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Posters’ rape statistics are misleading

Entering the Myers stairwell a few days ago, I was struck by the message of a poster on the wall. It proclaimed, “25% of college women will be victims of sexual assault or rape.” Astonished, I stopped and looked closely at the poster to see if I had missed anything.

It turns out I had. In smaller print underneath the enormous “25%” was text that read “in their lifetimes.” This seemed terribly odd to me. Is the poster really suggesting that 25% of women in college will be raped or assaulted? Or is it just saying that 25% of women who attend college will be raped or assaulted at some point in their lives, at college or elsewhere? And if that were indeed the case, then does that mean that there’s some wide discrepancy in the rates of sexual assault and rape between women who attend college and those that don’t? Otherwise, why even say “college women” instead of just “women”?

Perplexed, I looked up the website of the organization on the poster (oneinfourusa.org) and located their statistics page. Indeed, the very first bullet point reads: “One in Four [sic] college women report surviving rape or attempted rape.” However, this statement is without any elaboration on when these rapes are occurring, and, notably, without any citation. (Interestingly enough, this is the only fact on their statistics page that is not cited. Although this does not really matter, as none of the sources that are cited is ever actually listed anywhere on their website. I doubt that this is intentional. More likely than not, the webmaster just got lazy and/or forgot.)

The more relevant statistic, and the one that it seemed like the poster was alluding to, was this: “In a typical academic year, 3% of college women report surviving rape or attempted rape. This does not include the summer, when many more rapes occur. (3)” (Although, again, whatever source this “(3)” refers to is nowhere to be found on their website). In fact, with a little googling, I tracked down the “one in four” statistic to a book that was published in 1994. The date is significant here, because, according to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (rainn.org), “[s]ince 1993, [overall] rape/sexual assault has fallen by over 69%.”

Finally, let me admit how painfully aware I am of how absurdly nitpicky it seems to quibble over statistics. Perhaps even insultingly so, given the seriousness of the issue. I apologize if this comes across in such a manner. Clearly, ANY percentage of college women (or men) being raped is cause for concern and action. Furthermore, I applaud the efforts of the One in Four USA organization, especially with regards to their unique approach in targeting men. (Unfortunately, as of this writing I do not think I will be able to attend their meeting due to a schedule conflict). However, I happen to feel that it is important for any organization to provide the most accurate and forthright information about its cause, especially when the cause is as serious as it is in this case.

I found the One in Four USA poster misleading, and discovered the science behind it outdated. I recognize, of course, the value of grabbing the passerby’s attention (and it certainly got mine). But drawing such attention should not come at the cost of obscuring the truth.

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