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Shawn Vestal: College stats on rape are unbelievable

Wow. So the Wazzu sorority whizzers have been caught on film, denounced and decried, and they’ve come forth with an abject apology. Case closed.

If only all questions of justice and the American undergraduate could be resolved with such speed and clarity.

For example: Now hanging over the heads of both Washington State University and the University of Idaho are federal investigations into whether the schools properly handled complaints of sexual assault. The schools were among 55 colleges and universities nationwide that were identified as the subjects of investigation; the probes are tied to the obligations of universities under Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination at schools that receive federal money.

No conclusion of wrongdoing has been reached in either case. WSU issued a statement emphasizing that it has cooperated with federal investigators, and saying, “WSU takes its Title IX obligations very seriously and does not tolerate any form of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or other sexual misconduct.”

At the end of the day, the feds may or may not agree. But even if all 55 of these schools somehow turn out to be innocent, there is a deeper issue underlying the way universities track sex crimes: The official statistics for rape on campuses are so low as to be unbelievable. This is true for all efforts to quantify the frequency of rape, from Spokane Police Department figures to the FBI Uniform Crime Report, given that experts believe most rapes are never reported. But the college figures are strikingly low, and it is these official statistics – the reporting that universities are required to do under the Clery Act – that provides what information parents and students can get about the security of their schools.

WSU’s statistics for 2012 show 10 reports of forcible sexual assault. Presumably, no one at WSU would argue that 10 is a full and complete picture of the forcible sexual assaults in and around campus for 2012. Still, that’s the picture that’s available.

There are roughly 11,000 women students on the Pullman campus. The university’s Clery Act statistics indicate that less than .001 percent of them were raped.

One rape is deplorable, of course, and no number of them could be low enough. But the WSU figures exist in such astounding contrast to what is known about sexual assault that if they were true, they would suggest that Washington State has made more progress on this crime than any human organization in history.

Unless you count the University of Idaho, where the Clery-reported statistics show that there were three forcible sexual assaults reported in 2012. Eastern Washington University reported the same number. Three. Gonzaga logged eight. Whitworth had zero three years running.

It’s clear why rape experts scoff at university stats, even if exact and reliable figures for the crime are difficult to come by. Surveys consistently report that a lot of women report being sexually assaulted in college, usually by someone they know. One survey puts the figure at 11.5 percent, another pegs it at 13.5 percent, some reach 20 percent.

Here is the way that one survey, a 2002 report titled “Acquaintance Rape of College Students” for the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, summarized the reporting gap:

“Fewer than 5 percent of college women who are victims of rape or attempted rape report it to police. However, about two-thirds of the victims tell someone, often a friend (but usually not a family member or college official). In one study, over 40 percent of those raped who did not report the incident said they did not do so because they feared reprisal by the assailant or others. In addition, some rape victims may fear the emotional trauma of the legal process itself. Low reporting, however, ensures that few victims receive adequate help, most offenders are neither confronted nor prosecuted, and colleges are left in the dark about the extent of the problem.”

The same report cited survey results suggesting that a college with 10,000 women students might plausibly have 350 rapes per year, dryly noting: “This conflicts with official college data.”

The reasons this crime remains so stubbornly hidden are deep and complex and many. They arise from a host of flawed assumptions and cultural biases that minimize rape, that allow dude-bro boorishness about sex crimes to be laughed off, that produce systemic obstacles to the prosecution of rape, especially if the rapist is a football player. A whole culture that might produce, say, an ignorant ass of a bar owner who jokingly names a drink after date rape. All of which sends a clear but unfortunate message to young women about just how seriously we do not take this.

The message is getting through: Surveys repeatedly show that many young women think, for example, that it wasn’t rape if they were drunk.

Ha ha, Date Grape Kool-Aid.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.