Illustration for article titled No One Is Studying the Link Between Poverty and Sexual Assault

A recent study based on Department of Justice statistics showed that young women who aren't in college are at greater risk of rape than women enrolled in school. In an editorial in the New York Times this weekend, one of the study's authors says they've found evidence that women in poverty are at much greater risk of sexual violence overall, yet no one seems to be studying the problem.

Callie Marie Rennison, a criminology professor at University of Colorado Denver, and Lynn Addington, a professor in the same field at American University, published "Violence Against College Women" earlier this year, a study that relies on statistics from the Bureau of Justice's National Crime Victimization Survey. They found that in women aged 18-24, "non-student females are victims of violence at rates 1.7 times greater than are college females."

In a follow-up editorial in the Times, Rennison writes, "Lately, people have been bombarded with the notion that that universities and colleges are hotbeds of sexual violence. Parents fear that sending their teenagers to school is equivalent to shipping them off to be sexually victimized."

That's not quite the central argument in the campus rape debate. Nobody is saying that college campuses are, every one of them, the most rape-riddled places in society; rather, the controversy has been about how colleges choose to deal with rape allegations, through an opaque and frankly non-functional series of on-campus, closed-door hearings that rarely lead to anyone getting expelled or facing other meaningful disciplinary consequences.

But Rennison makes an important point: that the total focus on campus rape might keep us from talking enough about economically disadvantaged rape victims. She writes:

The focus on sexual violence against some of our most privileged young people has distracted us from the victimization of those enjoying less social and economic advantage.

Surprisingly, we don't know much about the latter group. After an exhaustive search, colleagues and I could find no major study that focuses on the relationship between social and economic disadvantage and rape and sexual assault risk in the United States. But existing research does show that disadvantaged women are more likely to experience violence generally, as well as violence perpetrated by an intimate partner. Does this hold true for sexual assault?


Rennison says her preliminary analysis of the National Crime Victimization Survey Data suggests that various kinds of social inequality—poverty, lack of educational attainment, renting versus owning a home—correlates with a higher risk for sexual assault.

The study released by Rennison and Addington, coming at the same time as the unraveling UVA story, has become a new favorite for people who want to argue that the college rape crisis is overblown.


In fact, Rennison says, the issue isn't to ignore sexual violence against college women, which she isn't suggesting doesn't exist. "But we also need to do much more to support women in disadvantaged communities," she writes. "Those are the same women who have the least flexibility at work, the least access to reliable transportation, the least help with childcare, and the least resources with which to pursue legal representation or medical treatment on their own. We need to do a better job of bringing health, legal and psychological services to them."

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