What Percent of College Women are Sexually Assaulted in College?
A spotlight is now on sexual assault in college, as college administrators, students, parents, activists, the media, and federal educational regulators all grapple with the issue. Many want to know how common an experience sexual assault is for college women.
Here we provide new estimates on the prevalence of sexual assault among college women from the Online College Social Life Survey (Paula England, principal investigator), a survey of more than 20,000 students from 21 four-year colleges and universities in the U.S., collected between 2005 and 2011.
We presented women taking the survey with three scenarios. We asked if each had ever happened to them since they started college. The questions read:
Since you started college
- have you had sexual intercourse that was physically forced on you?
- has someone tried to physically force you to have sexual intercourse, but you got out of the situation without having intercourse?
- has someone had sexual intercourse with you that you did not want when you were drunk, passed out, asleep, drugged, or otherwise incapacitated?
To get estimates of the proportion of women who experience each of these things sometime during four years of college, we use just the data for those who were fourth-year seniors when they took the survey.
This figure below gives the brief summary, and the table below it provides more details on what we found:
Note: Includes only heterosexual women who were no older than 24. Results exclude 5th and higher year seniors.
Our conclusions are:
1. By their fourth year of college
- 10% of women report having been physically forced to have intercourse,
- 15% report that someone attempted to physically force them unsuccessfully,
- 11% report having had unwanted intercourse when incapacitated, and
- 25% of women report experiencing at least one of these things.
2. How many women experience something approximating a legal definition of sexual assault? Such definitions vary from state to state, but many states include not only those who had intercourse physically forced on them, but also those who had intercourse when they were incapacitated, as such people are seen to be incapable of giving consent. In some states, sexual assault also includes unsuccessful attempts to physically force intercourse. Including all these, we estimate that 25% of women experience some sort of sexual assault by their fourth year of college.
Technical Appendix: Comparisons to Other Studies, and Our Data and Procedures
Our estimates from the OCSLS are similar to those of the College Sexual Assault study (called CSA, by Krebs et al. 2007, 2009), a 2005-06 online survey of a random sample of students from two U.S. state universities. Krebs et al. (2009, Table 1) found that 7% of senior women reported having experienced physically forced sexual assault (we found 10%) and 16% reported intercourse when incapacitated (we found 11%). When combining both types of completed sexual assault (physically forced and incapacitated) as well as attempted sexual assault, Krebs. et al. (2007, p. 5-3) found that 26% of seniors reported one of these (we found 25%). Both our study and the CSA have substantially higher estimates for college students than the National Crime Victimization Survey (Sinozich and Langton 2014). We suspect that this may be because the NCVS was presented to respondents as a survey about crime; past research shows that women often do not think of what happened to them as a crime, even when it meets legal definitions of rape or sexual assault (Fisher et al. 2003; Kahn et al. 2003).
Our estimates come from the OCSLS (Online College Social Life Survey), which surveyed over 20,000 students from 21 U.S. four-year colleges and universities between 2005 and 2011. It is not a panel study; we did not follow participants over time. Thus, we estimate the percent of women who experience various scenarios across four years of college by using only the responses given by fourth-year seniors. Some students spend more than four years in college, but we did not include 5th and higher year seniors as they may be atypical in four-year institutions; our estimates are slightly higher if they are included. We also excluded students over 24 years of age as their experiences may be atypical.
We limit the analysis to women who reported on the survey that they were heterosexual. The experiences with sexual assault of lesbians, bisexual women, and men are important also; we plan future blog posts addressing them.
Although this post focuses on the percent of women experiencing sexual assault, that was not the major focus of the OCSLS, which asked questions about students’ experiences with and attitudes toward dating, hooking up, relationships, and sexuality. The questions we used to estimate experience with sexual assault are listed above. The questions were not preceded by any introduction that used terms such as “rape” or “sexual assault.” We did not include questions about kinds of sexual assault not involving intercourse.
The colleges and universities in OCSLS include elite private universities and colleges as well as state universities. The majority of the sample attended state universities—usually the flagship school of the state. (The 21 schools are listed in Armstrong et al. 2012.) The schools are mostly in the top half of U.S. schools according to their average SAT scores. It is not known whether more selective schools, which enroll students who, on average, are from more affluent backgrounds, have higher or lower rates of rape. There is, however, one study comparing rates of victimization compare between college students and the women who don’t go to college. This U.S. Department of Justice report concludes that college-age women not going to college report rates of rape and sexual assault 20% higher than those going to college (Sinozich and Langton 2014). Thus, one should not conclude from our findings for college women that sexual assault is limited to or higher for college students than for other women of the same age.
A limitation of the OCSLS is that the sample of schools is not a probability sample, and we were not able to use probability sampling within each school. Most of the sample was obtained through making agreements with professors to offer a few points of extra credit to their students for taking the online survey. As a result of the extra credit, in most classes nearly 100% participated. Thus, any nonrepresentativeness of the sample is a result of which schools we chose and which students enrolled in the classes that recruited participants; the near census in participating classes ensures that respondents are not atypical of students in these classes because of who chose to take the survey. Although the classes were mostly (but not exclusively) sociology courses, because many students take such courses as electives, the sample was only approximately 10% sociology majors, so this should not be an important source of sampling bias.
Researchers who wish to use the OCSLS data can contact Paula England at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Armstrong, Elizabeth, England, Paula and Fogarty, Allison C.K. 2012. “Accounting for Women’s Orgasm and Sexual Enjoyment in College Hookups and Relationships.” American Sociological Review 77(3) 435–462.
Fisher, Bonnie S., Leah E. Daigle, Leah E., Cullen, Francis T., and Turner, Michael G. 2003. “Acknowledging Sexual Victimization as Rape: Results from a National-Level Study.” Justice Quarterly 20,3: 535-574.
Krebs, C. P., Lindquist, C.H., Warner, T.D., Fisher, B.S., and Martin, S.L. 2009. “College Women’s Experiences with Physically Forced, Alcohol- or Other Drug-Enabled, and Drug-Facilitated Sexual Assault Before and Since Entering College.” Journal of American College Health 57(6): 639-47.
Kahn, Arnold S., Jackson, Jennifer, Kully, Christine, Badger, Kelly, and Halvorsen, Jessica. 2003. “Calling it Rape: Differences in Experiences of Women Who do or do not Label Their Sexual Assault as Rape.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 27:233-242.
Krebs, C. P., Lindquist, C.H., Warner, T.D., Fisher, B.S., and Martin, S.L. 2007. The Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study. This was the report to the federal funding agency, accessed at https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/221153.pdf.
Sinozich, Sofi and Langton, Lynn. 2014 (December). Rape and Sexual Victimization Among College-Age Females, 1995-2013. Special Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Studies.