Get PolitiFact in your inbox.

By Sean Gorman January 4, 2015

Warner on sexual assault: It's safer for women not to be in college

U.S Sen. Mark Warner says women in college have a greater risk of being sexually assaulted than those who don’t go.

Warner made that statement in a television interview while weighing in on a Rolling Stone article that detailed allegations of a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity. The magazine has since backed away from the story.

"Statistics show that one out of every five women are victims of sexual assault when they’re on college campuses," Warner said on Fusion. "It’s actually safer not to be in college than it is to be in college."

PolitiFact Virginia examined the one-in-five statistic recently while looking at a statement made by State Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax. We found debate among analysts over that figure.

What piqued our interest this time is Warner’s claim that women college students are at a greater risk of being sexually assaulted than their non-college peers, a statement he’s made several times.

Warner’s proof

Warner spokesman, Kevin Hall, said the senator’s comment was based on a pair of Department of Justice reports as well as a statement from the American Association of University Professors about sexual assault.

"Schools are not the safe havens they once appeared to be; college women are at higher risk for sexual assault than their non-college-bound peers," said a 2005 report on campus sexual assault by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice.

NIJ based its conclusion on an early 1997 survey when it asked 4,446 female college students in the U.S. whether they’d been sexually victimized since the start of that school year. Almost 16 percent of the women said they had experienced "victimization," a term that was defined as anything from unwanted touching to forcible rape.

But the researchers never surveyed women who were not students. To support their finding that college women are at greater risk of experiencing a sexual crime, they cited academic studies in the late 1980s and 1990s that examined sexual assault on campuses in the U.S. and Canada.

One of the studies, published in the journal Criminology, surveyed 3,472 women students at 12 U.S. colleges about sexual victimization during the 1993-1994 academic year. They found that the rate of rape and sexual assault among students on campus was about three times higher than that of all women age 20-24. The researchers -- professors at three universities -- said their results "were suggestive" of a higher rate of sexual assault among college females. But the researchers cautioned that firm conclusions couldn’t be drawn without a systematic study of sexual assault among college students as well and their non-student peers.

They, too, did not survey non-students, instead relying on information from the National Crime Victimization Survey. This produced uneven comparisons. And the age range of the women students interviewed by the professors didn’t exactly match the available national data for women ages 20 to 24.

What Warner overlooks  

Warner’s office didn’t mention two studies by another branch of the Justice Department -- the Bureau of Justice Statistics -- that contradictorily concluded college women are safer than their non-college peers. These reports are somewhat more current than the research Warner cited and surveyed identically-aged women, from 18 through 24, attending college and not.

Featured Fact-check

The bureau, in a 2003 study, found that from 1995 to 2000 the rape and sexual assault rate among female college students was 6.2 per 1,000 women. The rape and sexual assault rate among female non-students was 7.9 per 1,000.

In a follow-up study in 2005, the bureau found that from 1995-2002, the rate of rape and sexual assault was 6.0 per 1,000 women students compared to 7.9 per 1,000 for female non-students.

We should point out that on Dec. 11, 2014 -- about a week after Warner made his statement --  the Bureau of Justice Statistics released its first report since 2005 examining sexual assault among women in college and their non-student peers. That report found that from 1995 to 2013, the rate of rape and sexual assault for students was 6.1 per 1,000 compared to 7.6 per 1,000 for non-students.

We won’t hold Warner accountable for information released a week after he made his statement. But the previous bureau reports from 2003 and 2005, that contradicted Warner’s claim, were available when he made his statement.

You may note that the incidences of campus rape and sexual assault in the bureau studies are lower than those found in other research we’ve mentioned. The bureau says that’s because it conducts a crime survey and its definitions of an offense are narrower than those used in other surveys. The bureau says participants in its survey may not report incidents they don’t think rise to the level of crimes.

A statistician at the bureau said the tighter definitions do not diminish its findings. "It’s the only national survey where you can look at the comparison between the students and non-students in terms of violent victimization and sexual assault victimization,"  said Lynn Langdon, co-author of the recent report.

Why would non-college students have higher rates of sexual assault than colleges students?

"A likely culprit is disadvantage," emailed Callie Rennison, a former statistician at the bureau who is co-director of the Criminology and Justice Research Initiative at the University of Colorado’s School of Public Affairs.

"In general, individuals who have more income, greater education, live in better-off communities (among other things) tend to be characterized by lower rates of violence," she wrote. "I believe this translates to university attendance. That is, those who come from more advantage are also more likely to attend university."

A final note: Warner, who has three college-aged daughters, voiced concern about sexual assaults on campuses prior to the publication of the Rolling Stone’s article in November. The senator announced in July that he was cosponsoring a bill that seeks to crack down on campus sexual assault.

The measure would require colleges to designate confidential advisors to help victims report crimes. It would mandate an annual anonymous survey in which students at every university would be asked about the prevalence of sexual assaults at their campuses.

Our ruling

Warner says women students on college campuses are more likely to be sexually assaulted than their peers who don’t seek a higher education. He backs his statement by citing Department of Justice studies that make that same observation based on research from the 1980s and 90s. The researchers acknowledged shortcomings with their methodology and said their conclusions were "suggestive."

Warner’s statement ignores a credible and more current body of research that offered an opposite conclusion to his.

We rate his statement Mostly False.

Our Sources

Sen. Mark Warner’s interview on Fusion, Dec. 3, 2014.

Email from Kevin Hall, spokesman for Sen. Mark Warner, Dec. 10, 2014.

Sen. Mark Warner, "Warner joins bipartisan bill to combat college campus assault," July 30, 2014.

Interview with Lynn Langton, statistician at the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Dec. 17, 2014.

Interview with Callie Rennison, co-director of the Criminology and Justice Research Initiative at the University of Colorado’s School of Public Affairs, Dec. 17, 2014.

Emails from Callie Rennison, Dec. 17 and Dec. 22, 2014.

Trauma, Violence & Abuse, "Violence against women: A review to identify limitations in defining the problem and inform future research," July 2014.

U.S. Department of Justice National Institute of Justice, "Sexual Assault on campus: What colleges and universities are doing about it," December 2005.

U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization among college-age females, 1995-2013," December 2014.

U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Rape and sexual assault higher among college-age nonstudent females than female colleges students in 1995-2013," Dec. 11, 2014.

U.S. Department of Justice Statistics Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Violent victimization of college students," December 2003.

Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Violent Victimization of college 1995-2002," January 2005.

U.S. Department of Justice National Institute of Justice, "The Campus Sexual Assault study," December, 2007.

Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, "The scope of rape: Incidence and prevalence of sexual aggression and victimization in a national sample of higher education students," 1987.

Criminology, "Crime in the Ivory Tower: The level and sources of student victimization," 1998.

Canadian Journal of Sociology, "The incidence of Woman abuse in Canadian university and college dating relationships," Spring, 1993.

The National Institute of Justice, "The sexual victimization of college women," December, 2000.

Huffington Post, "Sexual assault statistics can be confusing, but they’re not the point," Dec. 15, 2014.

PolitiFact Virginia, "Saslaw says 20 percent of female students at University of Virginia are sexually assaulted," Dec. 8, 2014.

The National Institute of Justice, "The sexual victimization of college women," December, 2000.

American Association of University Professors, "Campus sexual assault: Suggested policies and procedures," November, 2012.

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Sean Gorman

Warner on sexual assault: It's safer for women not to be in college

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up