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What campus rape crisis?

Promiscuity and hype have created a phony epidemic at colleges.

February 24, 2008|Heather Mac Donald | Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor of City Journal, from which this is adapted.

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 suffering.

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 as well.

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 of 2.4%.

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 doesn't exist.

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.

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