Universities Have 'Definitional Problem' When It Comes to Sexual Violence

Expert says college crime reports difficult to examine due to differing definitions of rape, sexual assault

An American University student on a Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Task Force dealing with campus sexual assaults and violence, speaks with fellow students
An American University student on a Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Task Force dealing with campus sexual assaults and violence, speaks with fellow students / Getty Images
October 3, 2017

A "definitional problem" in universities' descriptions of sexual violence makes it difficult to know what can be learned from the newly released data on crime at institutions of higher learning, the president of a conservative women's organization told the Washington Free Beacon.

"When one person or school says 'rape' or 'sexual assault,' it may be referring to something different than when someone else says it, so we aren't comparing apples to apples," said Carrie Lukas of the Independent Women's Forum, about the annual security reports universities release yearly on Oct. 1, as federally mandated under the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Statistics Act.

The Clery Act, as the policy is known, was named for Jeanne Clery, a 19-year-old raped and murdered in her dorm room by a fellow student at Lehigh University in 1986. It requires that colleges document crimes that occur on campus, outline the safety policies in place, and compile the information in annual reports containing three years' worth of data.

Most university reports reviewed by the Free Beacon adhere to the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics' definition of rape, or "the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim." However, there are instances of administrations making revisions.

According to Lukas, these divergences and the subjectivity of the term "consent" can be misleading to the public.

"For example, to some people consent is impossible when intoxicated, but not everyone," said Lukas. "This graying of definitions drives the numbers, and that's how we get statistics like 'one in five.'"

Lukas was referring to the widely disputed claim that one in five women will be sexually assaulted on a U.S. college campus. She noted that when she and others question that assertion, they are often accused of not taking sexual violence against women seriously.

"The opposite is true," said Lukas. "We are demanding that a serious problem be treated seriously, and that starts with defining the problem correctly."

A review of the security reports of 30 universities revealed a spread of zero to well over two dozen incidences of rape on a given campus in 2016. A snapshot of the country's top schools show Princeton University reporting 13 rapes, Harvard 27, and Yale 24. Colleges also accounted for incidents that were classified as "unfounded" following investigation, meaning accusations deemed baseless or false.

Lukas said that just as extremely high frequencies of rape should give the public pause, schools claiming to have zero offenses are "likely under-reporting," possibly because students are uncomfortable coming forward.

This year, 10 universities have been fined for violations of the Clery Act, including for under-reporting.

To Lukas, the statistics are interesting, but more important is meaningful action.

"We have to prioritize what is preventable and punishable. That means having an actual justice system responsible for investigating and prosecuting cases, and teaching young men and women to take more responsibility and take action that helps avoid bad outcomes," she explained.

Lukas added that sexual violence reform advocates who call preventative education "victim shaming" or "victim blaming" aren't "doing our young women any favors."

"We teach our kids to take precautions in all of their other activities. If you're walking in a neighborhood with a high crime rate, you are told to be alert and vigilant. Why on this issue aren't we allowed to discuss those measures?" said Lukas.

With Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rolling out reforms of the Title IX policies that guide the approach of administrations to campus sexual violence, Lukas said the country may be poised to excise the ambiguities from an issue that demands rigor and focus.

Published under: College Campuses