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JOHNSON: One in five or one in 5000?

Estimating bounds on the incidence of sexual violence against female students at the University

In the movie “Star Trek: Insurrection,” the Federation, secretly in cahoots with the renegade Son’a, is planning to surreptitiously transport 600 Ba’ku off of their planet in order to make use of the rejuvenating rays of the planet’s rings. In response to Captain Picard’s protest that the involuntary relocation of the Ba’ku is immoral, the Federation’s Admiral Dougherty replies haughtily: “Jean-Luc, we’re only moving 600 people.” In Abrahamic fashion, Picard counters: “How many people does it take, Admiral, before it becomes wrong? A thousand? Fifty thousand? A million?”

At the University, we are wrestling with a similar moral question: When does the number of victims of rape, sexual assault and interpersonal violence among our students, staff and faculty become too many? How many victims must there be before we acknowledge them and unite to eradicate this societal evil from our community?

Despite extensive discussion on the prevalence of sexual assault on American campuses, I’ve seen neither estimates of the number of possible sexual assaults on Grounds nor estimates on the number of male and female survivors of sexual violence among our students, staff and faculty. Considering the enormous personal, social and economic cost of sexual violence, it is imperative that we have at least a rough estimate of the number of annual victims and the number of survivors of sexual assault living and working among us, in order to guide decisions concerning the allocation of resources for prevention of sexual assault and for support of survivors.

In this article, I summarize calculations using published data from the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study (CSA) and the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NIPSVS) to estimate upper and lower bounds, respectively, on the number of annual sexual assaults on female undergraduate and graduate students at the University.

A primary criticism levied against the CSA Study is that the statistics obtained from 5,446 undergraduate female students were derived from only two public universities. Accordingly, the CSA findings, that 15.9 percent of the undergraduate women reported experiencing attempted or completed sexual assault before college, that 19 percent of the undergraduate women reported experiencing attempted or completed sexual assault during college and that a total of 28.5 percent of the undergraduate women reported experiencing attempted or completed sexual assault before or since entering college, can be reliably applied only to the two universities polled in the study. These numbers do not differ significantly, however, from the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study findings of over 17,000 adults which concluded the prevalence of contact sexual assault for girls under 18 was 25 percent. Therefore, I use the findings reported in the CSA study as an upper-bound estimate of the prevalence of sexual assault on Grounds.

The NIPSVS contains extensive interview data concerning sexual violence collected from over 16,000 individuals. Assuming sexual violence and assault occur uniformly across all socioeconomic strata and that University students are representative of the American population as a whole, the NIPSVS statistics can be mapped directly onto the University population. Since no one, to my knowledge, argues American campuses are safer for women than other environments, I use these data to produce a lower-bound estimate on the number of sexual assaults on Grounds.

Mapping the CSA data onto the current female undergraduate population at the University provides an upper-bound estimate: 401 female undergraduates who may experience sexual assault yearly; 1,343 and 1,001 female undergraduates who may have experienced either sexual assault before matriculation or sexual assault while enrolled at the University, respectively. Thus, 2,344 of 8,445 female undergraduates currently on Grounds (27.7 percent or about one-in-four) may be survivors of sexual assault.

Mapping the NIPSVS data onto the undergraduate female student population provides a lower-bound estimate: 77 female undergraduates who may be raped per year; 607 and 192 female undergraduates who may have been raped before matriculation or who may have been raped while enrolled at the University.

Mapping NIPSVS and CSA Study data onto the University student population suggests that between 264 and 401 undergraduate female students at the University may experience sexual assault per year.

Mapping NIPSVS data onto the student population yields, as a lower bound estimate, 127 on-Grounds female students aged 18-25 who may be raped each year.

Mapping NIPSVS data onto the female student population provides a lower-bound estimate: 2,086 current undergraduates who may have experienced sexual assault before matriculation and 660 undergraduates who may experience sexual assault while enrolled at the University.

Mapping NIPSVS data onto the female student population yields, as a lower-bound estimate, 4,565 of the 11,500 female students on Grounds, almost four in 10, who may have experienced sexual assault during their lifetime.

Mapping ACE data onto the student population suggests that 2,875 female students on Grounds may have experienced contact sexual assault, before ever arriving at the University.

So like Captain Picard and Admiral Dougherty, we are each called upon to make a moral decision. There are likely several hundred sexual assaults per year of just female undergraduates and several thousand female student survivors of sexual abuse on Grounds. How many are too many? What is our individual commitment to eradicating this evil from Grounds? As an institution, what financial and human resources do we provide to prevent sexual violence and to support the thousands in our community who have already experienced it?

I encourage everyone to support, to innovate for and to participate in the many new and ongoing efforts and programs, especially the Green Dot training, to ensure, as President Sullivan has declared, that the University will lead in the prevention of sexual violence and the support of victims of sexual violence.

William C. Johnson is the Chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

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