about campus sexual assault, has argued, “Bad policy is being made on the back of problematic research, and will continue to be unless we bring some healthy skepticism to the hard work of putting a number on the prevalence of campus rape.”
Elaborate hoaxes, although rare, deservedly garner a lot of attention when they are exposed. But the uncritical embrace of questionable survey data and statistics about assault on campus plays a significant role in eroding our ability to understand the problem of sexual assault as well. Regrettable drunken hookup sex or being brushed up against at a party is not the same thing as rape. Undergraduates at Duke should know the difference, and school administrators promoting a culture of fear about sexual assault on campus should, too.