We’ve heard it over and over again: rape is epidemic on college campuses, and it’s being committed by sociopathic, serial rapists. “This cannot be emphasized enough,” says Amanda Marcotte at Slate. “The high rates of campus sexual assault are due mostly to a small percentage of men who assault multiple women.”
Al Jazeera reported that serial rapists commit 9 out of 10 campus sexual assaults, citing a 2002 study by psychologist David Lisak. The problem is, Lisak’s work has now been debunked. His study, as Linda LeFauve at Reason discovered, is seriously flawed, relying on survey data Lisak didn’t collect and having no direct connection to campus sexual assault.
“The basis of Lisak’s 13-year old paper was not his own research but data collected as part of one student’s master’s thesis and three dissertations, none of which were about campus sexual assault,” LaFauve writes. “The most widely quoted figures—that 90 percent of campus rapes are committed by serial offenders and that they average six rapes each—were calculated on a total of 76 non-traditional students who were not living on a college campus, and whose offenses may or may not have happened on or near a college campus, may or may not have been perpetrated on other students, and may have happened at any time in the survey respondents’ adult lives.”
This Study Is a Big Deal
Lisak’s misleading work has formed the foundation for anti-due-process policies mandated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and President Obama’s January 2014 memo announcing the creation of White House task force to address rape and sexual assault on campus. Lisak has also influenced the controversial documentary “The Hunting Ground,” which asserts that the vast majority of campus sexual assaults are “highly calculated, premeditated crimes” committed by serial predators, not one-time drunken offenders or opportunists known to the victims.
Lisak’s work has inspired many to try to expose these sociopathic perpetrators on campus, the most infamous being Sabrina Rubin Erdely of Rolling Stone, who went so far as to publish a false story about several members of a fraternity at the University of Virginia who allegedly raped a woman known as “Jackie.” Rolling Stone later retracted the article after police found no evidence of rape and the Washington Post reported that Erdely’s story was “a complete crock.”
Three former members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity who were accused of raping “Jackie” have filed a lawsuit against Rolling Stone for defamation and infliction of emotional distress. They say the discredited article had a “devastating effect” on their lives and reputations. Now, Will Dana, the managing editor of Rolling Stone, is leaving the magazine. When asked if his departure is linked to the lawsuit and controversy surrounding Erdely’s false article, the magazine’s publisher said, “Many factors go into a decision like this.”
Much of the furor over sexual assault on campus that led to the Rolling Stone debacle and the damaged lives of three young men has roots in Lisak’s misleading work. As Robby Soave of Reason has written, “Prior to the widespread adoption of Lisak’s views, campus rape was often considered to fall into the supposedly less serious category of ‘date rape.’ Students who committed rape were assumed to be one-off offenders motivated by alcohol and circumstance into crossing blurry lines. But the 2002 study turned this thinking on its head by revisiting campus rapists as sociopaths inclined to commit violence over and over again. Abuse was in their nature, and reforming them was difficult.”
Federal Statistics Also Contradict Lisak’s Study
Since most campus rapists are now assumed to be serial predators, Lisak has advocated that colleges establish stronger measures to deal with the problem. “This logic makes some sense, but only if one accepts this interpretation of the research,” Soave writes. “Such thinking makes it much easier for administrators to justify the abridgment of due process rights for accused students, and to operate from the presumption that accused students are guilty—of a great number of rapes, no less.”
This, of course, turns out to be false. Most men who sexually assault women on college campuses aren’t serial rapists or sociopaths who can’t be reformed. Neither are they unknown to the victim, as Lisak claimed in his paper. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 80 percent of college-age women who are victims of sexual assault know the offender. It’s not surprising that the same percentage refuse to report the events to the police.
According to the BJS, more than 90 percent of rapes and sexual assaults were committed by a single offender—not a group of offenders. Additionally, the often-quoted statistic that one in five women are victims of sexual assault on college campuses is bogus. The actual rate is 6.1 per 1,000 students, making the real number 0.03 in 5.
As LeFauve writes, “Even a single rape is abhorrent. Even one woman, victimized multiple times, endures trauma.” But university and government policies, citing Lisak, are being built on the false notion that that sexual assault on college campuses are not part of a hook-up culture but the actions of serial rapists. Lisak has said that these “undetected rapists” must be “identified and removed from our communities.”
Instead of instituting draconian policies that target male students as possible serial predators, it’s time to put the mattresses back in the dorm rooms and consider real solutions to actual problems at our universities, including—first and foremost—the true nature of the hook-up culture, along with the radical secularization of the college campus and students taking responsibility for their own actions.