Students

Ed. Dept. Official Apologizes for ‘90%’ Remark on Campus Rape. What’s the Research?

July 12, 2017

Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images
Candice Jackson (center), acting under secretary for civil rights, said 90 percent of campus-rape allegations "fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.'" She subsequently apologized, but what does the research say about alcohol and sexual assault?

Candice E. Jackson, acting assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education, made a bombshell comment to The New York Times stating that 90 percent of campus sexual-assault complaints "fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk’" and involve a regretful female student.

Campus investigations have not been fair to students who are accused of sexual misconduct, Ms. Jackson told the Times. She added that, in most cases, there’s "not even an accusation that these accused students overrode the will of a young woman."

"Rather," she continued, "the accusations — 90 percent of them — fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’"

It’s unclear whether her 90-percent figure was supposed to refer to all campus rape cases, or to open federal Title IX investigations against colleges for possibly mishandling sexual-violence cases. (There are 339 of those, by the way.) In any case, Ms. Jackson’s remarks quickly provoked outrage on social media.

Ms. Jackson later apologized for the remarks, calling them "flippant" and adding that they "poorly characterized the conversations I’ve had with countless groups of advocates." She added: "All sexual harassment and sexual assault must be taken seriously — which has always been my position and will always be the position of this Department."

What is known about alcohol’s role in campus sexual-assault cases? Do 90 percent of such incidents involve drunken regret, as Ms. Jackson said?

Research suggests that many, if not most, such cases do involve alcohol. United Educators, a risk-management firm that works with colleges, found in 2015 that more than three-quarters of the 305 sexual-assault incidents they reviewed over a three-year period "involved one or both parties’ consuming alcohol."

The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation teamed up in 2015 to poll about 1,000 undergraduate women about sexual assault. Among the students who said they had experienced sexual violence in college, 62 percent of them reported drinking alcohol beforehand.

According to the 2003 National College Women Sexual Victimization study, which surveyed nearly 4,500 female students, "alcohol consumption by victims was involved in just more than 43.2 percent of the incidents, whereas alcohol consumption by offenders happened in 68.7 percent of the incidents."

Another study, published in 2015 and based on a survey of nearly 500 freshmen at a university in New York, found that 15 percent of female college students were raped while incapacitated by alcohol or drugs during their freshman year.

Generally speaking, alcohol tends to play a prominent role in cases of campus sexual assault. But many advocates for sexual-assault victims have long argued it’s wrong to focus on whether alcohol was involved. If sex occurred without consent, that’s sexual assault, no matter what, and the burden should be placed on the perpetrators, they argue.

Notably, the Washington Post-Kaiser poll found that just 15 percent of the students surveyed thought that "stronger enforcement of alcohol restrictions on campus" would be "very effective" in preventing sexual assault, while 52 percent of them said that "harsher punishments for those found guilty" would be very effective.

Beyond alcohol, Ms. Jackson also suggested in her remarks that 90 percent of cases involved a female student who "six months later" simply regretted a sexual experience — not a sexual assault.

Sexual-assault victims often don’t report incidents for weeks or months, sometimes even years, because of the trauma associated with the experience, their fear of not being believed, and their concern that friends or family members will find out.

A delay is not an indication of a false report, researchers wrote in this 2009 literature review. Moreover, many observers say, an assertion that 90 percent of reports are driven by regret is just inaccurate.

A small fraction of sexual-assault reports are found to be false. The National Sexual-Violence Resource Center says its review of the research puts the prevalence of false reporting at "between 2 and 10 percent."

Even people who criticize how campuses handle sexual assault and treat accused students questioned Ms. Jackson’s claim.

Ultimately, regardless of whether "90 percent" was technically accurate, prominent Title IX activists say they’re concerned about Ms. Jackson’s remarks and what they suggest about the Trump administration’s thinking on campus sexual assault.

On Thursday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will hold a much-anticipated meeting with both sexual-assault victims’ organizations, as well as organizations representing "students who have been falsely accused and disciplined under Title IX."

Sarah Brown writes about a range of higher-education topics, including sexual assault, race on campus, and Greek life. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at sarah.brown@chronicle.com.