Last week, CBC News ran a series of disturbing reports – the result of a six-month investigation – about sexual violence on Canadian university campuses. "No one has ever pulled together the [numbers] to get a snapshot of what's really going on – until now," said senior investigative correspondent Diana Swain. The findings were presented as a public service for parents and their university-bound children, who, understandably, want to pick a campus that is safe. Along the way, the CBC uncovered "some very troubling information."
Troubling, indeed – but mainly to the rape-culture narrative so prevalent today. It turns out that the reported rate of campus sexual assaults in Canada is awkwardly, even embarrassingly, low.
How low? In the five years between 2009 and 2013, more than 700 sexual assaults were reported by the 87 universities tracked by the CBC. Ryerson University led the pack, with 57 assaults. Little Acadia University, with 22, was the leader when adjusted for population.
Let's put these numbers in perspective. Ryerson, located in downtown Toronto, has a full-time enrolment of nearly 24,000 students. That means its rate of reported assaults works out to 4.778 per 10,000 students over five years. Most of the universities reported numbers that were far lower – a majority were less than one assault per 10,000 students. In fact, reported sex assault rates on campus were substantially lower than rates for their surrounding cities.
Only a fraction of all sexual assaults are reported. Yet these figures are so many orders of magnitude lower than the conventional wisdom – which says one in five women will be assaulted by the time she graduates – that you've got to wonder why.
The CBC offered several answers. According to the experts it interviewed, universities have been lax in tackling the issue. Students aren't always encouraged to come forward, or given adequate support services when they do. Some universities fudge the truth for fear of bad publicity. In fact, parents should be wary of universities that claim low numbers because "a low number can pose even more troubling questions." In other words, the real numbers are significantly worse. As one assault victim told Ms. Swain, "People are still being assaulted on campus every day, probably, or at least every week."
Another possibility – which the CBC did not appear to explore – is that sexual violence on campus, while very serious, is not as common as it's made out to be. (No campus administrator will dare to say this, of course.)
I spoke with Heather Lane Vetere, vice-provost for students at Ryerson, the university that tops the assault chart. While stressing that Ryerson takes the issue seriously, she pointed out some problems with the numbers. For example, those 57 assaults include incidents that didn't involve students. (The campus gets a lot of traffic because it sprawls through downtown Toronto.) Also, the incidents are not broken down by severity. The term "sexual assault" is extremely broad, and refers not only to rape or attempted rape, but also to unwanted kissing and touching. "My experience is that the majority are at the other [minor] end [of the spectrum]," she told me. "I think people need to read the numbers with that knowledge."
Many people want mandatory reporting of crime rates by universities, as required in the United States by the Clery Act. Yet the Clery Act numbers are also surprisingly low. In 2013, for example, the University of Chicago – another large urban campus – reported 11 assaults, which amounts to about 0.4 per cent of the female undergraduate population.
It's no wonder that parents are genuinely concerned for the safety of their kids, especially their daughters, on campus. The publicity has been terrible. But the CBC hasn't done them any favours with this massively misleading "investigation."
Nor has it played fair with the reputations of the universities it has singled out for special notice. Sure, the schools' responses are posted online. But what viewers will remember is alarmed experts, "troubling information" and distraught rape victims. The CBC is better than this – or at least it ought to be.