He gaped at me in disbelief. Not the “I-had-no-idea-that-this-was-a-problem” kind of disbelief — the “I-don’t-accept-what-you’re-telling-me” kind of disbelief. This college senior argued that studies purporting to measure the occurrence of sexual assault suffer from flawed design and suboptimal sample sizes and can therefore be summarily dismissed. I expect a wide range of reactions from the young men I speak to about sexual violence prevention, but utter incredulity is especially difficult to address. What I had expected would be an honest conversation about the role men play in rape prevention devolved into a purely academic dissection of sampling methods and survey instruments. Not quite the call to action I was hoping for.
As a research scientist, I fully appreciate the insistence on reliable data collection methods and clean stats that withstand scrutiny. Unfortunately, this is a challenging standard to achieve when measuring rates of sexual violence, in no small part because rape is so infrequently reported that it is difficult to estimate the actual prevalence from available data. Moreover, it can be tricky to design a reliable instrument for measuring sexual violence rates, both because some participants are reluctant to break their silence and because many sexual assault survivors do not self-identify as such. Since surveys can differ widely with respect to the questions asked, the demographics of the participants, and the way in which sexual assault is defined, universally accepted statistics are hard to come by.
The ongoing struggle in social science to get a firm grip on the magnitude of the problem gives way to rampant conjecture and antithetical opinions. Hardliner “rape denialists” wax vitriolic about what they perceive to be exaggerated statistics produced by ultra-feminist fearmongers promoting an anti-male agenda and point to recent controversies (such as the now-infamous Rolling Stone article describing a gang rape at a UVA frat house) as damning evidence of a highly politicized “rape hoax epidemic.” Apologists counter that the harrowing UVA incident, while dubious, is nevertheless representative of the experience of many American college students. Between these polar camps lies a concerned but confused populace unsure about the numbers and their implications. In truth, the debate over statistics is an exercise in hair-splitting that misses the point — even the lowest estimates are so unacceptably high that tabling a conversation about prevention while awaiting more data is irresponsible. Sexual violence can have such serious and lasting repercussions for survivors and bystanders alike that even one sexual assault is still too many.
Rape stat critics fear an overreaction to sexual assault rates that leads to erosion of due process rights for accused perpetrators, but this misguided perspective assumes that an institutional commitment to curbing sexual assault would largely focus on the approach to adjudication. In reality, the greatest strides will be made through primary prevention efforts that address the problem not by encouraging “draconian” punitive policies but by promoting open dialogue, encouraging empathy and equity, challenging faulty assumptions about sex and engaging men as allies who are an integral part of the solution.
The dangerous implication that my heckler made in attacking the statistics is that the problem being studied is entirely overblown. This attitude is even more frustrating than the numbers themselves. We need not first prove that one in five college-aged women have been victimized in order to be outraged by the story of Sarah Butters, the undergraduate at JMU (my alma mater) whose assault was captured on video and circulated across campus, and whose three assailants were handed the paradoxical non-punishment of “expulsion after graduation.” Our collective disgust over the actions of fraternity brothers at Yale who marched across their ivied campus chanting, “No means yes, yes means anal!” should not be mitigated by an academic debate over statistical biases. To expend all of our intellectual and emotional energy squabbling over numbers is to ignore the absolute certainty that women (and men) in your community are experiencing real suffering, right now. The inconvenient, incontrovertible truth is that the prevalence of sexual assault, be it one in five or one in 500, is far too high to ignore. What matters, truly, is that it is well within our power to roll up our sleeves and do something about it.