What campus rape crisis?
Promiscuity and hype have created a phony epidemic at colleges.
By Heather Mac Donald
Los Angeles Times
February 24, 2008
It's a lonely job, working the phones at a college rape crisis center.
Day after day, you wait for the casualties to show up from the alleged
campus rape epidemic -- but no one calls. Could this mean that the
crisis is overblown? No. It means, according to campus sexual-assault
organizations, that the abuse of coeds is worse than anyone had ever
imagined. It means that consultants and counselors need more funding
to persuade student rape victims to break the silence of their
It is a central claim of these organizations that between a fifth and
a quarter of all college women will be raped or will be the targets of
attempted rape by the end of their college years. Harvard's Office of
Sexual Assault Prevention and Response uses the 20% to 25% statistic.
Websites at New York University, Syracuse University, Penn State and
the University of Virginia, among many other places, use the figures
And who will be the assailants of these women? Not terrifying
strangers who will grab them in dark alleys, but the guys sitting next
to them in class or at the cafeteria.
If the one-in-four statistic is correct, campus rape represents a
crime wave of unprecedented proportions. No felony, much less one as
serious as rape, has a victimization rate remotely approaching 20% or
25%, even over many years. The 2006 violent crime rate in Detroit, one
of the most violent cities in the U.S., was 2,400 murders, rapes,
robberies, and aggravated assaults per 100,000 inhabitants -- a rate
Such a crime wave -- in which millions of young women would graduate
having suffered the most terrifying assault, short of murder, that a
woman can experience -- would require nothing less than a state of
emergency. Admissions policies, which if the numbers are true are
allowing in tens of thousands of vicious criminals, would require a
complete revision, perhaps banning male students entirely. The
nation's nearly 10 million female undergraduates would need to take
the most stringent safety precautions.
None of this crisis response occurs, of course -- because the crisis
So where do the numbers come from? During the 1980s, feminist
researchers committed to the rape-culture theory discovered that
asking women directly if they had been raped yielded disappointing
results -- very few women said that they had been. So Ms. magazine
commissioned University of Arizona public health professor Mary Koss
to develop a different way to measure the prevalence of rape.
Rather than asking female students about rape per se, Koss asked them
if they had ever experienced actions that she then classified as rape.
One question, for example, asked, "Have you had sexual intercourse
when you didn't want to because a man gave you alcohol or drugs?" -- a
question that is ambiguous on several fronts, including the woman's
degree of incapacitation, the causal relation between being given a
drink and having sexual intercourse, and the man's intentions. Koss'
method produced the 25% rate, which Ms. then published.
It was a flawed study on a number of levels, but the most powerful
refutation came from her own subjects: 73% of the women whom the study
characterized as rape victims told the researchers that they hadn't
been raped. Further, 42% of the study's supposed victims said they had
had intercourse again with their alleged assailants -- though it is
highly unlikely that a raped woman would have sex again with the fiend
who attacked her.
Despite all this, the numbers have stuck. Today, John Foubert, an
education professor at William and Mary College (and founder of a
group called One-in-Four, which works on sexual assault issues and has
chapters on 17 campuses), says, "The one-in-four statistic has been
replicated in several studies for several decades. To the extent that
social science can prove anything, which I believe it can, the one-in-
four statistic has been proven beyond all reasonable doubt. My
instincts tell me that the statistic is actually much higher."
Yet subsequent campus rape studies keep turning up the pesky
divergence between the victims' and the researchers' point of view.
A 2006 survey of sorority women at the University of Virginia, for
example, found that only 23% of the subjects whom the survey
characterized as rape victims felt that they had been raped -- a
result that the university's director of sexual and domestic violence
services calls "discouraging." Equally damning was a 2000 campus rape
study conducted under the aegis of the Department of Justice. Sixty-
five percent of those whom the researchers called "completed rape"
victims and three-quarters of "attempted rape" victims said that they
did not think that their experiences were "serious enough to report."
Believing in the campus rape epidemic, it turns out, requires ignoring
women's own interpretations of their experiences.
Nevertheless, none of the weaknesses in the research has had the
slightest drag on the campus "anti-rape" movement, because the
movement is political, not empirical. In a rape culture, which
"condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as a norm,"
sexual assault will wind up underreported, argued Carole Goldberg, the
director of Yale's Sexual Harassment and Assault Resources and
Education Center, in a March 2007 newsletter. Campus rape centers and
24-hour hotlines, aided by tens of millions of dollars of federal
funding, are ubiquitous.
Needless to say, those facilities don't appear to get a tremendous
amount of use. For example, Hillary Wing-Richards, the associate
director of sexual-assault prevention at James Madison University,
said the school's campus rape "help line" gets a varying number of
calls, some of which are "request-for-information calls" -- where to
go, who to talk to and the like.
"Some months there are 10 and others, one or two," she said.
Referring to rape hotlines, risk management consultant Brett Sokolow
laments: "The problem is, on so many of our campuses, very few people
ever call. And mostly we've resigned ourselves to the underutilization
of these resources."
Federal law requires colleges to publish reported crimes affecting
their students. The numbers of reported sexual assaults -- the law
does not require their confirmation -- usually run under half a dozen
a year on private campuses, and maybe two to three times that at large
So what reality does lie behind the rape hype? I believe that it's the
booze-fueled hookup culture of one-night, or sometimes just partial-
night, stands. Students in the '60s demanded that college
administrators stop setting rules for fraternization. The colleges
meekly complied and opened a Pandora's box of boorish, promiscuous
behavior that gets cruder each year.
This culture has been written about widely. College women -- as well
as men -- reportedly drink heavily before and during parties. For the
women, that drinking is often goal-oriented, suggests Karin Agness, a
recent University of Virginia graduate and founder of NeW, a club for
conservative university women: It frees the drinker from
responsibility and "provides an excuse for engaging in behavior that
she ordinarily wouldn't." Nights can include a meaningless sexual
encounter with a guy whom the girl may not even know.
In all these drunken couplings, there may be some deplorable instances
of forced and truly non-consensual sex. But most campus "rape" cases
exist in the gray area of seeming cooperation and tacit consent, which
is why they are almost never prosecuted criminally.
"Ninety-nine percent of all college rape cases would be thrown out of
court in a twinkling," observes University of Pennsylvania history
professor Alan Kors.
Many students hold on to the view that women usually have the power to
determine whether a campus social event ends with intercourse. A
female Rutgers student expressed a common sentiment in a university
sexual-assault survey: "When we go out to parties and I see girls and
the way they dress and the way they act ... and just the way they are,
under the influence and um, then they like accuse them of like, 'Oh
yeah, my boyfriend did this to me' or whatever, I honestly always
think it's their fault."
But suggest to a rape bureaucrat that female students share
responsibility for the outcome of an evening and that greater sexual
restraint would prevent campus "rape," and you might as well be saying
that women should don the burka.
College officials have responded to the fallout of the college sexual
revolution not with sound advice but with bizarre and anachronistic
legalisms for responding to postcoital second thoughts.
University of Virginia students, for example, may demand a formal
adjudication before the Sexual Assault Board; they can request a
"structured meeting" with the Office of the Dean of Students by filing
a formal complaint; or they can seek voluntary mediation.
Risk-management consultants travel the country to help colleges craft
legal rules for student sexual congress.
"If one partner puts a condom on the other, does that signify that
they are consenting to intercourse?" asks Alan D. Berkowitz, a campus
rape consultant. Short of guiding the thus-sheathed instrumentality to
port, it's hard to imagine a clearer signal of consent, although
Berkowitz apparently finds it "inherently ambiguous."
And even as the campus rape industry decries alleged male predation, a
parallel campus sex bureaucracy sends the message that students should
have recreational sex at every opportunity.
New York University offers workshops on orgasms and "Sex Toys for
Safer Sex" ("an evening with rubber, silicone and vibrating toys") in
residence halls and various student clubs. Brown University's Student
Services helps students answer the compelling question: "How can I
bring sex toys into my relationship?" Princeton University's "Safer
Sex Jeopardy" game for freshmen lists six types of vibrators and eight
kinds of penile toys.
Why, exactly, are schools offering workshops on orgasms? Are students
already so saturated with knowledge of the evolution of constitutional
democracy, say, that colleges should reroute their resources to
matters available on [censored] websites?
Remarkably, many students emerge from this farrago of mixed messages
with common sense intact.
In a November column in the University of Virginia's student
newspaper, a third-year student gave the real scoop on frat parties:
They're filled with men hoping to have sex. Rather than calling these
men "rapists," columnist Katelyn Kiley offered some practical wisdom
to the women trooping off to Virginia's fraternity row:
"It's probably a good idea to keep your clothes on, and at the end of
the night, to go home to your own bed. Interestingly enough, that's
how you get [the guys] to keep asking you back."
Maybe such young iconoclasts can take up another discredited idea:
College is for learning. Fighting male dominance or catering to the
libidinal impulses released in the 1960s are sorry substitutes for the
pursuit of knowledge.
Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor of City Journal, from
which this is adapted.
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