January 31, 2018

Party schools and sexual assault

An interview with Isaac Swensen about college football, excessive drinking, and threats against women on campus.

Partying on college football game days is linked to a dramatic increase in reported rapes.

Chris Fleisher/Bigstock

Every day seems to bring new revelations of sexual assault against women.

The nation’s reckoning with this issue, sparked by an avalanche of accusations against powerful men, has compelled many of us to rethink our understanding of assault and the cultural attitudes and behaviors that are behind it.

Perhaps nowhere has the discussion been more heated than on college campuses, which for years have struggled to prevent these attacks and also create policies to hold offenders accountable.

In the January issue of the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, Montana State University professor Isaac Swensen and his co-authors Jason Lindo and Peter Siminski consider the extent to which a school’s party culture increases sexual violence against women.

Their paper focuses on a particularly festive day on many college campuses in the fall — football game day.

The researchers estimate that on game day at Division 1 schools, reports of rape among young women increase 28 percent. The problems are likely even worse than the data show, given that most rapes go unreported.

Swensen spoke with the AEA about his paper, the challenges of measuring the causal factors of sexual assault, and how his research fits into the larger discussion that is embroiling our country.

The following is a transcript edited for length and clarity. An audio version of the interview can be heard by clicking on the media player below.

AEA: The discussion over campus sexual assault has been happening for years. What got you interested in this issue and what did you want to contribute?

Isaac Swensen: Our goal was to quantify the degree to which events that intensify partying and alcohol consumption actually cause increases in reports of rape and to document what types of reports are affected most. That led us in the direction of investigating effects of these Division 1 football games because they clearly intensify partying and drinking on and around college campuses and provide an opportunity to learn about the causal effects of such activities on reports of rape.

AEA: Can you walk us through the results of what you found and some of the main factors influencing reports of rape?

Swensen: We find that game days for schools participating in Division 1 football significantly increase the number of reports of rape. Home games increase reports by about 40 percent, away games increase reports by 15 percent. We conduct a whole host of ancillary analyses and a few things that stand out is that the effects are especially large for reports of rape involving perpetrators who are unknown to the victim. We find that unexpected wins have especially large effects on reports of rape, which mirrors effects on arrests for alcohol related crimes.

AEA: Unexpected wins… basically, when the home team is the underdog, incidents of rape go up?

Swensen: The idea is that different games have different effects based on the expected likelihood of winning. These games are fundamentally different. We find that when you are an underdog and you win you see the largest effects on both alcohol-related crimes and rapes. I think that's very interesting and it is supportive of the mechanism of partying and alcohol consumption.




AEA: You looked at whether or not the victim knew the person or not. I was a little bit surprised to see the disparity there.

Swensen: I think that was kind of surprising, because the statistics that we have showing sexual assault victimization rates, just that it's often the case that the victim knows the offender. So that we were seeing such large effects in situations where the perpetrator was unknown to the victim was surprising.

AEA: What did you find most surprising?

Swensen: On the one hand, we expect partying and drinking to increase incidents of rape. In that sense, finding that they do in fact increase reports is kind of expected, but we really didn't know going into this study how big the effect would be. And then, what types of rapes are affected? Finding that reports of rapes increase by 41 percent on home games, 15 percent for away games was unexpected.

AEA: I think it's important to define what you consider a sexual assault or rape. Because we're at a time right now when our notions of what it means to be sexually assaulted are changing.

Swensen: That's a good point. We're using the FBI's recently expanded definition of rape: It includes both male and female victims, non-consenting acts of sodomy, sexual assault with an object.

AEA: What has been the experience like at Montana State University, your own institution, which I presume like most schools has been wrestling with a lot of these questions?

Swensen: Here at Montana State, in addition I was at University of Oregon previously, we see a lot of excitement, a lot of drinking. That said, what I see as a faculty member and what students are probably experiencing is very different. But I would say that universities are aware of this problem. I think they're starting to get proactive at recording data or working with researchers. I think that's going to be a step in the right direction. In terms of takeaways for colleges and administrators, I think they really should take away that there are nonmonetary costs associated with these big time sports programs. This hasn't happened to my knowledge, but one might think about using some of the football revenues for sexual assault prevention and treatment.

AEA: How do you think our changing notions of sexual assault change the way that researchers approach some of these questions?

Swensen: The way that researchers have to approach this question, first and foremost, is that we have data limitations. Some of the more specific details that I think you're referencing aren't at the forefront of these data issues. Maybe at the forefront is that … we tend to observe reported incidents. First and foremost, that's the hurdle that we have to get around is that we are observing in our case reported incidents to the FBI.

I would say that universities are aware of this problem. I think they're starting to get proactive at recording data or working with researchers.

Isaac Swensen

AEA: And there are so many incidents that are not reported.

Swensen: That's correct. We cite a paper by (Dean) Kilpatrick that suggests it's as few as 12 percent that are reported. That I think is a huge hurdle.

It's important to know that while the precise definition of sexual assault varies, that rape in general is the most costly type of crime by a wide margin except for murder. And I think that alone emphasizes its importance. There are plenty of debates about victimization rates and definitions of sexual assault. I think how costly rape and sexual assault are emphasize its importance and I think that's the starting point for researchers as they begin to analyze the effects of policies on very costly crimes.

AEA: Can you explain a little bit more about costly crimes?

Swensen: We're not estimating the costs of these crimes. But other people have and we're relying on that when we make our cost-benefit calculations. McCollister and her co-authors have estimated that a rape incident costs around $267,000. What they do is they incorporate direct and and indirect costs to the victim, including awards that have been determined by juries. It's a difficult thing to estimate how costly crimes are but it has been done and I think data that incorporates jury awards can inform the process.

“College Party Culture and Sexual Assault” is in the January issue of the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics.