Trivializing violence against women

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.

Trivializing violence against women

Jennifer Gunter is an obstetrician-gynecologist and author of The Preemie Primer. She blogs at her self-titled site, Dr. Jen Gunter.

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  • HJ

    Unless I misunderstood…

    19% of woman suffer sexual assault and of that 19%, 11.9% are raped…so 11.9% of 19% is 2.2%.

  • http://www.dpsinfo.com LaurieMann

    Also, people like Will don’t consider date rape, rape. I think the 20% stat was close nearly 40 years ago and may be worse now.

  • buzzkillerjsmith

    I think George should get back to what he does best: Advocating military adventures in the Middle East that cost us hundreds of billions and make the situation even worse. That is his “core competency.”

  • JR DNR

    We heard a report that 1 out of 5 car accidents involving college students the car catches on fire or roll over. This is obviously way overstated, let me prove it to you!

    12% of car owners file with their insurance if their car catches on fire. (We don’t have numbers for cars rolling over, let’s just ignore that part).

    A University reported there were 98 incidents of cars rolling over or catching on fire on campus that were reported to them over a four year period. (We’ll assume the University reports match the Insurance reports… what can go wrong with that?)

    That means we can estimate there were approximately 817 actual car accidents where the car rolled over or caught on fire. (We have to assume it’s impossible for a college student to be involved in a car accident off campus… that can throw off our calculations can it?)

    The current enrollment of that university is 28,000. That means 2.9% of all students were in a car accident where the car was on fire or rolled over. Not 1 out of 5.

    Professor… You grave me an F? Why? I showed my work I should get some credit…