Exaggerating Their Way to an Epidemic

A spring saunter through a campus as pretty as the University of Kansas is inordinately charming—tulips, apple blossoms, amorous robins—you know, the whole glorious array. The hundreds of tiny white flags fluttering in ragged rows seemed therefore appropriate, even vaguely comforting, like a patriotic memorial or perhaps a wedding in the offing.

The flags, though, weren’t part of a nostalgic swoon or public fête. What they heralded instead was a calculated scare campaign. Written in the sidewalk in chalk was “3,192,” which was said to be “the number of sexual assault survivors on campus.” To emphasize the point, each flag was emblazoned “1 in 4” because, according to the campus Sexual Assault Prevention Education Center, “Annually 1 in 4 college women (cis) is sexually assaulted. Each flag you see represents a KU student-survivor.”[1]

Most of us are now familiar with the improperly overused “1 in 5” statistic that has driven policies to combat sexual misconduct at U.S. colleges and universities for over a decade. Now the proportion had morphed from a suspiciously inflated 20 percent to a distinctly alarming 25 percent. Had KU’s policies failed that miserably over the last 10 years?

We asked the friendly folks at the information booth if this sky-high total of 3,192 was real. No, they replied (a little nervously), it wasn’t technically true, since the organizers of the display had simply multiplied the “1 in 4” statistic to the student body at large.

Yes, they admitted, this was a bit of creative messaging designed to draw attention to a real problem. We raised a quizzical eyebrow. The number 3,192 was a statistical fabrication, not an actual sum of the number of victims of sexual assault. Not only that, the organizers compounded the mistake by applying the statistic to only half the student body, presumably to highlight the female population only.

There are so many problems with this that it’s hard to know where to start. For one thing, it’s dishonest. For another, it trivializes a serious issue by couching it in hyperbole. It also generates an indifferent attitude toward due process for anyone accused of committing an act of sexual assault. Lastly, it risks encouraging female students to feel threatened, to the point of avoiding public situations that are open to their male counterparts.

The data on sexual violence on American campuses are notoriously slippery. In 2014, the purveyors of the “1 in 5” wrote in Time magazine:

We feel we need to set the record straight. Although we used the best methodology available to us at the time, there are caveats that make it inappropriate to use the 1-in-5 number in the way it’s being used today, as a baseline or the only statistic when discussing our country’s problem with rape and sexual assault on campus.

The following year, the Association of American Universities (AAU) published a study whose results indicated an even higher prevalence of sexual violence, approaching the KU flaglets’ “1 in 4” claim. The AAU authors, however, were quick to raise caveats, among them the very low (19 percent) survey response rate and definitional problems. They wrote:

Estimates such as “1 in 5”or “1 in 4” as a global rate, across all [campuses] is at least over simplistic, if not misleading. None of the studies that generate estimates for specific [campuses] are nationally representative.

The definitions question is important. The AAU authors spent considerable time attempting to clarify definitions, but they don’t appear to have succeeded. They lumped together sexual “assault” and sexual “misconduct” (which includes harassment) in arriving at their nearly “1 in 4” rate.

At KU, definitions may be even shakier. A Student Sexual Harassment Survey for 2016 (which itself had a remarkably low response rate of 3.12 percent) tells us that 6.22 percent of students believe that “Greeting someone and telling them they look nice today” constitutes sexual harassment.

As for the crucial distinction between assault and misconduct, the KU campus campaign conveniently ignored it in enshrining the figure of 3,192 victims of sexual assault. According to the campaign’s own logic, we have to assume that that number includes (among other non-assaults) a subset of people who didn’t like to be told they looked nice on a particular day. Allowing the threshold for “assault” in a public information campaign to include such trivialities puts the entire campaign at risk. “Assault” had better mean something serious if the message is to be taken seriously.

It may be helpful to consult the federal government’s figures. A Bureau of Justice Statistics special report entitled “Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization Among College-Age Females, 1995–2013” found that the rate of sexual violence committed against university students was closer to one half of one percent (0.61 percent). Not only that, but compared to non-campus females in the same age group, women were actually safer on campus.

A quick check with the Office of Public Safety at KU revealed that incidents of any kind of assault (sexual or not, and including “intimidation”) on the campus are actually closer to 30 every year. Specific “sex-offenses” occur between four and nine times every year, on average.

To be sure, even a tiny number of sexual assaults at KU, or any other campus, is too high and needs to be adequately addressed. The pertinent question is whether breathless propaganda about this isn’t counterproductive—because it implies that sexual violence is so common that most people are getting away with it.

Moreover, Slate’s Emily Yoffe concludes in an excellent analysis:

There is a danger when the findings of surveys like AAU’s are treated as proof that vast numbers of female college students are victims of sexual violations. It puts schools under increasing pressure to prove that they are doing something about this alleged epidemic, and this, in turn, has led to the creation of policies that offer little due process.

And note that concerns about the rights of the accused are more than a pedantic attachment to legal protocol. Adjudicating serious charges through a rigorous process is the bedrock of the modern liberal order. In disturbing ways, college campuses are training our nation’s future leaders to look upon due process and the rule of law as frustrating, and dismissible, impediments to administratively “correcting” problems and injustices. As concerned as academia is about fascism these days, you’d expect more outrage at this drift toward fiat rule.

People’s lives can be deeply affected by sexual violence. Many of our peers, as we canvassed their opinions on this issue, said they were worried about rampant under-reporting. But if it were argued that the gravity of sexual violence justified the scare tactics of the “1 in 4” campaign, would we feel the same about an equally “creative” campaign focused on, say, numbers of terrorist victims? It seems unlikely.

And as noted, a deeper problem is raised by this kind of campaign. Laura Kipnis, in an interview at Mother Jones, put it this way: “I can think of no better way to subjugate women than to convince us that assault is around every corner.” The “paradoxically damaging effect of heightened consciousness about rape on college campuses” risks harming more women than it helps. By unreasonably encouraging women to “shelter-in-place” they undoubtedly impose academic and professional costs not borne by men.

Fortunately, all the hyped statistics notwithstanding, sanity seems (as usual) to prevail. Most of the women we know are inclined to roll their eyes at the “1 in 4”-style appeals to their anxieties. The consistently low response rate on surveys reinforces this. If sexual violence were indeed the public menace it’s made out to be, we’d expect more people to take the time to voice their concerns. That they don’t is probably a good sign. There is a real problem out there; it’s just not as prevalent or as proximate as campaigners would have us believe.

The day after those flags were planted in the greensward at KU, and not long after our interaction with the people who planted them, their signboards had the word “Annually” carefully redacted with blue tape—indicating that somebody, somewhere, was backpedaling. Annualizing the statistic had quadrupled what was already a massively inflated number.

It’s heartening to think that activists, or at least some of them, can be brought to care about their credibility. But it’s a pity they didn’t spend their time and resources making sure they presented measured, actionable information in the first place. Might really have helped people. Maybe next spring.


[1] For the uninitiated, that’s an abbreviation of “cisgender” or “cisgendered,” meaning a straight person. The Oxford English Dictionary has embraced these words; they are intended to denote the opposite of “transgender.” What one “identifies as” aligns with one’s biology in such a case. To get technical about it (lexicographically, that is): “trans” is the Latin prefix for “on the other side of” and “cis” the Latin prefix for “this side of.”