Sexual Violence on Campus: What Numbers Can and Can’t Tell Us

Sexual assault on campus has become a hot-button issue, resulting in debates on the merits of personal stories of campus rape, the statistics estimating the scope of the issue nationally, and the best solution to the problem. This article looks at the best data regarding sexual violence on campus based on research by Brown University, RTI International, Harvard School of Public Health, and the Post-Kaiser Family Foundation. Importantly, the findings from these studies reinforce the growing evidence of how often sexual assaults occur on college campuses.

What were the Studies?

A study conducted by Dr. Kate Carey of the Brown University School of Public Health and her colleagues, found that 1 in 5 (20 percent) freshmen women were victims of attempted and/or completed rape.[1] This study looked at levels of rape over the school year and following summer. It included 483 female freshmen at an unnamed private college in upstate New York.[1]

The two larger studies conducted at public universities were led by Dr. Christopher Krebs at RTI International. Combined, more than 5,000 were surveyed and they found that 1 in 5 (20 percent) of female seniors reported being sexually assaulted and approximately 1 in 7 (15 percent) reported being raped since entering college.[2]

A national study, conducted by Dr. Meichen Mohler-Kuo and colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health, studied the prevalence of rape among women at 119 U.S. colleges and universities. It found that approximately 1 in 20 (4.7 percent) of the college women surveyed, who included freshman, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, had been raped since the beginning of the current school year.[3]

The most recent study,  conducted by Rutgers University, was consistent with what’s going on at campuses across the country. Rutgers-New Brunswick, with about 48,000 students, conducted a survey last fall through an electronic questionnaire at the request of a White House task force on prevention of campus sexual violence. The response rate was 28 percent. Results indicated that twenty percent of undergraduate women who answered a survey last fall at Rutgers University said they experienced unwanted sexual contact in their time as students. In addition, when the definition of sexual assault was expanded to include unwanted remarks about physical appearance and persistent unwanted sexual advances, 24 percent of undergraduate women reported experiencing sexual violence before they started college at Rutgers.[4]

Why do the Numbers Differ?

There is a range of results in the rates of rape among college students. There is no conclusive way to know exactly why these statistics vary, but the following are a few differences among the studies that might contribute to these varying numbers.

Even when the same definition of rape is used in different studies, the women varied in terms of their year in college and the time frame studied. The Carey study found that 1 in 5 freshmen women were victims of attempted or completed rape during their first year of college or the subsequent summer. The Krebs study found that 1 in 7 senior women were the victims of attempted or completed rape since entering college. These numbers would be expected to be higher than the number of women raped in any specific year in college, although some rape victims may leave college and would therefore not be in a study of seniors. The Mohler-Kuo study examined female students from all class years and found that 1 in 20 of these students was the victim of completed rape on campus during the current academic year. This statistic is lower than that found by the other two studies because it only considers rapes during a single year, rather than throughout a woman’s time in college. Since freshmen women are more at risk for rape than women who are sophomores, juniors, or seniors, that at least partially explains why this statistic is lower than the other two studies.[1]

The definition of rape is not universal. Each of the studies provided participants with a definition of rape, and those definitions varied. In 2012, the legal definition of rape changed from “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will” to a more comprehensive term that defined rape as to “the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”[5] The more recent study by Carey reflected the post-2012 definition, which defined rape as “anal, vaginal, or oral penetration” and also distinguished between incapacitated rape and rape by force.[4] The Krebs study, conducted in 2005 and published in 2009, defined five levels of sexual contact but only “unwanted sexual intercourse” was considered rape in their analysis, and they also distinguished between incapacitated rape and rape by force.[1] Both studies also defined rape as both completed and attempted rape. The Mohler-Kuo study, which was based on Harvard School of Public Health College studies from 1997, 1999, and 2001, used the legal definition of completed rape at the time the surveys were completed.[2] These different definitions of rape could help explain the different statistics in these three studies.

In addition, studies vary depending on how the question is framed and who is answering. One study conducted by the University of Kentucky reported 4.9 percent of students experienced unwanted vaginal, oral or anal sex in the past year, attacks that could amount to rape or forcible sodomy. However, the university did not say how many of the reported victims were women or undergraduates, making it more difficult to compare to other study results.

The scope of these studies was different. As previously noted, the Carey study was conducted at only one private college, the Krebs study at two large public universities, and the Harvard study at 119 college and universities, which make for more representative studies.

What Does Football Have to do with Campus Rape?

college footballAccording to law enforcement agencies serving Division I universities, reported rapes increased by 41% on days when there are home football games, when statistically controlling for different days of the week or time of year.[6] Reported rapes increased 57% when the underdog home team suddenly wins against tough competitors. With 128 schools in Division 1A, the impact would be estimated at 253 to 770 more rapes each year. What’s the price tag for all of this? Taking both the tangible and intangible costs into account, each rape has a social cost of $267,000, for a total of $68 to $205 million a year. The researchers believe that the increase in alcohol consumption is probably the reason for the increase in rapes that is associated with football games, since arrests for disorderly conduct, DUI, and public intoxication also increase on home game days. The impact of other sports events haven’t been studied, but those that influence drinking on campus are likely to have an impact on rape.

What Does This Mean?

The results of these studies on different campuses and focusing on different issues indicate that campus rape is a common occurrence across the U.S., regardless of definition and type of college. Alcohol is a major factor, but not the only one.

What Can We Do?

The overwhelming sentiment moving forward is that it is time to stop focusing on the exact numbers and instead evaluate the impact of programs aimed at reducing campus rape. A comprehensive solution will require political policy, university outreach, and individual commitment to stopping sexual assault.

In 2010, an article in the Journal of Forensic Nursing evaluated seven programs that aimed to eliminate sexual assault on campus. It found that educational interventions directed at college-age men can produce “beneficial changes in the attitudes and beliefs of rape and sexual assault.”[7] It did not measure actual impact on sexual assault or rape, however.

In 2014, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a report entitled “Preventing Sexual Violence on College Campuses: Lessons from Research and Practice” for the White House Task Force to Prevent Students from Sexual Assault. This report evaluated many of the different initiatives aimed at preventing sexual assault in middle and high schools. They recommend that the programs that were found to work, such as dating violence prevention and sexual assault intervention programs, be adapted and used for college students.[8]

In 2015, The Washington Post reported the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating over 130 schools for their handling of sexual-violence allegations. Rutgers University, started a campaign entitled “The Revolution Starts Here: End Sexual Violence Now”, for students, faculty and staff to mobilize to combat the problem. Michigan State University, has resolved an investigation of two complaints and is taking positive steps to correct violations of anti-discrimination law uncovered during the probe. Using Rutgers and Michigan State as examples, Universities are improving their commitment to addressing sexual harassment and sexual violence.[4]

All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.

  1. Carey, Kate B., et al. “Incapacitated and Forcible Rape of College Women: Prevalence Across the First Year.” Journal of Adolescent Health 56.6 (2015): 678-680. Accessed August 10, 2015.
  2. Krebs, Christopher P., et al. “College women’s experiences with physically forced, alcohol-or other drug-enabled, and drug-facilitated sexual assault before and since entering college.” Journal of American College Health 57.6 (2009): 639-649. Accessed August 10, 2015.
  3. Mohler-Kuo, Meichun, et al. “Correlates of rape while intoxicated in a national sample of college women.” Journal of studies on alcohol 65.1 (2004): 37-45. Accessed August 10, 2015.
  4. “Rutgers: 20 percent of undergraduate women had unwanted sexual contact”. (2015). Accessed September 5, 2015.
  5. “Attorney General Eric Holder Announces Revisions to the Uniform Crime Report’s Definition of Rape.” Department of Justice Office of Public Affairs. January 6, 2012. Accessed August 12, 2015.
  6. Lindo JM, Siminski PM, Swensen ID. College Party Culture and Sexual Assault. The National Bureau of Economic Research. December 2015. (DOI): 10.3386/w21828
  7. Garrity, Stacy E. “Sexual assault prevention programs for college‐aged men: A critical evaluation.” Journal of forensic nursing 7.1 (2011): 40-48.;jsessionid=24DC764999B72F5236B2B2AEEA647E9F.f03t03?userIsAuthenticated=false&deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=. Accessed August 13, 2015.
  8. DeGue, Sarah. “Preventing Sexual Violence on College Campuses: Lessons from Research and Practice.” (2014). Accessed August 13, 2015.