Sexual violence, on and off college campuses, is abhorrent. But recent media attention, including apparent fabrications — or at least exaggerations — in a Rolling Stone story about an alleged gang rape at a fraternity at the University of Virginia, has sown a lot of confusion and unneeded worry.

One of the best explanations of the worrisome consequences of the growing concern about campus rape comes from Emily Yoffe in a long essay for Slate. In it, she details the case of Drew Sterrett, a former student at the University of Michigan. One night his freshman year, a female friend asked to spend the night in his dorm room because her roommate had family visiting. Sterrett agreed, the woman climbed into his bed and they had sex. Later, after the female student’s mother became angry after reading about drug use and sex in her daughter’s diary, the mother called campus officials to say her daughter would be making a complaint against Sterrett, according to court documents.

Yoffe details the one-sided handling of the case by an administrator at the university. Testimony in support of Sterrett seems to have been ignored. After the university placed numerous restrictions on him, Sterrett left the University of Michigan, but has not been accepted to another school because of the allegations against him. He filed suit against the university alleging he had been deprived of his constitutional right of due process.

“We are told that one of the most dangerous places for a young woman in America today is a college campus,” Yoffe writes, adding that frequently used statistics would mean “young American college women are raped at a rate similar to women in Congo, where rape has been used as a weapon of war.” She then methodically explains why this is untrue.

What is true is that women between the ages of 18 and 24 are most at risk for sexual assault, whether they are in college or not. According to a recent Department of Defense report on sexual assault prevention, 65 percent of sexual assault victims were between the ages of 16 and 24; 41 percent of perpetrators were in this age group.

Few studies of campus violence take into account what happens to young adults not in college. Yoffe found one, by Callie Marie Rennison and Lynn Addington, researchers at the University of Colorado Denver and American University, respectively. Their study found: “Non-student females are victims of violence at rates 1.7 times greater than are college females.” This extended to sexual violence as well. “Even if the definition of violence were limited to sexual assaults, these crimes are more pervasive for young adult women who are not in college,” they wrote.

“Maybe that’s not a really popular thing to say,” Rennison said in an interview with Yoffe. “I hate the notion that people think sending kids off to college is sending them to be victimized.”

Yet, this is what many parents and students are thinking. Bloomberg News last Friday circulated a story about students and parents making college choices based on safety concerns.

One example is Emma Crowe, who has applied to the University of Virginia, but dropped the school to the bottom of her list after the Rolling Stone article was published last month.

“Girls my age feel extremely aware of their vulnerabilities when applying,” said Crowe, a senior at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.

Her mother was a bit more measured. Amanda Ciaccio told Bloomberg that women aren’t 100 percent safe anywhere, so she urged her daughter to keep considering UVA.

“You have to accept that it’s everywhere and be smart and careful,” said Ciaccio, who lives near Boston.

But it is not everywhere. A frequently cited statistic — even President Barack Obama has used it — is that one in five female college students is sexually assaulted. The number comes from a 2007 study funded by the National Institute of Justice. That study surveyed female students at just two universities and the definition of sexual assault was very broad. The study’s lead author said the survey was not nationally representative.

Another study Yoffe cites was funded by the Justice Department. Although researchers found that 2.8 percent of college women had been the victim of a rape or attempted rate, they made numerous adjustments and concluded that the campus victimization rate could climb to 25 percent. This is well above the incidence of sexual violence actually recorded at any school.

What shouldn’t be disputed is that too often colleges have mishandled and downplayed sexual assault complaints. This begs the question of whether colleges should be handling them on their own. Sexual assault and attempted sexual assault are crimes. It would be hard to imagine a college investigating a murder without bringing in law enforcement help. Yet, federal policies encourage universities to handle sexual violence complaints, sometimes discouraging victims from contacting police.

If something positive comes from the botched Rolling Stone story, it should be a more clear-eyed consideration of sexual assault prevention. First and foremost, assault victims must be heard and supported. But there is also room to fairly judge accused perpetrators. And, as college acceptances begin to roll in for high school seniors, parents shouldn’t worry about sending their kids to campuses as unsafe as the Congo.

The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...