As I reported recently on CD, Team Obama is now aggressively targeting campus sexual assaults with a new White House Task Force led by Joe Biden. It’s another example of a White House effort with the good intention to help women (and of course get their votes), but it’s a campaign that is based on wildly inaccurate, misleading, and false data about the frequency of campus sexual assaults.
In a January 2014 report titled “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action” (which led to the creation of the “Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault” headed by Biden), the White House made the following two statements:
White House Statement 1. Sexual assault is a particular problem on college campuses:1 in 5 women has been sexually assaulted while in college.
White House Statement 2. Reporting rates for campus sexual assault are also very low: on average only 12% of student victims report the assault to law enforcement.
I reported previously that there’s a huge, irreconcilable problem here. If the second claim about under-reporting of campus sexual assault is even close to being accurate, it means that nowhere near 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted while in college. As I reported in January on CD:
The problem is that the two sets of numbers the White House uses don’t work together. If you look at virtually any university in America and take the number of reported sexual assaults, and use that number in conjunction with the White House’s under-reporting percentage, you don’t get one-in-five. Nowhere near. Do the math yourself.
I’ve done the math using: a) the actual number of reported sexual assaults for several major college campuses and b) the White House under-reporting percentage of 12%, for the University of Wisconsin, the University of Michigan, and UC-Berkeley, and found that the number of college women who are sexually assaulted while in college is between 1 in 20 and 1 in 32. That’s still too high, but nowhere near 1 in 5.
Let’s do some more math using actual crime statistics from the Ohio State University (OSU) for the four years from 2009-2012 (data is here for 2010-2012 and here for 2009, and those data are summarized in the table above) and the White House’s under-reporting assumption of 12%. Over that four-year period, there were 98 reports of sexual assault on the OSU campus, in university residence halls, on nearby non-campus property, and on public property adjacent to campus. We’ll assume that 100% of the sexual assaults victims were female. Using the White House claim that only 12% of campus sexual assaults get reported, there would have been 719 unreported sexual assaults at UW during that period, bringing the total number of sexual assaults (reported + unreported) to 817 (see table).
The Columbus campus of OSU has a total female student population of about 28,000. Dividing the 817 estimated sexual assaults over a four-year period by the 28,000 OSU female students would mean that only 2.92% of OSU women, or about 1 in 34, would be sexually assaulted while in college. Certainly that’s still too high, but not even close to the White House claim that one in five (and 20% of) female students are sexually assaulted while in college.
Bottom Line: Team Obama asked for a “renewed call to action” in its January 2014 report on rape and sexual assault. Just as important, I think we need a “renewed call” for the White House to stop spreading wildly exaggerated claims about important issues like campus sexual assault. From a political standpoint, using the totally implausible statistic that “1 in 5 women” are sexually assaulted while in college certainly gets a lot of attention. The “1 in 34” statistic found at Ohio State University (or the “1 in 20″ statistic previously reported for the University of Wisconsin), though not as attention-grabbing as “1 in 5,” are probably pretty representative of college campuses around the country and much closer to the truth than what the White House is claiming. Women attending college today, their parents, and society in general, are all much better served by the truth about college sexual assault than by Team Obama’s misleading, exaggerated, and false claims about “1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted while in college.”
Update: Over at the Political Calculations blog, Ironman has created a neat app that simplifies the calculations above. You can input annual data on the actual number of reported sexual assaults at a given college, along with the estimated percentage of sexual assaults that are reported, the college student population and the percent female, etc. and you’ll get results for the percentage probability that a female student will be sexually assaulted while in college. Thanks to Ironman for doing that.