Bonnie Fisher

(WOMENSENEWS) — Sexual assault and stalking of college women are widespread and grossly underestimated by official statistics, a recent study funded by the Department of Justice indicates.

An estimated 28 percent of college women surveyed said they had suffered completed or attempted rape, sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, or stalking during a seven-month period, according to this unprecedented in-depth research effort.

The national survey of more than 4,000 college women found that almost 3 percent, or 1 in 36, suffered a completed or attempted rape in the seven months prior to the study by University of Cincinnati researchers.

Thirteen percent of college women surveyed reported they were stalked during that period. The study was the first national survey of college women to include stalking, which was defined as repeated, fear-inducing behavior.

“We were trying to get a broad view of what was going on,” said Bonnie Fisher, an author of the study and associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati. “It doesn’t paint a healthy picture.” The study was funded by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Institute of Justice.

Official university annual crime reports generally indicate that a mere handful of rapes occur on any given campus. Universities are not required by law to include stalking incidents in their official crime statistics, or to record incidents of sexual assault that are revealed to counselors at rape crisis and women’s centers.

“You’re not going to hear the real numbers,” said Dolores Card, director of the Syracuse University R.A.P.E. center. “You’re going to hear campus security numbers.” She said that more than 40 women reported being sexually assaulted to the R.A.P.E. center during the last year, yet campus security reported five incidents of rape.

At least 300 schools have been cited by the Department of Education for failing to properly report campus crime statistics as required by the Campus Security Act. Several of the universities that were reviewed by the department for incorrect reporting failed to include incidents of sexual assault.

“There’s still a lot of gross mishandling,” said Howard Clery, co-founder of Security on Campus, a nonprofit organization for the prevention of college campus violence.

College Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault

While campuses may be underreporting the rapes they know about, college women are not informing them of much of what takes place. Fewer than 5 percent of the surveyed women who were raped reported it to law enforcement or other campus officials.

“When you see that women are not reporting these incidents to the authorities, the official statistics are really underestimating the extent of what women are experiencing,” said author Fisher. “That’s what I find eye-opening and startling.”

College women are among the female population most vulnerable to sexual assault. Over 80 percent of women who reported being raped were under the age of 24, according to a 1992 survey by the National Victim Center.

Moreover, current evidence indicates that college women are less likely than other women to report being sexually assaulted to law enforcement. Sixteen percent of women in the general population reported their rape to the police, according to the National Victim Center study. By contrast, Fisher’s survey showed that only about 2 percent of college women reported their assault to the police.

Almost half of the college women surveyed who were sexually assaulted did not report it because they did not want other people to know.

Nearly Half Did Not Think Their Rape Warranted A Report

According to the survey, well over 40 percent of women who were raped said they did not report the incident because they did not think it was serious or were not sure that a crime had been committed. Almost half of the college women who were identified by the researchers as having been raped did not consider it to be a rape. The survey indicated that 9 of 10 victims knew their offenders.

“When you’re talking about college rape, you’re talking about date rape and acquaintance rape primarily,” said Syracuse’s Card. “They’re uninformed,” she added. “That’s why it’s so important to have some type of prevention and education program. The other part of prevention is telling them what to do if it happens.”

Card noted that most college campuses do not have rape crisis centers, where women are fully informed of their medical and legal options. More than 13 percent of the women surveyed who were raped said they did not know how to report it.

Another factor in the reluctance of college women to report sexual assault is that rapists are fellow students with whom they are likely to have future contact.

“Rape splits peer groups into who believes him and who believes her,” said Irene Anderson, Director of the Oasis Center for Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence at the University of Arizona. “Often times it’s a very disruptive event. Women as caretakers are trained to not make that conflict in their peer groups.”

The consumption of alcohol also decreases the likelihood that women will report being sexually assaulted. Ninety percent of campus rapes involve alcohol, according to a 1994 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

And Fisher’s study showed that over 40 percent of sexually victimized college women had been drinking or taking drugs before the incident.

Underage college women who were assaulted under the influence of alcohol are often afraid of being sanctioned or blamed for their drinking, said Card from Syracuse.

Anderson from Arizona agrees. “In my experience, when there is alcohol or drugs involved, the feelings of self-reproach and shame are likely to be much higher,” she said. “It’s far more difficult for a woman to be very clear in that situation that she was not responsible for the assault.”

Approximately 20 percent of the surveyed college women who were raped said they did not report it because they anticipated harsh or dismissive treatment by the police or others in the justice system.

“I’m more surprised that anyone reports to the police,” said Jennifer Beeman, director of the Campus Violence Prevention Program at the University of California at Davis. Date rapes are rarely prosecuted, and adversarial proceedings encourages victim blaming, she added. “Over and over and over, it’s about blaming victims,” she said.

Megan Costello is a New York-based freelancer.