Sexual Assault Is an Epidemic. Only the Most Committed Apologist Can Deny It


For as long as college rape has been in the spotlight, there have been detractors insisting that the prevalence and severity of sexual violence on campus isn’t really that bad or that the steps taken to stop sexual assault are too extreme. This week, though, a study out of Brown University should have those people eating crow. Should.

The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, only counted as rape those sexual assaults that were physically forcible or that happened while the victim was incapacitated due to drugs or alcohol. That means the study didn’t include rape by coercion and threats, nor did it include sexual assault other than nonconsenual vaginal, anal, or oral penetration.

Still, with a narrowed focus, the results reiterated past studies: nearly 1 in 5 college freshman surveyed were the victim of a completed or attempted rape their first year at the unnamed university. The study found that 15% of freshmen women reported in surveys a rape or attempted rape while incapacitated, while 9% reported a “forcible rape” or an attempt. Overall, 18.6% of women – taking into account some overlap – told researchers that they’d either been raped or had experienced an attempted rape by the end of their freshmen years.

Lead author of the study, professor Kate Carey of the Brown University School of Public Health and Brown’s Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, told CNN that the percentage of women who experienced sexual assault increased to 37% when women starting their sophomore years were asked about their lives starting at the age of 14. “If I have a class of sophomores, this says that one out of every three will have had something like this in her background, and so to some extent, this is a real call to arms.”

It certainly is. This study puts all the spurious denials of the campus rape epidemic to rest: women are raped on college campuses. A lot.

However, the study’s narrow focus on physical force and incapacitation has already created a space for rape denialists to keep on keepin’ on. The inclusion of sexual assaults that didn’t include penetration, physical force or incapacitation in past research studies made them vulnerable to attack by those who insisted that the results didn’t represent incidents of “real” rape, so I understand why Carey might have wanted to exclude non-penetrative sexual assaults or rapes facilitated by threats or coercion.

But by only including certain kinds of sexual assaults, this study may inadvertently discount the veracity and severity of others that students report. Rape is still rape when it is the result of verbal threats, and sexual assaults are still egregious, traumatizing and illegal, even without penetration. While Carey and her colleagues weren’t setting out to redefine rape, you can be sure that, for some less progressive-minded people, that will be the takeaway.

Indeed, already some folks have glommed onto the results about incapacitated rape and speciously claimed that it demonstrates a need for us to discuss the “taboo” of the link between women’s drinking and rape – which is so taboo that it’s written about with alarming regularity. For the record: yes, there is a relationship between drinking and rape. It’s the one in which a rapist uses alcohol as a weapon.

We need more studies like this one about rape, but we need them to go even further. We need studies about all the different ways that people are raped, sexually assaulted, subjected to non-consensual sex acts and sexually coerced. We need studies about rape not just of young people on campus, but off campus as well. And we need studies that – like this one – relay just how urgently we need real solutions.

But no matter how many victims speak out and no matter how many studies underscore the realities of their situations, there will always be people who will continue to believe that rape isn’t that big of a problem, that women regularly lie about rape and that any efforts to reduce the number of people who are sexually assaulted will do more harm to accused rapists than good for victims and potential future victims. There’s not much you can do with people like that, other than make sure not to be in a room alone with them.

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