It's a startling number -- one that illustrates the urgency of efforts to stop sexual violence on college and university campuses.
But where does this alarming statistic come from? And is it accurate?
Changing How Sexual Violence Is Measured: The Sexual Experiences Survey
The first major study to report the one in four statistic was based on the Sexual Experiences Survey (SES), a questionnaire developed by Mary Koss and her colleagues in the 1980s to correct what they perceived to be shortcomings in the way law enforcement agencies measured sexual violence.
At that time, estimates of rape relied on the FBI's Uniform Crime Report (UCR) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics' (BJS) National Crime Survey (now called the National Crime Victimization Survey).
The UCR, as critics pointed out, only measured rapes reported to law enforcement agencies, even though research dating back to the 1950s indicated that many if not most rapes went unreported (see Kirkpatrick, cited below).
The BJS attempted to make up for this reporting gap by administering the National Crime Survey, which asked representative households about reported and unreported crimes. But critics objected to the way that survey was administered and how its narrow definition of rape, which focused on penile-vaginal penetration, excluded other acts that legally qualified as rape. Furthermore, researchers discovered that the very wording of survey questions about sexual assault influenced how (and if) women responded.
As Koss explained in her journal article, "The Hidden Rape Victim," researchers couldn't simply ask women if they had been the victim of "rape" or "sexual assault" because not all victims recognized or acknowledged that they had been raped. Indeed, the confusion surrounding the definition of rape and stigma attached to its victims made some women reluctant to report or even realize that they had been raped.
Koss called these women "unacknowledged rape victims," explaining, "[a]n unacknowledged rape victim is a woman who has experienced a sexual assault that would legally qualify as rape but who does not conceptualize herself as a rape victim" (Koss 1987, 195).
To overcome this problem, Koss and her colleagues designed survey questions which graphically described rape and other forms of sexual assault without using the word "rape." Koss's descriptions were based on legal definitions and included a broader range of victimization than just penile-vaginal penetration. (It's worth pointing out, however, that Koss's study did not include verbal coercion in the definition of rape, as is sometimes assumed.)
Using the SES questionnaire, Koss found that 27.5% of college women reported experiencing attempted or completed rape since the age of 14 (Koss 1987) . In other words, roughly 1 in 4 women in college had experienced rape -- though not necessarily while in college.
Criticism of "Sexual Politics"
The survey stirred up considerable controversy when Koss published the results in Ms. Magazine. Critics were quick to point out that most of the women identified as rape victims in the survey nonetheless answered "no" to the question "Have you ever been raped," the final item in the survey. Of course, the criticism ignored the fact that Koss designed the survey specifically to correct for the expectation that not all women who had been raped would identify themselves as rape victims.
Critics also argued that the way Koss phrased her questions led to over-reporting. Neil Gilbert, a professor of social welfare at Berkeley and prominent critic of the results, described the survey as "awkward and vaguely worded."
Gilbert was especially critical of Koss's questions about incapacitated assault. For example, one of Koss's questions asked, "Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn't want to because a man gave you alcohol or drugs?" "What does having sex 'because' a man gives you drugs or alcohol signify," wrote Gilbert. "[A]s the question stands it would require a mind reader to detect whether an affirmative response corresponds to a legal definition of rape" (Gilbert 357).
Koss and her colleagues have since revised (and continue to revise) the Sexual Experiences Survey in response to these criticisms, rewording some of the questions to more accurately reflect legal definitions and to be sure that an affirmative response means a crime occurred. However, the approach remains the same: creating a survey with graphically-worded questions that avoid the labels of rape and sexual assault.
Subsequent Surveys: Validating the Original Findings
Koss's original findings continue to be widely cited and are one source of the 1 in 4 statistic.
However, similar surveys have found comparable levels of sexual violence nationally or on college campuses: 1 in 6 U.S. women said they experienced a completed or attempted rape (National Violence Against Women 2000), 1 in 4 to 1 in 5 women experienced completed or attempted rape while at college (The Sexual Victimization of College Women 2000), and 1 in 5 U.S. women have been raped at some time in their lives (CDC 2010).
Most recently the Campus Sexual Assault Study (2007), funded by the National Institute of Justice, reported that 19% or 1 in 5 undergraduate women reported experiencing completed or attempted sexual assault since entering college. When the researchers focused on seniors they found that the number rose to 1 in 4 or 26.3% of college women.
(The Campus Sexual Assault's definition of sexual assault included both sexual battery [forced touching] and rape.)
However, when researchers conducted the same study at four historically black colleges and universities in fall 2008, they found a lower prevalence of sexual assault. 14.2% or 1 in 7 women reported experiencing attempted or completed sexual assault since entering college. When restricted to seniors, that number rose to 16.1%, or 1 in 6 women. These results suggest that the numbers may vary depending on the type and size of institution surveyed.
Nonetheless, today the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study is widely cited as the source of both the 1 in 4 and the 1 in 5 statistic.
Controversy still hounds the Sexual Experiences Survey. Skeptics continue to point to the FBI's and
BJS's reports that show a lower incidence of rape.
In fact, in 2012 the FBI's UCR reported 26.7 forcible rapes per 100,000 inhabitants -- nowhere close to 1 in 4. In 2010, the BJS's National Crime Victimization Survey (which has been revised in response to the SES) reported 2.1 completed and attempted rapes and sexual assaults per 1,000 females 12 or older. While much higher than the FBI's numbers, it is nowhere close to 1 in 4.
The numbers aren't entirely comparable. 1 in 4 is a measure of the prevalence of sexual assault: how many women have experienced sexual assault while at college. The BJS and FBI measure the incidence of sexual assault: how many occurrences there are each year.
And of course, as we've seen, these numbers are affected by what's included in the definition of sexual assault and how the questions are asked.
Nonetheless, the 1 in 4 statistic provides an important context for campus safety and advocacy efforts. Even critics of this statistic acknowledge that rape is vastly under reported. The Sexual Experiences Survey and other similar studies highlight an important problem facing efforts to fight sexual assault on college campuses.
It isn't just about statistics. It's about educating students so they can protect themselves and each other.
Gilbert, Neil. (1992) "Realities and Mythologies of Rape," Society, 4, 356-362.
Kirkpatrick, C. and Kanin, E. (1957) "Male Sex Aggression on a University Campus," American Sociological Review, 22, 52-58.
Koss, M.P. (1985) "The Hidden Rape Victim: Personality, Attitudnal, and Situational Characteristics," Pyschology of Women Quarterly, 9, 193-212.
Koss, M.P., Gidycz, C.A., Wisniewski, N. (1987) "The Scope of Rape: Incidence and Prevalence of Sexual Aggression and Victimization in a National Sample of Higher Education Students," Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55, 162-170.