Over the last few years, we have become all but immune to what, under any other circumstances, would be a fantastic claim—that one in five female undergraduates will be victims of sexual assault. This rate would translate to several hundreds of thousands of violent crime victims (with almost all of the incidents unnoticed) annually, and, as Emily Yoffe has pointed out, implies that about the same percentage of female college students are sexually assaulted as women in the Congo where rape was used as a war crime in the nation’s civil war.
Even within this environment of pie-in-the-sky statistics, a recent survey from Duke stands out. According to the survey, 40 percent of Duke’s female undergraduates (and 10 percent of Duke’s male undergraduates) describe themselves as victims of sexual assault. This data would mean that each year, a female undergraduate at Duke is 5.5 times more likely to be a victim of violent crime than a resident of St. Louis, which FBI statistics listed as the nation’s most dangerous city in 2016. And yet, incredibly, parents still spend around $280,000 to send their daughters into this den of crime for four years.
But 88% of Women Feel Safe
As always occurs with these surveys, the internal data renders them highly unreliable. But in this case, the internal data suggests a survey at war with itself. A few examples:
The survey indicates that 88 percent of female undergraduates say they feel safe on campus. So—at a minimum—28 percent of Duke female undergraduates say they feel safe at a school where they experienced sexual assault. Similarly, 74 percent of female undergraduates consider sexual assault a big problem on campus—meaning that at a minimum, 52 percent of female undergraduates feel “safe” on a campus where they think sexual assault is a “big problem.”
The most startling rate of self-described sexual assault victims comes among lesbian and bisexual female undergraduates, 59 percent of whom say they were sexually assaulted while at Duke. And yet, according to a later table, zero female undergraduates list a female as the perpetrator of their assault. Even assuming that every bisexual student surveyed said she was assaulted by a man, this figure would suggest that a significant portion of Duke lesbians are having some type of sexual contact with men (nearly all of whom, it appears, then turned out to have been sex criminals). Could anyone take such data seriously?
If true, these figures would suggest a violent crime epidemic not merely for Duke but for the city of Durham. Significant percentages of the alleged sexual assaults occurred in a category described as “off-campus/local,” thus falling within the jurisdiction of the Durham, rather than the Duke, Police Department. Yet no signs exist of the Durham Police paying more attention to this purported crime wave in their midst, or that the Duke leadership has asked them to do so.
‘Fundamentally Unfair” to Men
At heart of the issue is the extraordinarily broad definition of sexual assault—a term with a common cultural and legal understanding—used in surveys like the Duke one. The survey lumps together being “touched or grabbed” in an unwanted way (61 percent of the self-described victims) with sexual assault by force or threat (22 percent of the alleged victims) as if the severity of the offenses were the same. Even the survey takers appear to recognize the folly of this approach; 41 percent of self-described female sexual assault victims describe the experience of being sexually assaulted as not very upsetting—or not upsetting at all. The university’s response? Asking whether this figure indicated “a need for broadly disseminated programming on the impact of sexual misconduct.” Duke already has increased “the number of staff providing counseling and support services and conducting investigations.”
Perhaps the saddest item from the survey: 57 percent feel that students accused of sexual assault are treated fairly. They’re responding to a system in which Duke has had two negative judicial decisions, the most recent of which featured Judge Orlando Hudson characterizing the Duke procedures as “fundamentally unfair.” There is, of course, no reason to believe that most students have any idea just how unfairly Duke treats students accused of sexual assault.
KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America’s Universities.