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We’re Getting Better Data On Sexual Assault, But We Need To Ask Better Questions

As stories about college sexual assault continue to make headlines, we’re getting more and better data to help inform our discussions of rape on campus. But qualitative data on sexual assault for those not in college is still tough to come by.

A new survey from The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 20 percent of women who attended college since 2011 say they were sexually assaulted. That number is consistent with the widely reported, but now widely disputed, statistic from a 2007 study that 1 in 5 women are raped during their time in college. But what’s particularly interesting about this survey is that it asked a variety of descriptive questions about aspects of campus life that might affect rates of rape and sexual assault. The survey included questions about consent, alcohol use, school atmosphere and universities’ efforts to combat sexual assault.

Collecting data on these cultural factors can create a more nuanced understanding of the complex issue of sexual assault on campus. However, surveys that look at rape and sexual assault in the general population are typically crime- or public-health-focused, and so we don’t have the same amount of information about nonstudent sexual assaults as we do for college students.

One of the most recent examinations of sexual assault rates among all college-age women is a December 2014 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics using the National Crime Victimization Survey. It showed that, from 1995 to 2013, women ages 18 to 24 were 1.2 times more likely to experience rape or sexual assault when they were not in college.

We can’t compare the specific rates of sexual assaults reported in the BJS study to those reported in the Post-Kaiser survey, as the Post explained, because the surveys cover different but overlapping time periods, employ different methods for counting incidents of sexual assault and use different wording in their questions. But the attitudes and demographic data about the incidents reported can shed some light on the differences between students and nonstudents when it comes to sexual assault.

In general, the student responses found in the Post-Kaiser poll reflect the trends among students in the BJS data, while the attitudes of nonstudents vary significantly from those of their college counterparts in a number of the BJS categories. In addition to a higher rate of sexual assaults, nonstudents were also more likely to be the victims of other violent crimes, more likely to be assaulted by an intimate partner, and more likely to report their sexual assaults to authorities than college students were.

The reasons students gave for not reporting in the BJS study also line up with those expressed in the Post-Kaiser survey. Of those in the BJS study who did not report their assaults, 20 percent of both students and nonstudents said they feared retaliation from their attacker or others. The Post-Kaiser survey also addressed the social consequences that could arise from reporting a sexual assault: 35 percent of students (42 percent of female students and 29 percent of male students) said it was “somewhat likely” or “very likely” that a woman who reports a sexual assault at the respondent’s school would be criticized by other students.

Interestingly, 12 percent of students in the BJS study said their assault was “not important enough” to report, but just 5 percent of nonstudents cited that as a reason for not reporting. Students in the Post-Kaiser survey held widely variable views on consent, with almost half the students saying it was “unclear whether sexual activity when both people have not given clear agreement amounts to sexual assault.” If students aren’t sure whether their experience constitutes sexual assault, they may also hesitate to report the incident.

Students and nonstudents also reported being assaulted in very different types of situations: 51 percent of student assaults occurred while “pursuing leisure activities away from home” and 50 percent of nonstudent assaults occurred while the victims were sleeping or doing other activities at home, according to the BJS. Students were most likely to be assaulted by a friend or acquaintance, while offenders in nonstudent assaults were more split between friends/acquaintances and intimate partners.

The Post-Kaiser study also looked at a number of factors that could affect students’ experiences of sexual assault, including school size, public vs. private school designation, family social class and living on campus. None of these was associated with higher levels of rape and sexual assault. Again, we don’t know how or whether environmental factors affect nonstudents because the NCVS didn’t ask. But the survey did look at geographical trends, and the BJS found that the Midwest had higher rates of sexual assault for both students and nonstudents and that in rural areas, nonstudents were 1.9 times more likely to experience sexual assault than students.

The biggest difference between the BJS and Post-Kaiser surveys is their focus. Where the Post-Kaiser survey covered a variety of topics and asked about situations of unwanted sexual contact, the BJS survey looked at crime, so it asked strictly about rape, sexual assault and other criminal acts. But official terms such as “rape” and “sexual assault” can often be misunderstood, and researchers have said a survey method that uses them may lead to undercounting incidents of sexual violence.

BJS asked the National Research Council to examine its methodology last year, and the group found that the crime-focused survey “may inhibit reporting of incidents that the respondent does not think of as criminal, did not report to the police, or does not want to report to police.”

Maybe if the BJS sponsors another survey with more neutral context, as recommended in the 2014 report, it will look more like the Post-Kaiser survey. That would give us better information about sexual assault outside college campuses, and make it easier to detect any differences.

Abby Abrams is a former data reporter intern for FiveThirtyEight.