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Sexual assault isn’t just a college problem — it’s a problem for all young women

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

As many as 1 in 4 women could be sexually assaulted while in college, according to a new policy brief from University of Michigan researchers analyzing previous surveys. But sexual assault is no less of a danger for young women who did not go to college — and those women are more likely to experience other forms of dating and domestic violence than their college-attending peers.

Taken together, the findings suggest that colleges aren't breeding sexual predators; rape and sexual assault are scarily common for all young women, and the problem isn't unique to higher education.

But federal law gives greater protection and more options to women who attend college than to women who do not.

Why "1 in 5" might be right after all

sexual assault protest

Students at Gallaudet University at a protest against sexual violence. (Ricky Carioti/the Washington Post via Getty Images)

The statistic on the prevalence of college sexual assault cited by the White House and activists, that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted by graduation, is flawed. It's based on a 2007 survey of just two campuses whose author argues it shouldn't be generalized to the broader population.

Still, it could be generally accurate. Elizabeth Armstrong, a University of Michigan sociology professor, and Jamie Budnick, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Michigan, examined five surveys of college women, eliminating those that found the highest and lowest frequency of sexual assault. They also excluded reports of fondling and psychological coercion. The three surveys that remain, including the source of the 1 in 5 statistic, produce roughly similar estimates: between 14 percent and 26 percent of women would be sexually assaulted in college. That estimate is also in line with broad demographic surveys that aren't targeted at college women in particular.

And the two surveys with a national scope — the Online College Social Life Survey, administered to students at 22 colleges, and the National College Women Sexual Victimization Study — found sexual assault was even more prevalent: about 1 in 4 women would be sexually assaulted in college. (Another survey not included in Armstrong and Budnick's study had similar results.)

The 1 in 5 figure "is reasonable, even though inexact," they wrote in a policy brief for the Council on Contemporary Families.

The competing, less alarming statistic — that about 1 in 40 women are raped in college, based on the Bureau of Justice Statistics' National Crime Victimization Survey — has even more problems.

The crime victimization survey doesn't ask about sexual assault that occurred when the victim could not give consent due to alcohol and drug abuse, although alcohol is a factor in as many as half of college sexual assaults. Many victims of campus sexual assault don't define what happened to them as a crime, and might not report it to a crime-focused survey. The context matters: a study in 1997 compared two surveys, one that was similar to the crime victimization survey. The other, without that context, asked a long list of explicit questions about sexual behavior, such as whether respondents were penetrated without their consent. The latter survey led to 10 times as many reports of rape. A panel from the National Academy of Sciences has recommended that the crime victimization survey's estimates be disregarded.

But sexual assault could be even more common for women not in college

Other research, though, suggests that college women don't have a particularly high risk of sexual assault — sexual violence is equally common for all women who are college-aged. The study's scope was limited: it interviewed 18- and 19-year-old women in a single Michigan county for two and a half years. It found that by age 20, 14 percent of both women attending college and women who did not attend had experienced sexual violence.

Other forms of assault, such as dating and domestic violence, were much more common for women not in college: they were twice as likely to report their partners had threatened them, and 14 percent said they had been hit, pushed, or had something thrown at them, compared with 9 percent of college women.

"The care and consideration we are giving sexual assault on college campuses must be extended off campus," University of Michigan professor Jennifer Barber, assistant research scientist Yasamin Kusunoki, and Budnick, the doctoral candidate, wrote.

College sexual assault gets so much attention because since 1977, colleges have been legally required to respond to reports of sexual harassment and assault. The Obama administration has enforced this more vigorously than in the past. The result is that victims of sexual assault who are in college have options others do not, such as the ability to pursue a complaint through the campus justice system, which has a lower standard of evidence than a criminal trial.

But most of the research suggests that while sexual assault victims incapacitated from drinking might be more common on college campuses, college students don't experience unusual levels of sexual violence; they just have more legal options for what to do about it. However flawed colleges' responses might be, victims off campus — who are at the mercies of police departments and prosecutors — can face an even tougher road.

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