Campus Rape: Defining the Problem

   Posted by: Robert   in Uncategorized

If news reports are to be believed, campus rape is a major plague at America’s colleges.  According to statistics cited by the White House in a recent press release, one in five American women are victims of sexual assault.1  Other government sources suggest lower numbers.  Regardless of which set of statistics is correct, two things about these citations become quickly apparent:  First, that campus rape is both socially and politically significant; and second, that the numbers tell very little about what is actually going on.

The exact meaning of rape in statistics varies depending on the exact definitions used.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics collected three definitions (emphasis added, internal citations omitted):

Definitions of rape and sexual assault. The NCVS, NISVS, and CSA target different types of events. The NCVS definition is shaped from a criminal justice perspective and includes threatened, attempted, and completed rape and sexual assault against males and females. The NISVS uses a broader definition of sexual violence, which specifically mentions incidents in which the victim was unable to provide consent due to drug or alcohol use; forced to penetrate another person; or coerced to engage in sexual contact (including nonphysical pressure to engage in sex) unwanted sexual contact (including forcible kissing, fondling, or grabbing); and noncontact unwanted sexual experiences that do not involve physical contact. The CSA definition of rape and sexual assault includes unwanted sexual contact due to force and due to incapacitation, but excludes unwanted sexual contact due to verbal or emotional coercion.

Unpacking these definitions, it’s clear that there are there are three broad categories of rape and an additional two categories of sexual assault.  The three categories of rape are rape through violence, rape through non-consent, and rape through coercion.  The two categories of sexual assault are unwanted sexual experiences with or without contact.  So, how do these definitions translate into real world behavior in our schools?

Rape through Violence

Rape through violence is likely the easiest category for people to understand.  It includes what we might call the “classic” rape scenario: A young woman taken at night by a stranger while she walked home alone and tied, naked, to a bed while her assailant has his way with her.  More broadly, it includes any scenario in which the victim is physically overpowered by the attacker or rendered incapable of physically defending themself.  No rational attacker would have reason to believe that the victim has consented to sex under these circumstances.

Rape through Non-Consent

Rape through non-consent is also relatively easy to understand in most circumstances.  It includes a wide variety of circumstances that, much like violent rape, leave no ambiguity that sex for the victim is undesirable.  Obvious examples include sex with a person who is unconscious, whether or not they were drugged by the attacker, and sex where the victim has expressed their non-consent.

This category, however, also includes a different form of sexual encounter which has taken on political importance.  This form of encounter, which is being called rape, happens when the victim is deemed “unable to consent” due to drug or alcohol intoxication.  This becomes rape even if the victim expressed consent at the time of the sexual encounter and even if the victim became intoxicated voluntarily.

Rape through Coercion

Rape through coercion is a somewhat difficult category to understand because it potentially includes a number of things which are difficult to easily define as rape.  The notation that this category includes nonphysical pressure to engage in sex implies that the coercion may be either physical or nonphysical.  The key to this category, is that the victim agrees to the sex under protest, meaning that consent happens, but the victim does not actually want to have consented.  This is likely where the distinction between consent and “enthusiastic consent” comes from.

Non-Rape Sexual Assault

These categories of sexual behavior are outside the scope of what I intend to discuss, but they are worth noting because they may or may not appear in various sets of rape statistics.


With these definitions in place, it becomes easier to talk about the policies being put forth from various sources for addressing the situation of rape on campus.  An ideal policy should address rape in all of the categories noted above as well as non-rape sexual assaults.  The better solutions will address only some of the categories, and the weaker solutions only one or none.  The wide variety of proposals in the world should make future posts in this series a great deal more interesting than this review of definitions.

  1. The White House article references this statistic as 1 in 5 of all women in one place and 1 in 5 women while in college in another.  Without reading the underlying study, I am not certain which interpretation is correct.  Suffice it to say, it is a large number. []
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