What the Origins of the “1 in 5” Statistic Teaches Us About Sexual Assault Policy

This article is part of our special issue “Nudge Turns 10,” which explores the intersection of behavioral science and public policy. View the complete issue here.

“1 in 5” is one of the most high-profile and contested statistics in the media today. Referring to the number of women who experience sexual assault during their time in college, “1 in 5” is frequently invoked by activists to intensify public efforts to identify, prevent, and prosecute sexual assault. At the same time, it is roundly critiqued by those who feel it is an inflated, politically motivated number that creates mass hysteria rather than sound policy. A closer look at the origins of “1in 5” can help us understand these polarized views and, more importantly, appreciate what is at stake in publicly acknowledging sexual assault and rape so that we can better support survivors.

While it may appear to be a 21st century meme, “1 in 5” actually has a 30-year history. Its origins lie in the work of feminist social scientists who were inspired by the 1970s anti-rape movement to try and accurately measure the prevalence of rape and sexual assault. I say “accurately” because there was wide acknowledgment (then, as now) that attempts to do so had been hampered by poorly designed surveys and pervasive underreporting. One of these scientists was Mary Koss.

In 1976, Koss, then a newly minted assistant psychology professor at Kent State University, became intrigued by the difficulty of gathering accurate statistics about rape and sexual assault. As she later recalled, “I had recently read journalist Susan Brownmiller’s book, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. Using what few data were available at the time, she carefully documented that the scope of rape was underestimated. The challenge of finding these unmeasured rapes pulled me in….”

To rise to this challenge, Koss used her expertise in survey design and measurement to develop a questionnaire, the Sexual Experiences Survey, that would be worded to pick up a wide range of sexual victimization experiences, including rape. In its first version, the survey included thirteen questions. Twelve of those asked about behavior but did not use the word “rape.” For example, one question, which constituted the legal definition of rape, was, “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with a man when you didn’t want to because he used some degree of physical force?” The 13th question was, “Have you ever been raped?”

The history of “1 in 5” challenges us to critically examine, in the present moment, who has the power to name rape and be believed, under what conditions, and with what consequences.

Koss administered this initial survey to over 3,800 students at Kent State. As expected, she found that rape was prevalent on campus. What was more startling, and what became—and has remained—controversial in ensuing debates, was that over half of her female respondents who endorsed the legal definition of rape did not simultaneously endorse the item in which their experiences were called “rape.” Importantly, participants were more likely to respond with this disconnect if the rape was perpetrated by an acquaintance as opposed to a stranger.

The last item on the survey, “Have you ever been raped?” had originally been intended only as a validity check. But its inclusion actually exposed the wide gap between experiencing certain acts and publicly naming them “rape,” especially if the experience was with someone known to the respondent. This finding was crucial in making date and acquaintance rape visible and helped explain why previous efforts to measure sexual assault suffered from underreporting.

Based on these results, Koss identified what she called the “hidden rape victim”—a woman who endorses experiencing the behavioral and legal definition of rape but who does not call it rape. Koss then refined her survey to include only the behavioral items (in other words, no questions that labeled experiences as “rape” or “assault”) and added a more nuanced 4-item “perception of victimization” scale. On this scale, respondents chose the statement that most closely matched their experience. These statements were: “I don’t feel I was victimized”; “I believe I was a victim of serious miscommunication”; “I believe I was a victim of a crime other than rape”; and, “I believe I was a victim of rape.”

Koss administered the revised survey to over 6,000 university students across 32 institutions in the United States. The result? Twenty-seven percent of women reported having experienced attempted or completed rape as the law defined it since the age of 14, the vast majority perpetrated by a date or acquaintance (the more commonly reported “1 in 5” refers only to sexual assault during time in college). Only 55 percent of respondents who reported a completed rape perpetrated by a stranger also endorsed the item “I believe I was a victim of rape.” And if the completed rape was perpetrated by an acquaintance, this went down to only 23 percent.

Instead of asking why women were so reluctant to report a rape, critics seized upon this finding to try to undermine the reality of date/acquaintance rape, the credibility of its victims, and the validity of the survey results. Koss’s finding that the majority of women felt victimized by their experience even if they stopped short of calling it rape went largely unnoticed. If women weren’t calling it rape, critics argued, why should anyone else?

In 1988, journalist Robin Warshaw wrote a book inspired by the survey results entitled I Never Called It Rape, which focused on raising awareness about the nature and prevalence of date and acquaintance rape, for which Koss wrote a prologue. Koss’ work garnered immediate and widespread attention. She soon found herself the target of attacks by conservative media and other academics.

At their most damning, critics charged Koss with literally conjuring up an experience that simply did not exist. One of these critics, self-dubbed “factual feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers, continues to argue that the “1 in 5” statistic is inflated and leads to exaggerated claims of rape victimization and thus ineffective policies (she has also named it one of five “feminist myths that will not die,” alongside the gender pay gap and stats about the sexual trafficking of girls). Despite this, Koss presented testimony at the hearings leading to the first Violence Against Women Act, in 1994, and continues to research what factors affect sexual assault and rape acknowledgement.

Half of their survey respondents who had experienced rape according to this legal definition did not acknowledge experiencing either sexual assault or rape.

So what can the origins of the “1 in 5” statistic tell us about how to move forward with sexual assault policy? The number itself has been remarkably stable. Survey after survey reveals that when female college students are asked if they have experienced oral, anal, or vaginal penetration in situations involving physical force, threat of force, coercion, or incapacitation, about 20 percent of respondents say “yes,” and about half of the victims of even the most violent crimes still don’t call it “rape.” In fact, in a recent study, Koss and her colleagues found that half of their survey respondents who had experienced rape according to this legal definition did not acknowledge experiencing either sexual assault or rape. This, more than any other finding, should be the one that gives us pause—but not for the reasons Hoff Sommers and others propose.

This finding suggests at least three things that can inform effective policy. First, most women are well aware—and research has amply documented—that publicly acknowledging sexual assault and rape will activate a cascade of aversive and, for some women, even life-threatening events. Despite legal reforms, increased public awareness, and the power of #MeToo to enhance survivor credibility, more policy work needs to be done to make it safe, worthwhile, and nonstigmatizing for women to publicly acknowledge their experiences.

Second, policy needs to reflect the finding that regardless of how a woman labels her experience, she will face negative emotional consequences and should have access to support. Research findings are mixed regarding the long-term mental health outcomes of labeling versus not labeling, but one thing is certain: regardless of whether she labels the rape as a rape, it is still experienced as problematic and distressing, and can have long-term repercussions.

Not acknowledging rape when it happens is not a sign that it didn’t happen or was unproblematic. It is a sign that we do not have adequate language for communicating the complexity of sexual violence and its aftermath.

Third—and here is where it gets complicated—we need to create forums where all kinds of women from all sectors of society can talk about sexual victimization in all of its complexity and be taken seriously as narrators of their own experiences, whatever terms they choose to use. Women who have survived a rape according to its legal definition, whether they call it a rape or not, suffer lasting effects. Not acknowledging rape when it happens is not a sign that it didn’t happen or was unproblematic. It is a sign that we do not have adequate language for communicating the complexity of sexual violence and its aftermath. It is a sign that women are still denied full agency in the construction of their sexual subjectivities. As feminist philosopher, activist, and survivor Linda Alcoff recently wrote in her book Rape and Resistance, “The point is for victims not simply to have the capacity to express our experiences and what we ‘are,’ as if this is fixed, but also to have a hand in making what we are, what we wish to be, and for this we need a voice both individually and collectively.”

It is now over 30 years since Koss first published her work on hidden rape victims. Instead of rehashing whether “1 in 5” is valid and whether women are reliable interpreters of their own experiences, we should be asking why it is so hard for us to hear these experiences and connect them to larger structures of power and domination. The history of “1 in 5” challenges us to critically examine, in the present moment, who has the power to name rape and be believed, under what conditions, and with what consequences.

As the #MeToo movement unfolds and we grapple with how to extend its reach to racialized, gender minority, immigrant, low socioeconomic status, and precariously employed women—all those who have historically been denied the power to name their own experiences or face violent consequences if they do—we should brainstorm policies that will make it possible and safe for more women to speak meaningfully and contextually about all forms of sexual victimization. Only then can we begin both to help individuals and to dismantle the systems that silence them.