Earlier this month the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released data from its National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) that looked at rape and sexual assault victimization among college-age women in the last two decades. In particular, the report compared victimization rates between students and non-students.
Because of its focus on college-age women, the report garnered considerable media attention. Articles focused on two findings: nonstudents were more likely to experience rape or sexual assault than students, and the reported victimization rate of 6.1 per 1000 for student women appears much lower than the widely circulated 1 in 5 statistic.
In this post we look at the NCVS’s data in more detail, and consider the implications of its findings for administrators who work on these issues. In a later post, we’ll discuss the NCVS’s purpose and methodology in more detail and explain why its numbers look different from other studies. (You can read our earlier post on a similar topic here.)
NOTE: Unless otherwise indicated, all information here refers to women between the ages of 18 and 24 (i.e. “college-age females”). In this post, we use the term “victim” to refer to individuals who have reported experiencing sexual assault or rape to remain consistent with the NCVS’s own terminology.
1. Nonstudents are more likely to be victimized than students
We lead off with this finding, since it has received the most attention.
The NCVS showed that between 1995 and 2013 female nonstudents between the ages of 18 and 24 were 1.2 times more likely to experience rape and sexual assault than female students of the same age. This difference was largely due to female nonstudents experiencing higher rates of completed rape. There was no significant difference between the two groups for attempted rape or other sexual assault.
In general, the NCVS found that female nonstudents experienced violent victimization at 1.6 times the rate of students. Nonstudents experienced violent victimization at the rate of 73.1 per 1000. Students experienced violent victimization at 46.3 per 1000. Violent victimization includes rape, sexual assault, robbery, and assault (aggravated and simple). The NCVS does not measure homicide.
In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, researcher Callie Marie Rennison reflected on these findings:
The focus on sexual violence against some of our most privileged young people has distracted us from the victimization of those enjoying less social and economic advantage….Above all, we need to remember these women when we talk about rape and sexual assault. Women at the margins are the ones who bear the brunt of the harshest realities, including sexual violence, and they do so with the least resources.
2. Females 18-24 had the highest rate of rape and sexual assault victimization
Buried under the focus on the differences in victimization rates for college-age female students and nonstudents is the fact that overall the group experiences rape and sexual assault at a higher rate than women in any other age group.
In 2013, the rate for both college-age female students and nonstudents was about 4.3 victimizations per 1000, whereas the rate for non-college age females was much lower at 1.4 victimizations per 1000. Between 1995 and 2013, students experienced rape and sexual assault at a rate of 6.1 victimizations per 1000 people. Nonstudents experienced rape and sexual assault at a rate of 7.6 per 1000.
Regardless of whether they are students or non-students, rape and sexual assault among college-age females is a serious problem and deserves the attention and resources it has received. It also highlights the importance of initiatives, such as this one in Ashland, Oregon, which attempt to make the criminal justice system and campuses more responsive to the needs of survivors.
(Note: the NCVS does not measure victimizations for individuals under 12.)
3. Rates of rape and sexual assault for college-age women have held steady
Another finding in the report that has not gotten the attention it deserves is that the rates of sexual assault and rape for college-age women have held steady for the past fifteen years. To quote the report:
For both students and nonstudents ages 18 to 24, the 2013 rates of rape and sexual assault were not significantly different from their respective rates in 1997.
What makes this fact surprising is that, according to the BJS, violent crime has decreased in the past two decades. To quote from the NCVS report on criminal victimization in 2013, “Since 1993, the rate of violent crime has declined from 79.8 to 23.2 victimizations per 1,000 persons age 12 or older.” So the fact that sexual assault and rape victimization have remained stable apparently runs counter to the larger trend for violent crime.
(Although the starting date of ’93 and ’97 are different, the overall trend of decreased violent victimization appears to be consistent with the numbers between ’97 and 2013 as well.)
4. Acquaintance assault is the norm
The NCVS confirmed what we know about the nature of assault. For both students and nonstudents only around 20% of the incidents involved a stranger. On the other hand, for students, 50% of the incidents involved an acquaintanceand another 24% involved an intimate partner. For nonstudents, 34% of assaults involved an intimate partner and 37% involved an acquaintance.
In nearly half of the incidents, the perpetrator had been drinking or using drugs. About 1 in 10 victimizations involved a weapon, and most of the assaults occurred between 6 pm and 6 am.
5. First-year women are not at a greater risk for sexual assault than other female students
Interestingly, there was no significant difference in the rate of victimization by age for female college students. This result seems to undercut the assumption that first year students are more vulnerable to rape and sexual assault than other students. On the other hand, the report does not tell us what time of the year the assaults occurred, so we don’t know if women might be more vulnerable in the first few weeks of school (the “Red Zone”) versus other times in the academic year.
For female nonstudents, on the other hand, the rate of victimization for 18- to 21-year-olds was higher than it was for 22- to 24-year-olds.
6. Male students are more likely to be victimized than nonstudents.
Although the focus of the BJS’s special report was college-age women, some worrying information did emerge about college-age male victims.
Though the rate of sexual assault for male students is much lower than for female students, male students still made up 17% of the victimizations for students. The male victimization rate was 1.4 per 1000 for college students compared to only .3 per 1000 for nonstudents.
In fact, according to the report, male students are five times more likely to experience rape than male nonstudents. This information suggests that schools could do well to focus on creating resources to support male survivors.
7. Rape and sexual assault are the most underreported violent crimes
Female students were less likely to report the assault than female nonstudents: 20% of female student victimizations were reported to the police, compared to 33% of female nonstudent victimizations. Furthermore, only 16% of female students received assistance from a victim service agency.
By comparison, the NCVS indicates that 45.6% of all violent crimes in 2013 were reported to the police. According to the NCVS, rape and sexual assault are the violent crimes least likely to be reported to the police: just 34.8% of all rapes or sexual assaults are reported to the police.
Some of the reasons female students didn’t report were:
1.) They felt it was a personal matter (26%)
2.) They feared reprisal (20%)
3.) They did not think it was serious enough to report (12%)
The fact that 1 in 5 student victims feared reprisal is deeply troubling and suggests that much work needs to be done to change campus climates that still suffer from attitudes and beliefs that discourage victims from coming forward.
As recommended by the White House Task Force Report, climate surveys are a good way for colleges and universities to better understand the problem on their campuses and could provide a valuable way for schools to determine the next step in developing their own prevention programs.