George Will’s problem with rape statistics (how many women to make a scourge?)

George Will continues with his assertion that it is mathematically impossible for 1 in 5 women to have been sexually assaulted while in college. He calls the statistics “insupportable” and when he replied to Senators Blumenthal, Feinstein, Baldwin, and Casey he chided them to temper their “rhetoric” about the “scourge of sexual assault.” But it’s not just the statistics that appear to bother Mr. Will as he also expresses concern about definitions:

“I think I take sexual assault more serious that you do. Which is why I worry about definitions of that category of crime that might, by their breadth, tend to trivialize it.”

According to the CDC sexual assault (or sexual violence) includes the following:

    • Rape
    • Unwanted touching
    • Acts that do not have physical contact between the victim and the perpetrator–for example, sexual harassment, threats, and peeping.

Now let’s focus on the 20% of women being sexually assaulted that Mr. Will finds preposterous. The statistic comes from the federally funded Campus Sexual Assault Study, a Web-based survey of over 5,000 women (and more than 1,000 men) attending one of two public universities. The data indicated that 19% of women had either been the victim of an attempted or a completed sexual assault while in college, hence 1 in 5 women. Of this cohort 11.9% reported they were raped (see the image below for the breakdown, it’s one of the saddest organizational charts I’ve seen in a while).

It would be fair to argue that this is one study with data from only two universities. Is public different from private? Large versus small? North versus South? etc. Digging a little deeper we find a broader sample with the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), which tells us that 1 in 5 women report a lifetime history of rape and 37.4% of these women report they were raped between the ages of 18 and 24 (college age). This translates into 7.5% of women recounting a rape between the ages of 18-24 versus 11.9% for the Campus Sexual Assault Survey. We don’t know if the data from the two studies are within the margin of error, if one suffers from under or over reporting, or if both are spot on and college compounds what is already an age-related risk. Even if it’s the lower 7.5% that is still scourge level.

What about the overall sexual assault statistics, the 1 in 5 that has Mr. Will flummoxed? The well-validated National Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance indicates that 14.4% of high school girls experienced sexual dating violence in the previous 12 months (including kissing, touching, and forced intercourse) so that sadly doesn’t make the 1 in 5 during the four years of college sound out of spec at all.  Anyone who has ever been a college aged women might actually wonder if the 20% sexual assault statistic is on the low side.

Sexual assault, including rape, is very hard to study. The data is retrospective, some women do not accept they were assaulted or raped for some time, some women might not be able to answer yes on a survey because that makes it real, and for others such a survey might trigger their post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Regardless, it is well-accepted in the medical community that rape is widely under reported (shame, fear, disbelief, shock, difficulty navigating the legal system among the reasons). What about reporting other forms of sexual assault? Most young women know exactly what is going to happen to the guy who puts his hand up her skirt or yells “Bitch” and spits in her face when she tries to push his hand away running the gauntlet to the bathroom at an over crowded party. Nothing, although if someone of authority is located there could very well be the bonus of being made to feel like it was her fault because of how she was dressed or to “give him a break” because he was drunk and otherwise a “good guy.” The way society treats women who report sexual assault does not, as Mr. Will opined, confer a coveted “victimhood” status.

What about talking about rape in the broader context of sexual assault, the idea that drawing attention to non-rape sexual assaults trivializes rape? The point is so ludicrous I am somewhat at a loss as how to respond. Just as talking about smoking induced asthma does not trivialize lung cancer deaths and talking about a robbery committed with a gun does not trivialize school shootings, talking about unwanted touching, stalking, and sexual coercion does not in any way diminish rape.

To imply there is a false epidemic of sexual assault while purporting to be concerned about sexual assault is the height of double speak. If we confined the discussion to the 7.5%-11.9% of women who are raped between the ages of 18-24 we still have a “scourge of sexual assault,” so I don’t get the point of challenging the experiences of women who got away with only the revolting sour taste of an unwanted kiss or furtive glances over their shoulders for weeks after a party unless of course you don’t think that those experiences should be counted as sexual assault.

Believing that rape isn’t under reported, restricting the definition of sexual assault to rape, thinking that education about sexual assault in all its forms allows the “privilege” of “victimhood” to proliferate these are indeed the very kinds of ideas that trivialize violence against women.


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  1. Dr. Jen
    I found your blog listed on my WP blog friend’s wall (Kyra anotherhopeentirely). She was incredibly intelligent, worked passionately for political phone banks and tried to be a part of change. She committed suicide a a week or so ago. It’s hard being a cyberspace friend and helpless to do anything. She suffered so many medical problems–many of her posts are about her fear of gyn exams. We keep going to her blog hoping for answers. I just wanted to connect with the people/blogs she cared about.

  2. Dear Dr. Gunter, though I have never had the disfotune of being raped, I found your open letter to George Will AWESOME!!! I wish you were able to do it in person on live tv for all to see how stupid and ignorant his comments were. I can’t imagine the mental and physical pain a rape survivor has to endure and would never presume to know or understand. I applaud your open letter and can only hope that George Will may have learned something from it. It’s time parents start teaching their sons that rape is wrong on all levels instead of shaming their daughters. It’s time to shame the high school and college athlete. It’s time to shame those who protect that athlete. It’s also time to shame the police and judges who don’t treat this crime as they are suppose to.

  3. As a Psychologist specializing in trauma, I want to thank you for your courage and clarity in standing up against patriarchal misanthropic stupidity. – Ed Schmookler, PhD

  4. Based on figure 5-1 included at the end of the article and assuming there should be relative (but not complete) independence between those assaulted before and during college – it appears the study shows almost half of women had been assaulted? I think assault is a huge problem on college campuses and should be in the limelight right now but these numbers seem to stretch belief…unless really 1 in 2 women has been assaulted?

      1. Thanks for pointing out the link. So it looks like there is actually a huge correlation between being assaulted before and during college and that’s why both the before and during college percentages are so high yet the joint percentage is about the same – why is this??

  5. Wonderful rebuttal. The bias and spin used in the interpretation of statistics is awful and I wonder what editor thought any of it was even a good idea. Rape is the only violent crime where folks seem to care more about false accusation than true events. I am a large black male, ergo I am statistically the most likely to be “falsely accused” in the sense Mr Will and many others seem to pose. But, I also taught male-focused rape education programs in college. I told the lads.. “if there are no rapes, there will be no false accusations of rape, simple”..the silence was potent…. I explained that just like any issue with “false positives”.. they will always be represented and understood as a % of the true positives. Less rape, less risk false accusation, everyone wins!

    Wonderful rebuttal. Can’t say that enough. I also deeply respect you sharing your experience as a survivor, I hope many will benefit!

  6. Thank you for taking the time to dismantle this nonsense. It should be self-evident that it’s nonsense, but obviously the editors at the Washington Post don’t think so.

    These percentages also seem consistent with the paper Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists, by David Lisak and Paul Miller (2002). Readers of the blog “Yes Means Yes” have seen this paper cited in Meet the Predators.

    How did it work? They asked men walking around a college campus to participate in a survey on “childhood experiences and adult functioning”. Among other questions, they asked:

    1. Have you ever been in a situation where you tried, but for various reasons did not succeed, in having sexual intercourse with an adult by using or threatening to use physical force (twisting their arm, holding them down, etc.) if they did not cooperate?

    2. Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated (on alcohol or drugs) to resist your sexual advances (e.g., removing their clothes)?

    3. Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?

    4. Have you ever had oral sex with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?

    Surely no one would answer “yes” to these questions? Not on a survey where you provide contact details so the researchers can ask for details?

    Indeed they did. Of 1,882 participants, 120 of them (6.4%) answered “yes” to at least one question. (This confirmed earlier studies, that hardly anyone will admit to the word “rape”, but many people will readily admit to committing actions that are rape, even by the most skeptical of definitions.

    In followup questions, these 120 rapists described 483 separate assaults.

    Let’s run some numbers. Assume that:
    1. 9 out of 10 rape victims are women, and
    2. There were equal numbers of men and women on campus (a decent approximation).

    I get 435 separate assaults on women, which if evenly distributed make 388 out of 1,882 women (21%) victims of attempted or actual rape.

    Because #NotAllMen will complain if I don’t, the remaining 48 assaults on men will have 47 out of 1,882 victims (2.5%).

    The 21% is close to the number of self-reported victims, so those numbers seem solid. (Not that they needed any additional proof).

    In conclusion: George Will still doesn’t understand statistics.

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