Schools need better data on assaults

Cynthia M. Allen - Guest Columnist

Cynthia M. Allen

A study regularly touted by numerous media outlets (not to mention the White House) says 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted on her college campus before she graduates.

Let me say that another way.

If you believe this finding and you’re a female college freshman, then you must accept that you have a 20 percent chance of being sexually assaulted in the next four to six years.

Twenty percent.

That’s greater than the likelihood of a woman being diagnosed with breast cancer (1 in 8) in her lifetime.

And if true, it would make college campuses one of the most dangerous places for women in America today.

The statistic should not merely terrify parents who have just delivered their bright, young, eager and vulnerable daughters into the care of institutions of higher learning; it should make the very act of doing so with awareness of this looming danger akin to criminal negligence.

The frenzy is partly fed by high-profile cases such as the recent conviction of a Baylor University football player — or even claims that turn out to be fabricated, like the now discredited Rolling Stone story involving a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house.

But does this 1-in-5 statistic represent the reality that female students are destined to confront while in college?

Probably not.

Appropriate skepticism over the troubling numbers has resulted in convincing repudiations of the study that generated the number — which included vaguely worded questions, a low response rate and an unrepresentative sample — suggesting it is at best highly misleading.

But that hasn’t stopped political leaders, media and university administrators from repeating it or — even more problematic — from using it as the foundation for campus sexual assault policies that very often presume the guilt of the accused or deny alleged perpetrators rights they are constitutionally guaranteed in a traditional court of law.

In short, the understandable desire to correct the once common practice of victim-blaming has forced the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction.

Washington Examiner writer Ashe Schow sees the overcorrection by colleges as being serious enough to advise students, especially male students, that they “need to stop viewing sex merely as pleasure or as an expression of affection or love, and begin seeing it as a potentially life-ruining moment.”

The case of a young man at the University of Michigan, described in detail by Slate’s Emily Yaffe, who was accused of rape after engaging in what he believed was consensual sexual behavior, exemplifies how colleges seeking to comply with the federal government’s Title IX requirements are actually infringing upon the rights of many male students, not to mention ending their college careers.

For years, sexual assault on campus was not only under-reported but largely unaddressed by administrators eager to avoid the matter all together.

But universities have relied on faulty research to address that wrong, and they need more accurate information.

Fortunately, the increased focus of the complex issue of sex and assault on campus has resulted in an effort to produce more research.

The University of Texas system’s new chancellor, William H. McRaven, recently ordered a comprehensive, $1.7 million, multiyear study on the scope, causes and impact of sexual violence at universities.

And other researchers have projects underway.

Hopefully, they will provide data that more accurately illustrates the nature of sexual encounters at universities.

In the meantime, colleges would best serve their students by educating them about responsible sexual behavior and better enforcing alcohol policies.

And students would best serve themselves by remembering they are responsible for their own behavior.


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Cynthia M. Allen M. Allen

Cynthia M. Allen

Guest Columnist

Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at [email protected]

Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at [email protected]

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