Even with all of the publicity regarding the prevalence of rape on college campuses, the actual number of such assaults that occur in a typical school year remains a matter of debate. While some research backs up the frequently repeated assertion that one in five female undergraduates experience some type of sexual assault, other experts argue the actual percentage is far smaller.
A new study won't end the debate, but it provides evidence that sexual accounts among newcomers to campus are far from uncommon.
A total of 483 female students at a major private university were surveyed periodically during their freshman year, a period when young women are thought to be particularly vulnerable.
Fifteen percent reported that, during that year, they were the victim of either an attempted or completed "incapacitated rape" (that is, one where their resistance was reduced due to alcohol or drug use). Nine percent said they had experienced the trauma of a completed or attempted forcible rape.
"Students who experienced incapacitated rape before entering college were six times more likely to experience incapacitated rape, and more than four times more likely to be forcibly raped during the first year of college."
After accounting for some overlap between those figures, a total of 18.6 percent said they were the victim of a completed or attempted rape during their first full year of college (including the summer between their freshman and sophomore years).
Over that 12-month period, 6.6 percent of the young women reported they were forcibly raped; 9.6 percent reported they were raped while intoxicated or high; 7.3 percent said they had experienced an attempted forcible rape; and 12.6 percent said they experienced an attempted rape while incapacitated.
These numbers reflect "epidemic levels" of sexual assault, according to lead author Kate Carey of Brown University's Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences. Her paper is published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
The women were surveyed as they entered college, at the end of the fall and spring semesters, and as they were about to begin their sophomore year. Detailed definitions of different types of rape were included, so that participants would not conflate sexual assault with other offenses.
To that end, the women were asked whether, and how often, a man had attempted to "overwhelm you with arguments or continual pressure for sex, use physical force, threaten to harm you or someone close to you, (or) perform sexual acts while you were incapacitated by drugs or alcohol."
In asking such questions of incoming freshmen, the study also shed a light on a fact that is often left out of the campus-rape discussion: Many young women entering college have already been the victim of sexual assaults. Among the women surveyed, six percent said they had been forcibly raped in their pre-college years, while another nine percent were victims of rape via incapacitation.
Such women are at great risk of having the same thing happen at school. As Heather McCauley of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine notes in an accompanying editorial: "Students who experienced incapacitated rape before entering college were six times more likely to experience incapacitated rape, and more than four times more likely to be forcibly raped during the first year of college, compared with women who had not."
So the habit of getting drunk or high in questionable settings, which makes one more vulnerable to rape, is often set before one's college years begin. This suggests counseling and other interventions intended to limit substance abuse are an important component of lowering the rate of rape on campus—as are programs designed to educate both men and women about appropriate sexual boundaries.
As Carey and her colleagues put it: "These data make clear that prevention programs for both men and women in both high school and college are necessary. Programs may need to address trauma-related concerns for previously victimized women."
Even if a destructive pattern didn't start at college, perhaps it can end there.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.