Is there a Sexual Assault Crisis on College Campuses? Yes and No.

No matter what position you take in discussing rape and sexual assault policy, you can point to some statistic(s) to support your argument. That is largely due to the low quality and/or limited utility of a lot of data about sexual violence. If you do not have any interest in the truth, you can simply pick the statistic you prefer over the ones contrary to your narrative. If, on the other hand, you want a better sense of what is actually happening, you have to put the pieces of data in their proper context. Take, for example, the rate of sexual assault at large universities in the Figure below (based upon Clery Act reports) compared with the rate of forcible rape anywhere in the United States (based upon Uniform Crime Reports).

Figure 1

Taken at face value, you might conclude that sexual assault at large universities has rapidly increased since 2009 and forcible rape has been on a steady decline since 2001. Yet, I think the stronger evidence is that both of those claims are false. The reason that the data is likely misleading is that it relies on reports from institutions under different sets of incentives. As I wrote in my study about the UCR data, police have, based upon my analysis, increasingly been undercounting rape, in part, to meet unrealistic public pressure to continually, repeatedly decrease crime rates. As a result, there has likely been little to no decline (and a possible increase) in the rate of rape since rape rates began falling in the early 90’s.

Why wouldn’t universities have the same incentives to limit reporting of sexual assault incidents to assuage fears of potential applicants, avoid Title IX suits, and maintain a positive public image? I think the best answer is that they still have all of those reasons to undercount, but during the last couple of years another concern has trumped those incentives for a certain segment of large universities. The year 2011 is particularly important because that is when the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke. The figure below shows what happened to sexual assault reports at Penn State.

Penn State

Since 2010, according to Penn State’s Clery Act submissions, sexual assault has increased by an unbelievable 1389%. Is that because sexual assault has been increasing on campus? Almost certainly not. As part of the fallout from the Sandusky scandal and the issuance of the Freeh report, Penn State had its lax Clery Act compliance exposed. Similar spikes have happened at other large universities which account for entire increase during the last two reporting cycles. Big 10 schools, of which Penn State is one, have had the change in their collective rates of rape outpace the national average increase by nearly three times. What seems to be happening since 2011 (when the largest increase in sexual assault occurred) is that increased reporting at some schools has led to a significant spike in reported crimes. Other factors during that time frame such as increased Clery Act audits and Title IX lawsuits might have played a role as well.

So, based upon that assessment, is there a sexual assault crisis on campuses? It depends. If by “crisis” you mean an escalating problem based upon increasing rates of sexual assault, then I don’t think so. However, if by “crisis” you mean a serious ongoing problem with significant ramifications, then the best evidence supports that conclusion.



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8 Responses

  1. Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk says:

    In other words, there is a crisis, so long as we redefine the word in an idiosyncratic fashion inconsistent with how educated speakers use the term. A “crisis” is “a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger.” New Oxford American Dictionary 410 (3d ed. 2010). By definition, the term only has meaning with reference to other, less difficult, troublesome, or dangerous times or circumstances (i.e., it is the intensification of difficulty, trouble, or danger that distinguishes a crisis from circumstances that are not crises). Trying to redefine the term as “a serious ongoing problem with significant ramifications” is contrary to the accepted meaning of “crisis.” Rape (and other forms of violence) have been “a serious ongoing problem with significant ramifications” for the duration of human history. Is it your thesis that the entirety of human history constitutes a rape crisis? Respectfully, I think we are entitled to presume lack of merit (and perhaps even lack of good faith) in an argument that depends on a surreptitious and unjustified redefinition of common terms.

  2. Corey Yung says:

    Or maybe, just maybe, “crisis” has multiple meanings. I’m at home and am limited to online sources, but…

    Oxford English: a time when a difficult or important decision must be made

    Merriam-Webster: a difficult or dangerous situation that needs serious attention

    It seems strange to presume bad faith/merit by an author when I could have simply posted part of Figure 1 and said we have a “crisis” that is getting worse. Instead, I actually say you can’t rely on the stats that, taken at face value, strongly indicate an escalating crisis. I think there is an ongoing crisis on university campuses, but not an increasing one (which I will be exploring in future posts as well). Hardly the conclusion of a blinded ideologue.

    Cherry-picking one possible definition of a word, on the other hand, seems like bad faith to me.

    • Douglas Levene says:

      Maybe I’m doing the math wrong, but the charts seem to indicate that the reported incidence of rape is about .03%; even if it’s underreported by a factor of ten (which is far more than most studies suggest), that would only be an incidence of .3%. I am having a hard time seeing how this rather low level of crime can be considered a crisis by any definition, especially when there’s no upward trend.

      • Corey Yung says:

        In this post, I was just hoping to illustrate two things: 1) reported rates don’t necessarily track incidence rates; and 2) the reported rates and directions of change are misleading. In the next two posts, I will be talking about the accuracy and relevance of the reported rates.

        I would quibble with your assessment of underreporting, though. At least among college students, some evidence does indicate an underreporting rate of below 10% for sexual assault. Even absent statistical evidence, there are reasons to believe college students are less likely to report sexual assault. Notably, though, those studies include a wide range of conduct which may be why sexual assault is less reported. Conventional wisdom is that lesser sexual assaults get reported far less than rape. Since almost all studies of university sexual violence include conduct beyond rape, underreporting has to be focused on the entire class of sexual assaults.

  3. Sure, words do sometimes have multiple and even different meanings, depending on context. But which of the two new definitions that you newly put forward in your comment supports (or even bears a material similarity to) the definition you used in your original post, specifically “a serious ongoing problem with significant ramifications”? Neither, I think.

    If one googles Merriam-Webster and uses its online dictionary, the full definition listed does not approximate the one you have offered in your original post in any fashion. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary lists the following definitions:

    “1a: the turning point for better or worse in an acute disease or fever

    b: a paroxysmal attack of pain, distress, or disordered function

    c: an emotionally significant event or radical change of status in a person’s life

    2: the decisive moment (as in a literary plot)

    3a: an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending; especially: one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome

    b: a situation that has reached a critical phase ”

    A temporal comparison or significant difference in circumstances is inherent in each of the preceding definitions. In other words, a “crisis” involves an implicit comparison—a set of circumstances can only be a crisis with respect to some other set of circumstances in a different time or place.

    Sure, Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary does begin with the less specific definition you supply in your comment (“a difficult or dangerous situation that needs serious attention”) before providing the full definition I have listed above. But a temporal or circumstantial comparison is inherent even in the less specific definition that you supply—i.e., why does the present situation command our serious attention now as opposed to previously? The same is no less true of the second definition you supply in your comment (“a time when a difficult or important decision must be made”)—i.e., why does a set of circumstances now require a difficult decision to be made as opposed to previously?

    But the definition of crisis that you put forward in your original post—“a serious ongoing problem with significant ramifications”—utterly lacks this comparative aspect. And as a result, “a serious ongoing problem with significant ramifications” simply is not sustainable as a definition of “crisis.” If you think otherwise, then offer an actual argument in favor of the appropriateness of the usage in this (or any other) context.

    As for bad faith, I noted that your argument “perhaps” warranted this assumption. I think your citation of Merriam-Webster without noting that its full definition utterly contradicts your argument arguably is compatible with bad faith as well. But there are alternative explanations, of course. You simply may not appreciate the rhetorical sleight-of-hand that your argument represents. Even if made in the best of faith, however, your argument that there is a “crisis” is meritless.

    • Corey Yung says:

      Given that you said I used “the word in an idiosyncratic fashion inconsistent with how educated speakers use the term,” you might forgive me for not giving much weight to your “perhaps” qualifier.

      My inclusion of two definitions (without a complete list) is hardly bad faith when I am arguing in favor of multiple interpretations of the same word. I need only show that the two views I outlined in the original post are both viable. You are the one defending the view that there is one, exclusive definition. For that, you have an obligation of completeness.

      Even under the complete definitions from Merriam-Webster, 3b is at odds with your narrow conception of the term. The 1 and 2 definitions seem tangential to the context we are talking about. And I think my defining crisis as “a serious ongoing problem with significant ramifications” is entirely consistent with crisis as “a difficult or dangerous situation that needs serious attention.”

      I’m not sure any agreement is possible on this, but the notion that a crisis can simply be a serious situation without a time-comparative piece strikes me as entirely non-controversial. Regardless, in my post, I clearly set out two possible definitions of the term and engage in no sleight of hand. If you choose to reject one definition I use, that is your choice, but hardly indicative of general consensus against it as a viable interpretation. Rarely will you find a blog post that so transparently offers definitions of the term used.

      Moving beyond dictionaries, I just did a quick Google News search and saw these headlines:

      “Ebola Crisis Puts Sierra Leone on Three-Day National Lockdown”
      “Utah facing affordable housing crisis, advocates tell lawmakers”
      “Financial Crisis, Six Years On: Liquidating Lehman”

      Other headlines are consistent with the definition you espouse as the only possible meaning.

      Of course, “crisis” is a comparative term in that there must be a category of “not crisis.” However, what defines a crisis isn’t exclusively marked by rapid change in circumstances (although, as we both agree, that is one possibility). “Crisis,” as supported by common usage and dictionary definitions, can be defined solely by the potential negative ramifications (“difficult[y] or dangerous[ness]”) of the situation insofar as there is a strong normative argument for acting to rectify it (“needs serious attention”).

  4. Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk says:

    Merriam-Webster’s definition 3b is not compatible with your usage, and in fact contains the very idea that I maintain is essential to the definition of “crisis.” The notion that a situation has reached a critical phase is pregnant with the idea that it previously occupied some other phase—a non-acute phase. In other words, change over time is again inherent in its meaning.

    I’m not advocating that there is just one definition of “crisis” in a narrow sense. Rather what I am saying is that all of definitions of “crisis” have one thing in common—a change of circumstances over time, specifically a deterioration in situation, escalation of danger, or the like, and that this is fundamental to these definitions. Without this feature, the term really does not have any useful meaning. Murder, for example, has been “a serious ongoing problem with significant ramifications” in all times and places in human history. If this a crisis makes, then we dwell in a state of perpetual, insoluble crisis. But that is not how anyone uses the term. We do not refer to a generic murder crisis, though we might refer to some statistically significant increase in murder rates in a particular time or place (relative to other times or places) as a crisis.

    One cannot define terms as one likes, Humpty-Dumpty style. And I think that is what you are doing here, based on dictionary definitions and a mountain of readily available examples from everyday usage—crisis is a frequently used term with an unambiguous, well-accepted meaning. You certainly have not supplied any examples of usage that match your own. In this regard, I cannot fathom what you intend by the news headlines you quote. None of these headlines contradicts anything I have said and they certainly do not support your redefinition of crisis as “a serious ongoing problem with significant ramifications.” The bone of contention between us is whether there must be some change in circumstances over time—an intensification of difficulty, trouble, or danger—in order for a situation to constitute a crisis. How do any of the headlines even begin to support your position that this is not an essential part of the definition of “crisis”?

    To the extent that they are meaningful at all, I think the three headlines you quote actually undermine your position. (1) The Sierra Leone headline almost explicitly contradicts your usage. It indicates a deterioration in circumstances or increase in danger (whether real or merely perceived), hence the advent of the lockdown. (2) The Utah headline is more difficult to parse. Taking the housing advocates’ position at face value, presumably there was a prior point at which there was not an acute shortage of affordable housing in Utah. Markets are not static after all. But the headline alone supplies little context as to how the term “crisis” is being used. If you google the headline, however, the actual story is available and it confirms a worsening of circumstances over time is at issue. See Marjorie Cortez, Utah facing affordable housing crisis, advocates tell lawmakers, Deseret News, Sept. 17, 2014 (“As the demand for housing has increased, federal funding has remained stagnant, largely because Congress has been deadlocked on budget bills.”). (3) The Lehman article implicitly contradicts your position. It does suggest that the financial crisis is longstanding. But our debate is not about whether a crisis can endure for a substantial time; it is about what makes a set of circumstances a crisis in the first place. The fact that the Lehman headline pinpoints a time of origin—i.e., six years ago—implicitly suggests that something occurred at that point in time that made the situation a crisis. However bad the situation might have been previously, something happened six years ago—things got worse, worse enough to become a crisis.

    I do agree that you explicitly state your definition of “crisis” in your post. The sleight-of-hand, however, consists of defining the word in a fashion incompatible with its ordinary meaning and nonchalantly presenting this non-standard definition as “entirely non-controversial.” You are in effect making a rather controversial claim about whether the situation constitutes a crisis via the redefinition of the term without acknowledging it.

    Finally, you misstate my position in your last paragraph. I am not claiming that a crisis is “exclusively marked by a rapid change in circumstances,” merely that a change in circumstances over time is inherent in the term. The length of time is irrelevant. Crises may arise suddenly or result from a long train of events. Either way, some change is required over time, which is why we commonly hear that something has become a crisis or developed into a crisis. Your proposed definition of “crisis” as “potential negative ramifications (‘difficult[y] or dangerous[ness]’) of the situation insofar as there is a strong normative argument for acting to rectify it (‘needs serious attention’)” fails to distinguish between situations that are crises and those which are not and does not provide any criteria for distinguishing the two. A difficulty or danger significant enough to warrant attention may or may not be a crisis—i.e., not every public policy issue that merits redress is a crisis. Under your redefinition of the term, virtually any serious problem that arguably should be addressed qualifies as a crisis. And that cannot be right.

  5. Brett Bellmore says:

    Gotta say, I think he’s right: “Crisis” inherently suggests change. Things “come to” a crisis, they don’t just simmer along at one for decades. So, “if by “crisis” you mean a serious ongoing problem with significant ramifications,”, you’re misusing the language.