College-age sexual assault: Students less likely to report rapes to police

A new report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics covers almost two decades and offers a wealth of statistics about rapes and sexual assaults among young women.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Laura Dunn, executive director of the sexual assault survivors’ organization SurvJustice, poses for a picture near a church in her neighborhood in Washington, Nov. 11, 2014.

Among 18-to 24-year-old women, those attending college are slightly less likely than their noncollege peers to have experienced rape or sexual assault, but they are also much less likely to report such incidents to the police, according to a report released Thursday by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

The report, which covers almost two decades ending in 2013, offers a wealth of statistics, but it also has limits when it comes to probing many questions that colleges and lawmakers are grappling with as rape continues to grab the media spotlight.

The nationally representative data are drawn from the National Crime Victimization Survey and include in its definition of rape and sexual assault not only completed incidents, but also attempts of either, as well as threats of rape. The report’s strength is that data can be compared over time. However, it provides a lower estimate of such incidents than some other surveys that researchers also use to understand and prevent sexual violence.

Women ages 18 to 24 experience higher rates of rape and sexual assault than other age groups. Among the findings of the report, titled “Rape and Sexual Assault Among College-age Females, 1995–2013”:

• Between 1995 and 2013, the average annual rate of victimization for students in that age group was 6.1 incidents per 1,000 female students, compared with 7.6 per 1,000 nonstudents. The rates have fluctuated somewhat over time. In 2013, the rate was about 4.3 for both groups.

• Among students, 33 percent of the incidents were completed rape, compared with 44 percent among nonstudents.

• Eighty percent of attacks against students and 67 percent of those against nonstudents were not reported to the police.

While the numbers who don’t report are high, there are various signs that reporting on college campuses is going up – so “an issue that is steeped in silence is starting slowly to be less silent,” says Laura Dunn, founder of SurvJustice, a legal advocacy group for campus sexual assault survivors.

Among the reasons women don’t report incidents, according to the BJS report: Twenty percent of both groups feared reprisal, and about a quarter said they believed it was a personal matter. Another 12 percent of students and 5 percent of nonstudents said it was not important enough to report.

Those perceptions will change, Ms. Dunn says, only when society, and particularly the justice system, sends the message that these crimes are important. Historically, prosecutors have been more willing to go after rape committed by strangers, she says, while the BJS data indicate that about 80 percent of rapes and sexual assaults against young women, whether students or not, are committed by acquaintances.

Crimes with weapons also tend to be prioritized, Dunn says, but the BJS report shows a weapon was used in only 10 percent of the rapes and sexual assaults against women in both groups.

Efforts to force reporting of campus rapes to the police, such as a recent proposal in Virginia, would be misguided, Dunn and some other victim advocates say. Victims need support to respond in the way that is right for them, they say.

Sixteen percent of students and 18 percent of nonstudents in the BJS report said they received assistance from a victim-service agency. The report “underscores that we need to ensure that victim support services are available for all,” says Scott Berkowitz, president and founder of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), in a statement. (RAINN operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline.)

The report focuses on females because the sample size of male victims was low. But awareness is growing that males are victims of these crimes, too. Among students, males were the victims in 17 percent of rapes and sexual assaults, compared with 4 percent among nonstudents.

Among the attacks against women in the survey, 97 percent of those against college students were by men, as were 91 percent of those against nonstudents.

As useful as these statistics are, “anytime you are only studying victimization and not perpetration, you are limited in your ability to be helpful in truly solving this problem,” Dunn says. She urges more research to build understanding of the people who commit the crimes, such as findings by David Lisak that many male college students who commit rape do so multiple times.

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