Every two issues, a college journalist misuses rape statistics

A news article in The Daily Tar Heel April 24 contained a shocking lead: “A woman is raped every two minutes. Almost one in every four women between the ages of 18 and 24 is a survivor of sexual assault.”

No sources for this information are given — which is mildly surprising since it is published in the campus newspaper for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a UNC flagship university with a well-known school of journalism. It is not, however, unusual for any campus discussion of that particular subject. Here are a few examples just from the current academic year:

• “There are probably 200 to 250 undergraduate men on this campus who are rapists (one out of 15), based on a 15-year old survey. Fifteen percent of undergraduate men say they would commit rape if there was no chance of punishment.” Jillian Johnson, “Stop Rape at Duke,” Duke University Chronicle, Feb. 27, 2003

• “1 in 4 college women,” sign seen at UNC-Chapel Hill protest of violence against women, as reported in the DTH Nov. 5, 2002

• “anytime a woman is drunk and has sex, she has then been raped.” Andrew A. Farr, Technician, Sept. 24, 2002

• “Every three hours and 52 minutes, a rape is committed in North Carolina. Most of the victims are women. One in four college women report surviving rape.” Dana Henderson, N.C. State Technician, Sept. 10, 2002

• “I am 100 percent sure that at least one rape has occurred on campus since school has started … anywhere from one in three to one in eight women will be assaulted in her lifetime.” Bryan Proffit, Technician, Aug. 27, 2002 (one week after school started)

What is going on? Are our universities undergoing an epidemic of curiously unreported rape? Or is something else at work? As Katie Rophie wrote in the New York Times Magazine of June 13, 1993, in response to the one-in-four statistic: “If 25 percent of my women friends were really being raped, wouldn’t I know it?”

Christina Hoff Sommers, author of Who Stole Feminism?, has provided the answer. The one-in-four statistic hails from a 1985 Ms. magazine report by Mary Koss. Koss interviewed about three thousand randomly selected college women about sexual violation. She determined that 25.7 percent were victims of rape or attempted rape “because they gave answers that fit Koss’s criteria for rape” — which bear scrutiny, as they are “penetration by penis, finger, or other object under coercive influence such as physical force, alcohol, or threats.” Those broad criteria may explain why only 27 percent of Koss’ “rape victims” considered themselves to be rape victims. Furthermore, Koss considered a woman a victim of sexual assault if she answered “yes” to (and 53.7 “victims” did) “Have you ever given in to sex play (fondling, kissing, or petting, but not intercourse) when you didn’t want to because you were overwhelmed by a man’s continual arguments and pressure?”

University of California Berkeley professor Neil Gilbert pointed out a key flaw in that study: Koss’s categorizing as having been raped any woman who answered “yes” to “Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn’t want to because a man gave you alcohol or drugs?” As Gilbert wrote in Current Controversies in Family Violence, edited by Richard Gelles and Donileen Loseke, “What does having sex ‘because’ a man gives you drugs or alcohol signify? A positive response does not indicate whether duress, intoxication, force, or the threat of force were present; whether the woman’s judgment or control were substantially impaired; or whether the man purposefully got the woman drunk in order to prevent her resistance to sexual advances.”

Sommers also points out a key flaw in the “one-in-eight” statistic cited above, which is from Dean Kilpatrick’s National Woman’s Study. Kilpatrick’s study is “a fairly straightforward and well-designed survey” on rape and asked questions about intercourse, oral sex, anal sex, or penetration by “fingers or objects” done “against your will by using force or threat of harm.” The last category, however, as Sommers explains, “includes cases in which a boy penetrated a girl with his finger, against her will, in a heavy petting situation. Certainly the boy behaved badly. But is he a rapist? Probably neither he nor his date would say so,” she wrote. “Yet the survey classifies him as a rapist and her as a rape victim.”

The problem of the faulty statistics owes to “the intrusion of politics into the field of inquiry,” as Sommers put it. “There are many researchers who study rape victimization, but their relatively low figures generate no headlines.” Among them: a 1993 Louis Harris and Associates telephone poll that found only two percent of women were victims of rape or sexual assault; Prof. Mary Gordon of the University of Washington’s 1981 study that found only one in 50 women raped; and Duke researcher Dr. Linda George, who found, using “questions very close to Kilpatrick’s,” one in seventeen.

Another problem Sommers cites is “the morally indefensible way that public funds for combating rape are being allocated.” Specifically, “college women are getting the lion’s share of public resources for combating rape” despite studies (which she cites) showing that rape rates are far higher in poor areas than wealthy areas and far lower for women on a college or university campus than for women off campus.

Underscoring that latter fact, UNC-Greensboro students are right now dealing with the reality of a serial rapist who is attacking women in neighborhoods near campus (seven had been attacked by mid-April). Major J.C. Herring, assistant chief of UNCG Police, wrote a letter to the UNCG Carolinian April 7 pointing out that “None of the attacks occurred on campus” and said “the University should use the incidents to encourage students to live on campus where they have the benefit of secured residence halls, well lighted streets, a professional police force, and the safety escort service.”

At UNC-CH, meanwhile, the DTH story cited at the beginning of this article contrasted the “one-in-four” claim with UNC-CH’s comparatively low numbers of “only two rapes [on campus] in 2002 and only 17 sexual assault victims.” For the DTH, “the numbers don’t add up” — and it takes the “one-in-four” statistic as gospel truth while viewing UNC-CH police’s official numbers as clearly wrong and indicative of a greater problem.

UNC-CH’s solution underscores Sommers’ point about rape resource allocation. “UNC officials submitted a grant application last week to the U.S. Department of Justice,” the story said. “If the grant is approved, the money will be used to re-evaluate UNC’s Sexual Assault Response Plan, add an anti-violence program to C-TOPS and create a media campaign against violence at the University, said Melinda Manning, assistant dean of students.”