Guest Viewpoint: How much rape?

The following guest viewpoint was contributed by John Bonine, a Professor of Law at the University of Oregon.

The Emerald published a story on December 11 asserting that the U.S. Department of Justice had just issued a report challenging statistics that one in five college women are sexually assaulted. The DOJ report was actually about something different.

But as the Emerald story was about the numbers of assaults, let’s look into that – regarding the DOJ report and the survey being planned by the Association of American Universities (AAU). Both have drawbacks.

First, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) is about crime surveillance.  The interviewer is conducting a “crime” survey and asks about “rape.” But “rape” is a legal conclusion, not a factual description. Most sexual violence researchers instead use factual language to ask if anything has happened to the interviewee. The new DOJ report says:

“Unlike the NCVS, which uses terms like rape and unwanted sexual activity to identify victims of rape and sexual assault, [scientists’ surveys] use behaviorally specific questions to ascertain whether the respondent experienced rape or sexual assault.”

Asking a woman whether she was “raped” misses many actual rapes.  First, women are less likely to label what happened to them as rape when it was perpetrated on a date or by someone they know. (A well-known book on the topic of campus sexual assault was titled “I Never Called it Rape.”)

In the survey conducted at the University of Oregon this past September (by Professor Jennifer Freyd and her Ph.D. students Carly Smith and Marina Rosenthal), even though many UO students have been sexually penetrated without their consent, many of those did not self-label the event as “rape.” Words matter.

Second, the DOJ report itself notes that the NCVS “does not specifically ask about incidents in which the victim was unable to provide consent because of drug or alcohol consumption.”  But this has been explicitly sexual assault in the UO Student Conduct Code for 10 years. Here at UO in the September survey, many students who said they had been penetrated without consent also indicated that they were too intoxicated to stop the assault.

Third, the NCVS crime survey does not include such events as forced penetration of another person or sexual coercion, which includes nonphysical pressure to engage in sex. These, of course, are all sexual assaults.

Finally, the NCVS crime survey uses the “two-step” approach.  People are asked, initially face-to-face, whether they have been “attacked” (another loaded word) in various ways, including “rape, attempted rape or other types of sexual attack.” That question alone discourages many women who have been assaulted from answering yes, even though rape is what happened. A follow-up question asks whether the person has been “forced or coerced to engage in unwanted sexual activity.” If the answer is yes, a further “Crime Incident Report” is used. Again the person must agree to the word “rape” before the response is counted as such.

Other two-step methods can be even worse. Dr. Sarah Cook of Georgia State University has explained the problems with this in a widely known 2011 article. She notes that in one of her studies, Dr. Bonnie Fisher required a “yes” to these second-step questions before counting it as rape:

Was physical force actually used against you in this incident?


Were you threatened with physical force in this incident?

(Another researcher has characterized the two-step as asking: Were you raped? Are you really sure you were actually raped? Maybe you’re just confused.)

The AAU survey that Interim President Scott Coltrane has agreed to fund at UO is being designed by this same Bonnie Fisher.

The AAU survey methodology raises other problems as well.

First, such questions may “teach” students that rape and other sexual violence isn’t worth reporting – or even minimize the experience by questioning whether it was rape at all. This can be deeply harmful.

Second, the AAU plans to contact every student at the University of Oregon (a “census” approach) but will use only some of the responses for the survey and data analysis. Researchers in sexual violence have been unable to find examples of this approach being scientifically validated.

Third, this “census” approach runs a substantial risk of “contaminating the pool.” Students may be less willing to participate in subsequent surveys that have more scientific validity, concluding that “I’ve already answered one.”

Fourth, there is no indication that the AAU survey will have proper peer review.

The wording of surveys and the way they are administered may seem technical. But poorly designed surveys can retard, rather than advance, the creation of campus policies to decrease sexual violence.

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