Duke University has just released a report saying that 48 percent of the female students at the esteemed institution of higher learning are victims of sexual assault.

Think of that: nearly half the women on campus at Duke are victims of sexual assault.  

That's up from a similar report released in 2017 that put the number of Duke women who were sexually assaulted on campus at 40 percent.

Any assault is serious. Offenders must be punished. But are female Duke undergrads really that likely to be the victim of a violent assault?  And are things getting worse as rapidly as they appear?

Writing in Commentary, Christine Rosen takes a look at how this astonishing data was collected:

As with all such surveys, what matters are the response rates and the definitions used in crafting the questions.

Duke distributed its survey to all undergraduate and graduate students over the age of 18, and reported a response rate of 40 percent. But voluntary surveys such as these are particularly vulnerable to “response bias;” depending on the issue being surveyed, some groups are more motivated to respond to the survey than others (in this case, students who felt they had been assaulted). As well, the definition of sexual assault in the survey—“any unwanted, nonconsensual sexual contact”—sounds straightforward, but could encompass a range of behavior from rape to brushing up against someone.

In other words, Duke’s latest survey tells us little about the reality of sexual assault on campus, but does reveal the growth of a disturbing tendency to deploy advocacy statistics and promote fear on campus while ignoring the real sources of danger for college women (the survey noted in passing that students reported most of the assaults occurred off campus and most involved drug or alcohol use by one or both parties).

And yet the narrative about women’s risk of assault on campus continues apace, in part because those who promote it can’t be bothered by questions about the integrity of statistics or definitions of assault. As a New York Times reporter tweeted, “yes—this is one survey with a 40% response rate, and the decision whether to respond to it may have been affected by what your answer was. So take the exact % with a grain of salt. But study after study confirms that a grotesque proportion of women experience sexual assault.”

Inflated statistics have real consequences. Often the victim is somebody who really has suffered a serious sexual assault:

This use of inflated statistics might not seem as egregious as the hoaxes or false rape claims that have been made on campuses, including, infamously, at Duke. But they are pernicious in a different way. Hyped-up claims about the risk of sexual assault make it more difficult for the public to take this problem seriously and deal with it effectively. As Stuart Taylor, Jr. has argued, “Such advocacy-laden surveys on campus sexual assault — and breathless media reports overstating their already exaggerated findings — have become the norm in this era of hysteria about the campus sexual assault problem.” The provosts who cry wolf with questionable statistics are defining assault down.

But universities continue to push the notion of a culture rife with sexual assault:

It’s clear from this recent survey that students are now comfortable embracing more expansive definitions of assault than would never pass muster in criminal law. And activist-minded university administrators are actively encouraging them to do so. As Duke’s vice president for student affairs, Larry Monetal, told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “I believe we have empowered victims to recognize behaviors they felt were normal that they realize now were a violation. . . They’re also more willing now to acknowledge they’ve been victimized.” Among the things Monetal affirmed constituted an assault? A “deliberate brush on the dance floor or a party that made them uncomfortable.”

It also generates an unrealistic assessment of risk (and a fair amount of cognitive dissonance) by college students. Despite the supposedly rampant sexual assault problem at the university, Duke officials acknowledged, “Nearly all students reported feeling safe on campus, but less than half of female undergraduates in the survey’s most recent edition said that Duke was doing a good job of preventing sexual assault.” If the university is not doing a good job, how to explain the survey numbers that show students overwhelmingly report feeling safe on campus? “89 percent of female undergraduates said they did and more than 90 percent of both male and female graduate students said they did.” 

Finally, bad statistics lead to bad policy-making such as sweeping federal legislation known as the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, a bipartisan bill that has been heavily promoted by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand and that critics have noted would dramatically increase the federal government’s reach and control of  decision-making over students on campus. As Emily Yoffe, who has done extensive research on the data about campus sexual assault, has argued, “Bad policy is being made on the back of problematic research, and will continue to be unless we bring some healthy skepticism to the hard work of putting a number on the prevalence of campus rape.”

The article, alas, is behind the pay wall.

Christine and other talented Commentary writers just about have me forking over for an online subscription.