As questions mount over  Rolling Stone’s sexual assault allegation article, we should also be wary about taking on faith the notion that there is a prevailing “rape culture” on college campuses where one-in-five undergraduate women are victims of assault.

More than eight years ago my colleague Carrie Lukas took to task  the then prevailing one-in-four  statistic being bandied about as two Duke University lacrosse players were being indicted for rape. Those players were later exonerated, but the dubious statistics are still with us.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) just released findings from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) that should bring some much-needed perspective.  Among college-age women (18 to 24), the DOJ found that:

…the rate of rape and sexual assault was 1.2 times higher for non-students [7.6 per 1,000]  than students [6.1 per 1,000] for the period 1995–2013…Non-students (65,700) accounted for more than double the average annual number of rape and sexual assault victimizations compared to students (31,300).

As The Federalist explains:

…rather than one in five female college students becoming victims of sexual assault, the actual rate is 6.1 per 1,000 students, or 0.61 percent (instead of 1-in-5, the real number is 0.03-in-5). For non-students, the rate of sexual assault is 7.6 per 1,000 people.

The higher rate of victimization among non-students is important due in large part to recent accusations that U.S. colleges and universities are hotbeds of so-called “rape culture,” where sexual assault is endemic, and administrators and other students are happy to look the other way. The bogus “1 in 5″ statistic, which was the product of a highly suspect survey of only two universities and which paid respondents for their answers, has been repeatedly used as evidence of this pervasive rape culture on college campuses across the country.

Another important finding from the DOJ is that while the likelihood of sexual assault has been declining since 1997 (for more on this see Charlotte Hays’ recent blog here), fully 80 percent of college-age women who have been raped or assaulted do not report their attacks to the police, compared to 67 percent of non-students. The reasons why student victims do not report being assault offer insight into possible solutions.

While non-students were more than three times as likely to have reported their victimization to officials other than the police (14 percent compared to 4 percent of student victims), student victims were more than twice as likely to state that they did not believe their victimization was important enough to report (12 percent compared to 5 percent of non-student victims) (p. 9).

After decades of federal programs, on-campus awareness campaigns, not to mention protests, counselors and support groups to help victims heal, how is it even possible that young college women believe an assault on them doesn’t matter?

Recent Obama Administration policies certainly don’t encourage undergraduates going to law enforcement (see here, here, and here). 

Yet it’s likely that by sensationalizing sexual violence statistics well-meaning advocates may have raised public awareness at the expense of actual victims who may have been led to believe that their assaults paled in comparison.

There’s also a related and more fundamental problem, one that the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald describes as “a squalid hook-up scene, the result of jettisoning all normative checks on promiscuous behavior.”

The result of denigrating consensual sexuality is that even actual victims of non-consentual, sexual assault may be inclined to minimize it.

As college and university officials nationwide work to keep all students safe—because men are also victims of sexual assault and violence—we need to begin with the fact that honesty—not sensationalism—is  always the best policy.

It’s also worth recalling a principle that informed our Founding Era, to paraphrase Blackstone, and well after as reaffirmed by Alexis de Tocqueville, that rape was “an offence of so dark a nature” that it “ought to be strictly and impartially proved, and then as strictly and impartially punished,” namely, punished by death. Likewise, a false charge deserved “a punishment inferior only to that of the crime itself.” 

The latest data indicate that the average convicted rapist serves around 10 years—in many instances far fewer. This is a statistic we need to update, publicize, and strengthen to help combat sexual assault and violence–and hold individuals accountable.