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New study sheds light on campus rape
01:51 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

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Study: 18.6% of freshmen women at one college were victim of attempted or completed rape

The study backs the often-used statistic that one in five college women is sexually assaulted

CNN  — 

A new study about the incidence of rape involving college freshmen women will probably add to the ongoing debate about whether enough is being done on campuses to keep students safe.

The study, conducted at a large unnamed private university in upstate New York and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that 19% of women, nearly one in five, said they had been a victim of attempted or completed rape, either by force or while they were incapacitated due to alcohol or drugs, during their freshman year.

“What this says to me is, a lot of our young women are dealing with this sexual violence, and we all probably know young women” who have been victims, said lead author Kate Carey, professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown University’s School of Public Health.

The study, conducted by researchers at Brown and Miriam Hospital’s Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine, involved surveys with 483 first-year women who ranged in age from 18 to 21.

They were recruited to take part in a survey about women’s health and answered questions on a range of issues including alcohol consumption, suicidal ideations and sexual behavior. They recorded their responses before they started their first year and at the end of the fall, spring and summer during their freshman year.

While it is not the first study to try to study rape involving college women during their freshman year, researchers believe their methodology – asking women during their freshman year – might minimize “recall bias,” which would be skewed results when women are asked about what happened during their freshman year several years later, said Carey.

About 15% of the women said they were raped or a victim of attempted rape while they were incapacitated, while 9% said they were forcibly raped or a victim of attempted rape by force, according to the study.

More than 18% – nearly one in five – said they were victims of either an attempted or completed forcible or incapacitated rape.

Debate over ‘one in five’ statistic

For years, the “one in five” statistic has been mentioned by advocates, pundits and even President Obama when the topic of rape on campus comes up. The statistic comes from a 2007 study for the U.S. Department of Justice, which found that one in five women say they were sexually assaulted on college campuses.

But that study and its findings have been called into question by some because the study was limited in scope – involving only two colleges – and used a broad definition of sexual assault, which included unwanted kissing and fondling.

This latest study, while also limited in scope since it involves surveys at only one private university, does include a much narrower definition of rape.

The study did not include the behavior of fondling or touching and did not include cases that involved an individual overwhelming a woman with arguments for sex or continually pressing for sex.

The definition in this study solely included cases involving the threat of force or the use of force, or incapacitation so that a woman could not resist or consent, said Carey, the lead author.

Though the study was done at only one school and does not necessarily signal what’s happening at colleges across the country, Carey says the body of evidence suggests a similar pattern on most campuses.

“There can be regional differences and there can be sub-cultural differences, and so we wouldn’t expect that the data that we found in New York would be exactly the data that we might find in Arizona, but … the more survey studies, the more assessments that we have out there that are sort of revealing somewhat similar findings, the more confidence that we have that it is a somewhat generalizable picture that we’re seeing here.”

‘A real call to arms’

A stunning 28% of the women said they had been a victim of either an attempted or completed forcible or incapacitated rape before college, from the age of 14 through 18, according to the study. That number jumps to 37% for all women surveyed from the age of 14 through the start of their sophomore year.

“If I have a class of sophomores, this says that one out of every three will have had something like this in her background, and so to some extent, this is a real call to arms,” said Carey.

Emma Sulkowicz of Columbia University carries a mattress in protest of the university's lack of action after she reported being raped.

The issue has been in the national spotlight following high-profile stories such as the now heavily debunked Rolling Stones report about an an alleged gang rape on campus, the arrests of three college students after an alleged gang rape during spring break in Panama City, Florida, and a Columbia University woman, Emma Sulkowicz, who carried around a mattress on campus to protest the school’s handling of her alleged sexual assault.

She graduated Tuesday and reportedly brought her mattress to graduation.

Tess Koman of posted a video of what she said was Sulkowicz carrying her mattress across the stage at Columbia’s commencement ceremony.

Carey hopes her study adds to existing research and helps continue the conversation about sexual violence of young women and involve women and men, even at younger ages.

“We … do need to think about engaging in prevention early, probably at least at the high school level, and focus not necessarily on the women themselves, although they are a key part of the conversation, but engage all members of the community in talking about what are healthy relationships and what is the meaning of consent and to what extent is alcohol, drinking alcohol to the point of incapacitation, just not a good idea on many, many levels.”

Changing the culture about what’s acceptable behavior and what’s not is key, she added.

“We don’t want to see these kinds of numbers if we do (a study) like this five or 10 years from now, and we have an opportunity to step in and to really work diligently as parents and faculty and coaches and advisers and administrators to create an environment where these kinds of things are becoming much, much less common.”

What do you think is the best way to prevent campus rape? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv or CNN Parents on Facebook.