No, The Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation Survey of Sexual Assault Is Not Bogus


This is another guest post by Carla, which originally appeared on her blog Writing in Water, and appears here with her kind permission.

For more than 20 years, the idea of a crisis of sexual assault against women has been under attack; this attack has acquired new vigour in the wake of the White House’s focus on sexual assault on college campuses. When in June the Washington Post released a survey, in conjunction with the Kaiser Family Foundation, appearing to confirm the claim that one in 5 women will be sexually assaulted while at college, it was inevitable that critical articles would soon start appearing in the media. The National Review was one of the first to respond with a piece titled ‘The Post’s New Poll on Campus “Sexual Assault” is Bogus.’ While there are other surveys with larger sample sizes and more rigorous methodology that offer better evidence for the alarming levels of sexual victimisation faced by college women, the National Review article, which I will discuss here, nonetheless illustrates why we should be wary of laypeople in the media purporting to debunk sexual violence research.

Claim 1. This survey’s results resemble those of the unreliable 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Survey

The National Review begins by noting that the results of the Washington Post­ Kaiser survey are similar to the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Survey (CSA), whose results, it is claimed, were “suspect from the start” because that survey used “an exceedingly generous definition of sexual assault and its response rate was relatively low.” This is misleading. To start with, the Washington Post­Kaiser survey is consistent with a body of research over several decades, not a single survey.1

Second, it is completely untrue that CSA used “an exceedingly generous definition of sexual assault.” CSA defined sexual assault as 1) oral, anal and vaginal sex and 2) “forced touching of a sexual nature (forced kissing, touching of private parts, grabbing, fondling, rubbing up against you in a sexual way, even if it is over your clothes)” that took place in the context of physical force/threats of physical force or incapacitation. Some critics have attempted to claim, unconvincingly, that the questions about incapacitated sexual assault in CSA are worded in such a way that they capture consensual sexual activity; I discuss this here. A smaller number of critics, including the National Review, have also attempted to argue that “forced kissing” is not really sexual assault. As Van Jones’s swift takedown of the editor of the National Review when he attempted to make this claim on ABC’s The Week shows, we need only ask the (male) proponents of this idea how they feel about being forcibly kissed by another man to underscore how thin this objection really is.

The second part of the National Review’scriticism of CSA, that “its response rate was relatively low” (around 42% of invited participants responded) is also unconvincing. There is little evidence that the survey’s results were affected by response bias. The authors of the survey actually went to some trouble to gauge if it was a problem—for example, they compared respondents who responded early with those who had to be prompted several times—and found no evidence of any. (Incidentally, the problem of bias in sexual violence surveys is more likely to work in the opposite way from which critics imagine. That is, reluctance to disclose these sensitive and traumatic events means they are more likely to undercount episodes of sexual violence.)

Claim 2. The survey’s results are much lower than those of the National Crime Victimization Survey

The National Review article next brings up that favourite of rape survey critics, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). Describing it as a “more comprehensive and rigorous” survey than CSA, the National Review notes that it found a sexual violence rate
of 7.6 per 1000. In reality, NCVS is widely recognised as a poor measure of sexual violence prevalence and its results are completely out of step with the collective results of 30 years of sexual violence surveys. These problems are recognised by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which is currently contracting with researchers to improve the sexual violence portion of the survey.

NCVS primarily owes its unreliability to the wording of the question about sexual assault. In this question, respondents are first asked if anyone has “attacked or threatened you in any of these ways,” before being read a variety of violent crimes; the one asking about sexual violence is worded “Any rape, attempted rape or other type of sexual attack.” This question relies upon victims of sexual assault recognising that they have been raped and/or viewing it as an “attack,” and the context of the question makes it clear that the interviewer is asking about crimes that are on a par with being violently attacked with a weapon.

There are many reasons why victims of sexual assaults that fall within the purview of this question would not realise that they do, however. The dominant conception of ‘real’ sexual violence is that it is perpetrated by strangers with weapons who attack chaste women who actively resist. Sexual violence, including rape, that doesn’t fit this script (in other words, the vast majority), such as that perpetrated by intimate partners or in the context of heavy drinking, is routinely trivialised or not viewed criminal, and its victims are blamed or disbelieved. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it is extremely common for victims of sexual assault to blame themselves and downplay what happened (note that this does not mean that they were not traumatic events). We also know that the majority of victims of rape do not use the word “rape” to describe their experience. Moreover, the word “attack” in the NCVS sexual violence question implicitly excludes sexual violence that takes place in the context of incapacitation, or where the victim didn’t actively resist. It is, therefore, wholly unsurprising that many victims of sexual assault would not consider their experiences to align with the kinds of assaults that NCVS is asking about, even if they do.

Claim 3. The survey includes “unwanted sexual contact” in its definition of sexual assault, which is so broad that it includes legal acts and even innocent misunderstandings

The National Review‘s main criticism revolves around the fact that the survey questions asking about sexual assault include the phrase “unwanted sexual contact.” It claims that this is a much broader term than “sexual assault” and “can encompass behaviors that are not only not criminal, but may not … even constitute unlawful sexual harrassment.” In addition, the article claims, ‘“unwanted” is not the same as “without consent”’ and can “encompass a variety of circumstances, up to and including entirely legal misunderstandings and legal (though immoral) emotional manipulation.”

First, however, there is no formal definition of “sexual assault.” It is simply a term used by researchers to include a set of behaviours, usually broader than just rape; exactly what it includes depends on the researcher. Some states use the term in legislation, but its definition varies. Second, the question respondents were actually read lists possible types of “unwanted sexual contact” as 1) vaginal, oral or anal sex and 2) “Forced touching of a sexual nature,” with interviewers instructed to “read if needed” the following clarification: “forced kissing, touching of private parts, grabbing, fondling, rubbing up against you in a sexual way, even if it is over your clothes” (as can be seen, this question was modelled on CSA). Respondents were then asked if they had experienced any of these kinds of unwanted sexual contact in the context of 1) physical force or threats of physical force and 2) incapacitation. Sexual acts that take place in the context of physical force, threats of physical force and/or incapacitation do not involve ambiguity about consent.

Claim 4. The survey’s definition of sexual assault doesn’t “come close” to legal definitions of sex crimes

The National Review goes on to claim that “These definitions don’t come close to matching the legal definition of the various sex crimes prohibited by various state laws.” For example, it says, “the phrase ‘forced touching of a sexual nature’ isn’t precise enough to encompass ‘sexual battery’ under Tennessee law.” In answer to this, it should first be pointed out that legal definitions are not necessarily a good way of defining sexual assault. At one time, not always so very long ago, for example, spousal rape, rape of men, incapacitated rape and rapes where the victim did not actively resist were not criminalised. As this paper points out, legislation in some jurisdictions still reflects these outdated ideas. We surely do not believe that, say, spousal rape only exists if it is written into law. But even putting this aside, it’s hard to understand the National Review‘s quibble.

The National Review gives a link to Tennessee definitions of sexual assault and invites readers to compare the definition of “sexual battery” with the Washington Post­Kaiser survey’s definition of “forced touching of a sexual nature.” The Tennessee definition of “sexual battery” is as follows:

(a) Sexual battery is unlawful sexual contact with a victim by the defendant or the defendant by a victim accompanied by any of the following circumstances:

(1) Force or coercion is used to accomplish the act;

(2) The sexual contact is accomplished without the consent of the victim and the defendant knows or has reason to know at the time of the contact that the victim did not consent;

(3) The defendant knows or has reason to know that the victim is mentally defective, mentally incapacitated or physically helpless; or

(4)The sexual contact is accomplished by fraud.

(b) As used in this section, “coercion” means the threat of kidnapping, extortion, force or violence to be performed immediately or in the future.

Tennessee legislation defines “sexual contact” as:

the intentional touching of the victim’s, the defendant’s, or any other person’s intimate parts, or the intentional touching of the clothing covering the immediate area of the victim’s, the defendant’s, or any other person’s intimate parts, if that intentional touching can be reasonably construed as being for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification.

“Intimate parts” are defined as “the primary genital area, groin, inner thigh, buttock or breast of a human being.”

This definition of sexual battery, which includes “sexual contact accomplished by fraud” and non- violent threats, actually includes acts that are not included in the Washington Post­-Kaiser survey’s definition of forced sexual touching. Moreover, it’s mystifying why sexual touching that takes place in the context of physical force, threats of physical force or incapacitation should be considered inconsistent with this legislation. The National Review does not elaborate. And while I am certain creative minds could come up with ways in which the Washington Post­Kaiser definition of forced sexual touching could be misconstrued, this does not translate to it being misinterpreted in practice. We are, after all, talking about ordinary people responding to a survey, not lawyers hunting out technicalities for a court case.

One final point: although the Washington Post-Kaiser survey does not ask about experiences of rape separately from experiences of forced touching, other surveys have found that victims disclosing only non­rape forms of sexual assault make up a relatively small proportion of the results. CSA, for example, upon which the Washington Post­Kaiser survey is modelled, found that only 28% of victims of physically forced and 23% of victims of incapacitated sexual assault disclosed only forced sexual touching. Since, as I mentioned earlier, it is well-known that women tend to downplay experiences of sexual assault, this is unsurprising. Respondents to surveys of sexual violence are probably less likely to disclose less serious assaults, meaning these surveys probably undercount episodes of non-rape sexual assault.

A final word

Because most people are not familiar with sexual violence research, and probably lack the inclination to even read the survey instrument, the claims in this article may seem more plausible than they are. Certainly, if the comments section is anything to go by (I did not see a single person questioning the criticism of the survey), this piece has convinced some readers. But calling the Washington Post­Kaiser survey “bogus” is an inappropriate way to characterise the work of the researchers who designed and carried it out—nor does it change the fact that, yes, it is very likely that one in five American women will be the victims of sexual assault while at college.


  1. For example, see Gross, A et al (2006), ‘An Examination of Sexual Violence Against College Women,’ Violence Against Women 12.3: 288­300; Smith, P et al (2003), ‘A Longitudinal Perspective on Dating Violence Among Adolescent and College­Age Women,’ American Journal of Public Health, 93.7: 1104­9; Cloutier, S et al (2002), Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 56: 265­71; Fisher, B et al (2000), Sexual Victimization of College Women, Washington DC: National Institute of Justice; Humphry, J and White, J (2000), ‘Women’s Vulnerability to Sexual Assault from Adolescence to Young Adulthood,’ Journal of Adolescent Health, 27: 419­24; Greene, D and Navarro, R (1998), ‘Situation­Specific Assertiveness in the Epidemiology of Sexual Victimization Among University Women,’ Psychology of Women Quarterly, 22: 589­604. []
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104 Responses to No, The Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation Survey of Sexual Assault Is Not Bogus

  1. 101
    Ampersand says:

    Excellent post, Kate.

    The criminal justice system is not equipt to deal with sexual assault. I get it. That is a major part of the problem.

    Yes! And, unfortunately, I’m skeptical that the criminal justice system will ever be able to be anything more than a sideline.

    It’s important that rape be a criminal act, of course, but because rape is a crime that often happens in private, and because the most successful rapists are at some level “gaming the system” by choosing victims and circumstances which are unlikely to lead to a conviction, the criminal justice system will probably never be the major way that rape is reduced in our society.

    I have a lot more hope for social and educational remedies – basically, changing the way people think about rape, and making it easier for people to recognize rape when it happens – then I do for judicial remedies.

    This recent study needs to be replicated, but it’s a hopeful effort. Although some media has reported it as a self-defense course – as in, learning how to fight – that was only a small component. A lot of the training is focused, not on self-defense or telling women not to drink or go to parties, but simply on telling women that some behavior is coercive and they have the right to refuse and resist.

    Between September 2011 and February 2013, 893 freshman women at the Universities of Calgary, Windsor and Guelph in Canada took part in the study.

    Holding three-hour sessions on weeknights and marathon sessions on weekends, Senn and her coauthors put 451 women through a series of lectures, problem-solving exercises, discussions and self-defense classes aimed at helping them define their own sexual desires and boundaries, recognize and discourage sexual aggression and resist an assault.

    The remaining 442 women were assigned to a control group, in which they attended a 15-minute session and were provided brochures on sexual assault.

    About a year after the sessions ended, Senn and her colleagues surveyed the participants, asking detailed questions about their sexual contacts in the preceding year.

    Among women offered the brochures on sexual assault, 9.8% reported they had been raped and 9.3% reported they had been the intended victims of attempted rapes. […]

    Among women who got the resistance training, 5.2% said they had been raped and 3.4% reported attempted rapes — reductions of 46.3% and 63.2% respectively.

    It’s important that this approach not be the only approach – the onus shouldn’t be only on potential victims to resist – but if this study pans out and is replicated, then it’s good to know that an empowerment centered approach can, in fact, reduce sexual assault rates.

    If it is replicated, then one thing that would need to be done, as well, is bringing such training into high schools as well as colleges (and earlier than high school), and giving it to boys as well as girls.

  2. 102
    Aapje says:


    I AM objecting to people who say that it’s very likely that Sulkowicz is lying, or that there’s strong evidence indicating that she’s lying, or who just say she’s lying. (No one here has said that last outright.)

    There is clear proof that she is not telling the truth about some things and makes pretty inconsistent claims about the alleged rape and immediate aftermath (on key points). The question whether this means if she is lying basically comes down to how you judge the likelihood that all this can be explained by PTSD or mentally illness.

    Your argument is essentially that trauma can disable the ability for people to think rationally completely, which I find very doubtful. I can understand trauma distorting the recollections for the traumatic event. I can understand some irrational behavior in the period following the event. I can understand having irrational fears and such (but not irrational explanations for such fears).

    What I cannot understand is that how, more than a year after the alleged attack, a victim can tell one story and then a few months later, change her story on at least one key point. That is mental instability, which I think is not normal so late after an alleged attack.

    In the end, you have provided zero proof that real victims with PTSD and no mental illness can display all of the irrational behavior Sulkowicz displayed. It is your purely subjective belief that they can, in which case it is reasonable to doubt that she is lying. Others believe that they cannot and for them it is reasonably to see her behavior as proof that she is lying.

    My issue with your standpoint is that you do not seem to recognize the subjectivity and lack of proof for the things you claim and get very upset over the equally subjective opinion that other people have.

    My objecting to unreasonable arguments, like calling her claim that she feels fear every day “absurd,” is not even remotely the same as saying that I think people are obliged to believe Sulkowicz’s story.

    I’ve already corrected you on this distortion of my words, Ampersand. I will say this once more:

    I did not call her fear absurd, my objection was to the argument she used to explain her fear. Look at Kate’s post 63. Kate explains that she has an irrational fear that when someone comes up behind her, it is her assaulter. However, she is able to rationally understand that this emotion she feels is irrational. So Kate’s trauma affected her emotions, but not her ability to reason.

    In contrast, Sulkowicz claims that there is a rational reason for her emotions: that Nungesser is on campus. I believe that she almost certainly knew he wasn’t, if not through FB, then through her friends, the fraternity, the media she talked to (who would have tried to contact Nungesser and should have discovered he was abroad), the university, etc. Remember that she repeatedly & publicly said that she was in fear of him, over a period of months. Do you really think that during that time, no one would try to assuage her fears by telling her that he was abroad?

    To counter my argument, you’ve been offering unreasonable arguments, like claiming that she was avoiding his FB posts due to denial. However, this was at the same time that she was sharing her story with the media, which is clearly not compatible with being in denial.

    I apologize for the other readers for retreading this argument, I hope that Ampersand will now stop distorting my words (despite repeated explanations).

  3. 103
    Aapje says:


    No one here thinks that we should eliminate due process for people who are accused of rape (male or female). Why do people keep setting up this straw man?

    It’s only a straw man when people claim that another poster advocates it. I don’t think that anyone has.

    The reason why it is brought up in this discussion is because there is a very strong movement that advocates for breaking down due process (and have partially succeeded already). The main arguments to do so are:
    – (Alleged) victims should not face harsh questioning
    – False allegations almost never happen
    – Victims cannot be expected to give consistent testimony due to trauma
    – 1 in 4/5 women face rape/sexual assault during their college years/life

    All these issues have come up in this thread and since they are so strongly connected to the anti-due process movement, I think it is fair to bring that up, if only to see where people stand on this.

    I’m also a little skeptical that no here wants to eliminate (parts of) due process. For instance, rape shield laws can have that effect and in my experience, are widely supported by feminists. I think that most people who advocate policies that (partially) eliminate due process don’t actually realize that they are doing so.

    The criminal justice system is not equipped to deal with sexual assault. I get it. That is a major part of the problem.

    ….That’s not really what I claimed. I claimed that the non-criminal justice systems being implemented are not equipped to do so and the alterations that are made to the actual criminal justice system by anti-rape advocates (like extensive rape shield laws) hollow out the system.

    Some criticisms of the current criminal justice system are justified, but I also regularly see people getting upset that not all accused get prosecuted and convicted, which is not the case for any other category of crime. So while I readily agree that the criminal justice system is far from perfect, I cannot agree with every criticism, nor agree with changes that make it even less perfect.

    Lets get back to the real topic of the post, which is just getting people to acknowledge that the problem exists.

    No one has claimed that the problem doesn’t exist! I have actually never seen people claim that rape/assault of women doesn’t happen. Only the opposite.

    Frankly, I don’t know what to do about it. We are fighting here just to get people like you and Aapje to acknowledge that sexual assault of women is a serious problem.

    The strange thing is that you have never asked me directly whether I think that sexual assault of women is a serious problem. You have simply assumed, based on my arguments, that I don’t. Yet I see no logical reason why my arguments should lead to this conclusion.

    This Madonna-whore bull s**t:

    He was simply saying that he has no sympathy for a false accuser, but he does have sympathy for someone was actually was raped. I don’t understand why that would be so objectionable and how you can relate this to the Madonna-whore dichotomy.

  4. 104
    Aapje says:


    the criminal justice system will probably never be the major way that rape is reduced in our society.

    I have a lot more hope for social and educational remedies – basically, changing the way people think about rape, and making it easier for people to recognize rape when it happens – then I do for judicial remedies.

    Fully agree.

    A lot of the training is focused, not on self-defense or telling women not to drink or go to parties, but simply on telling women that some behavior is coercive and they have the right to refuse and resist.

    I also think this is a much better approach. It may be useful to kick a cushion a few times to get some confidence in fighting back, but a more important part is making conscious choices & communicating clearly.

    However, the description makes the course seem very focused on considering situations from the potential victim’s point of view. People should also be taught to recognize when they are/risk crossing the boundaries of other people, not just when their own boundaries are crossed. Having clear boundaries about the level of (affirmative) consent that you require before making a sexual move is also a form of empowerment. The seemingly one sidedness of the course and the fact that is was only aimed at women, implicitly sends the message that only women can be victims and only men can be perpetrators. So it strengthens gender stereotypes.

    So I agree with you that anti-rape/assault courses should be given to boys as well, but not with an altered agenda where the boys are purely addressed as potential perpetrators. I personally think that they should use methods that make each student consider their boundaries from an active as well as passive role. Both genders should be explicitly told that they can cross the boundaries of others and have their boundaries be crossed.

    Teaching people about the signals they should look for when they decide to perform a sexual move also should help people understand how to give signals to others, to help the other person make their decision.

    PS. I think it is perfectly fair to tell people about factors that increase their risk. Blanket statements about never drinking or going to parties are wrong. However, it is perfectly reasonable to explain to people that drinking to excess greatly increases their risk of sexual assault/rape (both as victim and perpetrator), that they may want to consider leaving a party if the atmosphere feels threatening, etc.