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ILLUSTRATION BY ASIA CUNNINGHAM
Last semester, Spectator reported on data suggesting that one in every five women on campus has experienced “sexual assault” since enrolling at Columbia. This statistic was derived from results of a survey conducted by the Association of American Universities, and was propagated alongside calls for additional support services for victims of rape.

In the wake of the Emma Sulkowicz mattress protest, this statistic seems to corroborate popular sentiments that Columbia is indeed a bastion of rape. But is it really?

A closer analysis of the AAU survey reveals several opportunities for misinterpretation of its data. For one thing, the survey uses a ridiculously wide definition of sexual assault that includes everything from penetration to unwanted groping. It also paternalistically decides whether women have been victims or not and treats the complicated situation of mutual intoxication in a way that is favorable to women.

Considering how often the one in five statistic is employed, it’s worthwhile to consider how various interpretations of the survey’s data might lead some to use it as misleading political propaganda.

When I hear the term “sexual assault,” I think of rape. Many of my friends do, too. And if rape doesn’t come to mind, then something comparatively traumatizing does. Some people, on the other hand, just think of unwanted touching or even street harassment. And while the term “sexual assault” has a legal definition, in reality, it often means different things to different people. As such, the one in five statistic has the potential to be interpreted in vastly different ways by different people.

These differing interpretations also have the potential to rob women of their agency to define what constitutes sexual assault. If I was at a dinner party and a man kissed me without my consent, it would be majorly uncomfortable. Still, I would consider it a minor incident and chalk it up to pathetic male entitlement, drunkenness, or mixed signals. I would absolutely not consider it sexual assault. However, if I recounted that experience in response to the AAU survey, my experience would put me in the survivors camp.

If I were to accept the language AAU uses, I would not get to decide whether I have been a victim of sexual assault.

Moreover, many of the sexual acts the survey classifies as assault are simply what my friends and I would call “bad sex” caused by alcohol, communication issues, or mutual sexual desire. If we look at the statistics, only 5.3 percent of female students were “victims of a sexual assault involving penetration by incapacitation.” Later, we see that the “primary reason” why such incidents weren’t reported is because the female did not believe that the incident was serious enough.

If a woman was drinking, we have to consider whether or not the man in the situation was drinking, too. This helps determine if the transgressions occurred because of predatory partying or poor communication due to drinking. The survey addresses this question, but we aren’t told what percentage of males were drinking while the women were. (Other surveys suggest that guys are more often than not intoxicated, too.)

I know that after tossing back a couple of glasses of wine, I would certainly be more willing to have sex. If I answered the survey truthfully, I would be considered a victim. But if I’m the victim of assault because I had unwanted sex after topping off a bottle of wine, then what about the person whom I had sex with, who was probably drinking, too? If I felt traumatized, the other person would be considered the perpetrator, even if they were just as drunk as I was. And even if I didn’t feel traumatized, I’d still be a victim.

While I am happy that the issue of sexual violence at Columbia is being researched, I wish the people reading the surveys would do so more carefully.

Ultimately, the survey’s potential to mislead only serves to undermine true victims of rape. From what I can tell, at Columbia, one in five women have not been violently attacked. But when that statistic is being yelled by activists alongside other students’ stories of rape, another layer of doubt is added to survivors’ stories, since most people (including myself) would balk at the notion of so many women being attacked in their college years—which is the reality according to films like The Hunting Ground.

Furthermore, when a heavily charged word like “assault” is used to describe relatively banal occurrences, the word loses its power. But that’s okay, though, right? It’s said to be good when anything can be interpreted to support the argument that rape culture exists; the greater the number of victims, the easier it is to argue for support services.  But to say that rape culture is prevalent at Columbia just because a survey can be interpreted as such is to be ignorant of the individual realities of survivors.

As undergraduates at one of the most elite universities in the country, it seems like we have to prove that we are exceptional in every way, from our academic prowess, to how sexually victimized we are. This is ridiculous. The incredulity that people feel after reading a fallacious analysis of a statistic isn’t good.

What’s worse is when you put that statistic next to a story of rape, because the incredulity that people feel about the statistic will reappear in their perception of the survivor’s story.

Toni Airaksinen is a Barnard College sophomore majoring in urban studies. She is a first-generation college student and a TA for Barnard’s environmental science department. She tweets@Toni_Airaksinen. The Ivory Tower: Deconstructed runs alternate Wednesdays.

Source: http://columbiaspectator.com/opinion/2016/02/24/rape-culture-and-problem-1-5-sexual-assault-statistic