Sexual assault coverage contradicts statisticsBy Amy Grade • April 5, 2012 • Category: News
A Google news search for “sexual assault” or “rape” returns pages of reports about incidents that include children, priests, celebrities, people in foreign countries and unknown assailants. This focus in media coverage suggests these categories of individuals are the primary victims and perpetrators of these crimes. The reality of sexual assault, however, is a much different and complicated story, especially for college students.
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network estimates that one in six women and one in 33 men will be victims of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. Approximately 73 percent of all victims know their assailant; and within that statistic, 85 percent of female victims know their assailant.
Research by the American Association of University Women and Sarah Lawrence College finds higher rates on college campuses. One in four college women will experience sexual assault, and between 80 and 90 percent will know their attacker.
These statistics directly contradict the “stranger in a dark alley” scenario that dominates news reports of sexual assault against women. The AAUW reports that 71 percent of rapes are planned in advance.
A darker side of targeted sexual assault involves the use of intoxicants. Antihistamines, barbiturates, and benzodiazepines, such as Rohypnol and GHB, are used to incapacitate victims. These drugs are extremely powerful, fast-acting and can cause memory loss. They render people mentally and physically incapacitated as well.
What people do not realize, however, is that alcohol is the most common drug involved in sexual assaults. Sarah Lawrence College and the AAUW report that 50 to 75 percent of sexual assaults involve alcohol.
Understanding all elements of sexual assault is essential to prevention, for perpetrators as well as for victims. This includes understanding the impact of environmental influences like alcohol as well as knowing the definitions of sexual assault.
Sexual assault can be loosely defined as unwanted sexual touching or penetration without consent. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, rape can be defined as forced sexual intercourse by means of psychological coercion or physical force. Coercion includes words or situations that make someone fear that their safety is threatened if they don’t have sex. This type of assault includes using physical size or strength, badgering, bribing or threatening to “out” someone’s sexual identity in a way that causes another person to give in to unwanted sexual acts.
Yet a significant number of men do not recognize or acknowledge coercion as assault. AAUW research shows that 43 percent of college-aged men admitted to using coercion to have sex, including ignoring protests, being physically aggressive and even forcing sex, but none of them recognized or defined their behavior as rape.
Deirdre Dalsing, director of University Counseling Services, finds that many students are surprised to learn that behavior they have engaged in might have met the definition of sexual assault.
“Verbal consent is needed,” Dalsing said. ”It’s not about silence. Going into a room with someone is not consent. Young men are surprised by what they learn when they sit and talk in a nonthreatening manner.”
Ignorance exists on both sides. Sarah Lawrence College and the AAUW both report that nearly half of college women who were victims of sexual assault did not consider what happened to them assault.
A glaring discrepancy also exists between the number of men who admit to having pressured or forced women to have sex and the number of rapes that are reported. A national study of forcible rape by The National Institute of Justice showed that only 12 percent of women who have been raped report it to law enforcement. The AAUW found an even lower law enforcement reporting rate of sexual assault on campus, at 5 percent.
University of Wisconsin-Platteville reporting shakes out significantly different than national statistics. The AAUW’s sexual assault rate tells us that 3 percent of college women will experience sexual assault every academic year. The population of UW-Platteville undergraduate females in 2008 through 2010 would suggest that approximately 62 women experienced sexual assault in 2008, 64 in 2009 and 67 in 2010. If 5 percent of those incidents were reported, then, following the AAUW’s statistics for reporting sexual assault on campus, UW-Platteville would expect to see approximately three sexual assaults reported for each of those years.
Annual reports from the UW-Platteville Campus Police, however, show six sexual offense and assault crimes reported in 2008, eight in 2009 and six in 2010. This significantly higher rate of sexual assault reported could indicate that UW-Platteville students report sexual assault more often than national research indicates, or it may indicate a higher rate of sexual assault at UW-Platteville.
“Those of us working in the trenches of sexual assault advocacy in the last five to seven years want to say we’re building a culture where reporting is working for students, that reporting means students have a voice and options,” Dalsing said. “We’d like to believe that, but we can’t say that’s the case for sure.”
Whether these numbers indicate a higher incidence of assault or rate of reporting or both is a matter that requires further research to determine. Either way, UW-Platteville is not immune to sexual assault. It’s important for all students, men and women alike, to understand sexual assault and take proactive steps to stay safe.
“Prevention has to involve changing perceptions and combating myths,” Dalsing said.
Campus organizations and student groups like the Sexual Assault and Awareness Council and Students Promoting Respect develop ways to educate students about sexual assault throughout the academic year. Sexual Assault Awareness month every April brings an extra opportunity for their efforts toward sexual awareness education through programs, events and speakers on campus.
“Our role on campus is to try to educate, and in educating, we try to clarify misconceptions and inaccuracies about assault,” Dalsing said. “The people who come to programs are passionate about awareness, but most presentations are beneficial for everyone.”