Youth Services Law

Sexual Assault Facts, Myths, and Statistics

Statistics"Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable."  Mark Twain

1 in 5 college women have been raped, 1 in 4 girls will be sexually assaulted before age 18, and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused by the same age.  We have all heard these statistics at one time or another.  And all of those statistics are wrong.

I understand why people dealing with these issues like shocking numbers.  After all, big solutions require big problems, and both governments and donors respond more quickly and generously to crises.  But bad statistics are never a good foundation for public policy or credible fundraising.

The 1 in 5 number persists, despite its flaws, simply because it supports a new government policy.  Advocates ignore the facts that it comes from an online survey of two public universities with a low response rate, and that the survey included behavior ranging from forcible rape to drunken sex.   The emotional fallout from forcible rape is completely different from regret after a voluntary, but intoxicated, encounter.  The two situations deserve two different policy solutions 

As the Washington Examiner and Washington Post both have pointed out, the study simply is not reliable enough to generalize its findings to all college campuses.  Even the government agency that commissioned the study says, "Regardless of which studies are most accurate, the often-quoted statistic that one in four American college women will be raped during her college years is not supported by the scientific evidence."

The numbers about child abuse have similar problems.  The 1 in 4 and 1 in 6 numbers come from retrospective studies of adults, and don't distinguish among the ages of perpetrators.  A 13-year-old girl who has sex with her 15-year-old boyfriend, or a 6-year-old child who plays doctor with an 8-year-old peer, experiences very different damages than a 12-year-old girl victimized by a 30-year-old.

The only accurate answer to "how many rapes and child incidents" is "too many."  I know that that is not an emotionally satisfying answer, and it does not support big fundraising campaigns or sweeping new laws.  But any other answer is not completely accurate, and, no matter how well-intentioned, eventually becomes a lie.

Stay Connected

Subscribe to blog updates via email

Contributors