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A new study found that 18.6 percent of women said they experienced a rape or attempted rape during their first year at an upstate New York private university, more evidence of the grim rate of sexual assault at American colleges.
Researchers surveyed 483 incoming female students when they arrived on campus and then at several points throughout the year. Of the women, 28 percent reported experiencing a rape or an attempt before getting to college. During their freshman year, more than one in six said they were assaulted again or for the first time, with more incidents during the fall semester.
By the start of sophomore year, 37 percent of the women reported experiencing a completed or attempted rape since age 14, according to the study published online Wednesday in the Journal for Adolescent Health.
A woman who had experienced an incapacitated assault before college was six times more likely than a woman who hadn't to experience the same type of assault her first year.
The university, which the authors kept anonymous so as to keep the focus on the larger issue of campus violence, is well-regarded academically and draws students from around the country. The freshman sample was 34 percent nonwhite.
Unlike most studies on the subject, the researchers from Brown University, the Syracuse VA Medical Center and the Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island exclusively examined the experiences of freshmen women – the students most vulnerable to sexual assault. They also didn't include less-severe forms of sexual assault, such as forced kissing and touching.
Given its narrowed focus, it's striking that the study found a rate almost identical to one of the most-cited studies on the subject, which included all undergraduate women and a broader range of sexual violations.
"If we were to include all the categories of sexual assault, we would have ended up with much higher numbers, honestly," said Dr. Kate Carey, a professor at Brown University School of Public Health and the study's lead author.
The study defined rape as, "vaginal, oral, or anal penetration achieved using threats of violence or use of physical force, or using the tactic of victim incapacitation."
The majority of the sexual assaults reported were "incapacitation" assaults, when the person was "unable to object or consent" due to alcohol or drugs. One in seven freshmen women experienced this type of assault, while nearly one in 10 experienced a rape or attempted rape by force.
In a dramatic finding, a woman who had experienced an incapacitated assault before college was six times more likely than a woman who hadn't to experience the same type of assault her first year.
The study did not look at the intoxication level of the perpetrators, so it's unknown how many were also extremely intoxicated and possibly unaware of the woman's inability to consent, or unable to consent themselves.
"Increasingly, prevention programs are trying to speak to the fact that if anyone is too drunk to consent, sex should not happen," said Carey. "I think that is hopefully creeping into the cultural mores of college campuses … If both people are intoxicated … the default should be, 'Oh, we better not.'"
The researchers asked these questions as part of a larger survey about women's health, which covered other issues like alcohol use, mental health and sleep. All incoming freshmen women were invited to participate, and those that agreed filled in monthly surveys through the school year and summer for $10 a pop. Carey thinks that might explain the high prevalence rate.
Second-guessing women when they report being mistreated feels not very 21st century.
Dr. Kate Carey
Brown University professor
"Trust and engagement with the project might have resulted in higher reports," she said, noting that around 87 percent of the sample filled in each subsequent survey.
Carey also pointed out that the study’s wide scope in subject matter likely reduced selection bias. The fact that women who have experienced a sexual violation might be more drawn to participate in a study on the subject has been a common critique of past research.
These findings add to a growing pile of literature on the prevalence rate of sexual violence on American campuses. Last year, the White House called for colleges to conduct their own climate surveys, and a bipartisan coalition of senators introduced legislation last summer that would make such surveys mandatory. The Association of American Universities administered its own climate survey to 28 campuses this spring and is expected to publish the results in the fall.
In October, the University of Oregon released the results of its survey, which found that almost 1 in 5 women reported experiencing a rape or attempted rape. That same month, M.I.T. published its findings that 17 percent of female undergrads reported experiencing a sexual assault.
These statistics are typically met with a chorus of horror and a sizeable amount of skepticism. Some question whether the nature of these surveys might exaggerate the numbers and overblow the issue, by using overly broad or murky definitions or avoiding the words "rape" and "sexual assault" in survey questions.
"Second-guessing women when they report being mistreated feels not very 21st century," said Carey. "It's just as much rape when I say, 'No, I don't want to,' as 'I've changed my mind,' or, 'Stop,' and the person doesn't stop."
She added: "Unless we start incorporating those scenarios into our understanding of sexual assault then it can be hard to comprehend these numbers."