Sexual assault in college: Is it getting worse?

As the sensitive issue makes major headlines, we take a look at the numbers

By Tracy Clark-Flory

Published April 6, 2011 2:01PM (EDT)

Close up of a female university student holding books and a laptop
[url=][img][/img][/url] (Eric Hood)
Close up of a female university student holding books and a laptop [url=][img][/img][/url] (Eric Hood)

The issue of sexual assault on college campuses is making headlines this week, thanks in part to a Title IX complaint against Yale for its handling of such cases. It also doesn't hurt that it's officially Sexual Assault Awareness Month and that the White House is kicking off an initiative to raise -- here's that word again -- awareness about federal guidelines for dealing with sexual violence on college campuses. Most of us have heard the 1 in 4 statistic, but if you're anything like me, this recent coverage might make you wonder: What's the takeaway -- is the reported rate of sexual violence on college campuses on the rise or what? It turns out the short answer to that is no.

The most reliable current statistic on campus assaults -- which still comes with caveats -- is that nearly 3 percent of college women are raped in an academic year. While that may seem like a slim stat, a report from the National Institute of Justice explains that (taking into account that some women are assaulted multiple times) "the percentage translates into the disturbing figure of 35 such crimes for every 1,000 women students." It continues, "For a campus with 10,000 women students, the number could reach 350. If the percentage is projected to a full calendar year, the proportion rises to nearly 5 percent of college women."

In the past few years, the number of "forcible sex offenses" reported by college campuses has declined (save for one year where it ticked up). "Non-forcible sex offenses," on the other hand, have slowly risen -- which might have something to do with, yes, awareness raising about "date rape" and the like. As the message spreads that sexual assault isn't always violent and that it's most often committed by an acquaintance, it stands to reason that more women will begin to recognize these crimes for what they really are and report them. Of course, that brings up the important fact that these statistics only reflect reported attacks -- and sexual assault is hugely underreported.

Some activists worry that in addition to all the classic disincentives, victims will refrain from reporting their assault on-campus because many schools are unresponsive to such claims, despite Title IX's requiring a prompt and swift response. A report last year by the Center for Public Integrity found that "students found 'responsible' for alleged sexual assaults on campuses often face little or no punishment, while their victims' lives are frequently turned upside down." What's more, the 10-month investigation found that there are often sizable discrepancies between figures in campus crime reports under the Clery Act -- which is where the numbers above come from -- and those recorded by outside facilities.

The real point of all this recent awareness raising isn't just to remind everyone that sexual assault is a major problem, but also to underscore all the ways that it still isn't being taken seriously -- especially on college campuses.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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