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New numbers show prevalence of sexual assault on campus

A new study that focuses on first-year college women found that 18.6% of them experienced an attempted or completed sexual attack.

A new study — narrowly focused on one campus and one slice of women, but still illuminating in its findings — shows that rape and attempted rape are incredibly common. Over the course of one group's freshman year, nearly 20% of them, or just less than one in five, experienced an attempted or completed rape.  

In 2010, researchers surveyed first-year students at an unnamed upstate New York college and eventually drew data from 483 respondents, keeping in touch with them throughout their freshman year. They defined rape as "vaginal, oral, or anal penetration using threats of violence or use of physical force, or using the tactic of victim incapacitation." Throughout that year, 9% of the women reported an attempted or completed rape using threats of violence or force, and 15.4% said someone had tried to rape them or raped them while they were incapacitated. The total number is 18.6%, because some women experienced more than one event. In addition, many of the women had been victimized before they even showed up on campus. 

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"If you swap in any other physically harmful and psychologically harmful event, a prevalence of 15% would be just unacceptably high," the study's author, Kate Carey, said in a statement. "If, for instance, 15% of our young people were breaking their legs in their first year of school, we would expect that the community would do something to enhance the safety of the environment."

A recent Department of Justice study, which looked at data from between 1997 and 2013, found that women were most likely to be sexually assaulted between the ages of 18 to 24. It found a significantly higher rape and sexual assault rate for women in that age bracket who were not enrolled in school, about 1.2 times higher. The public conversation has largely focused on women enrolled in college — in part because educational institutions have parallel processes to the criminal justice system that have been fiercely criticized from all directions, and because any campus receiving federal funding is subject to federal oversight through Title IX.