Campus Rape Expert Can't Answer Basic Questions About His Sources

The problem with David Lisak's serial predator theory of campus sexual assault.


credit: lanier67 / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

David Lisak's serial predator theory of campus rape has made him a celebrity. Once a virtually unknown associate professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, his work is now cited by White House officials and reporters for major newspapers.

His influence is evident in the recent documentary The Hunting Ground, and the producers continue to promote his work along with their film. In Jon Krakauer's new book, Missoula, about sexual assault at the University of Montana, Lisak's name appears more than 100 times.

Much of the urgency around the topic of sexual assault on college campuses traces back to Lisak's repeated claim that campus offenders are violent sociopaths who use "sophisticated strategies to groom" their targets and "terrify and coerce their victims into submission." Lisak asserts that 90 percent of campus rapes are committed by serial offenders who average six rapes each. He has said that "every report should be viewed and treated as an opportunity to identify a serial rapist."

Yet for all the attention paid to David Lisak, the problematic paper on which his fame rests has been left largely unscrutinized. And as it turns out, the paper relies on survey data not collected by Lisak, with no direct connection to campus sexual assault.

"Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists" was published in 2002 in the journal Violence and Victims. Lisak has recently encouraged the impression that he conducted the research himself.

He did not. The paper was based on pooled data from four studies conducted by others on his campus between 1991 and 1998. I spoke with Lisak in March of this year. When I asked about those studies, he first said he was unable to remember their topics, then that they "may have been about child abuse history or relationships with parents." I asked whether they were about campus sexual assault; he conceded they were not.

Asked who the investigators of those previous studies were, he again said he was unable to recall but, when prompted, acknowledged his co-author, Paul Miller, as the lead investigator of two of them, conducted while Miller was a master's and then doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. I asked if the others were also Lisak's doctoral students during that time. "Yes, probably," he said.

It is not unheard of for a researcher to repurpose data from other studies. It was, however, unusual to hear a researcher so vague about his subject matter and authorship.

The survey instrument used to collect the data on sexual assault was the Abuse Perpetration Inventory. This is a long, detailed, and graphic instrument created by Lisak. There are seven pages of items that ask about childhood experiences of a sexually and physically violent nature. There are only five questions that ask respondents about sexual violence they, as adults, may have committed on other adults.

There were 1,882 subjects in the pooled data, men ranging in age from 18 to 71. Assuming they reflected the demographics of the university, most would have been part-time students, many of whom would also be holding down jobs away from campus. All would have been commuters.

Among these men, 120 had engaged in actions that meet the legal definition of rape or attempted rape, based on responses to an anonymous survey they completed. (Subsequently, Lisak refers to them all as rapists, although he does not indicate how many he'd classified as rapists and how many as attempted rapists.) Of those 120 men, 76 met Lisak's definition of multiple offenders.

Lisak told me that he subsequently interviewed most of them. That was a surprising claim, given the conditions of the survey and the fact that he was looking at the data produced long after his students had completed those dissertations; nor were there plausible circumstances under which a faculty member supervising a dissertation would interact directly with subjects. When I asked how he was able to speak with men participating in an anonymous survey for research he was not conducting, he ended the phone call.

(Lisak did not respond directly to Reason's repeated requests for follow-up interviews, nor did his co-author, Paul Miller. Reason's Robby Soave spoke with Jim Hopper, the author of one of the four surveys on which Lisak's 2002 study was based. Read that story: "How an Influential Campus Rape Study Skewed the Debate.")

Two points bear emphasis:

  • 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.
  • 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.

In March, when I pointed to the differences between the men in Lisak's paper and the student population on which his popular campus presentations focus, Lisak responded: "Are you asking if there are comprehensive studies about sexual offenders on traditional college campuses? No, there aren't." Yet this is exactly how Lisak's work has been treated.

Even the serial nature of the assaults reported in Lisak's paper is speculation, since he did not distinguish between multiple offenses committed against multiple victims and multiple offenses committed against one victim. In fact, when asked about the high number of assaults by individuals who allegedly remained "undetected" by law enforcement, Lisak stated that "a number of these cases were domestic violence," i.e., ongoing abuse in intimate partnerships, including marriages.

This is an important revelation. Even a single rape is abhorrent. Even one woman, victimized multiple times, endures trauma. But campus training and government policy, citing Lisak, are being built around presumptions of serial, predatory behavior from most campus rapists, a fact not established in the data and potentially contradicted by Lisak's own characterization of the men included in his paper.

The high rate of other forms of violence reported by the men in Lisak's paper further suggests they are an atypical group. Of the 120 subjects Lisak classified as rapists, 46 further admitted to battery of an adult, 13 to physical abuse of a child, 21 to sexual abuse of a child, and 70—more than half the group—to other forms of criminal violence. By itself, the nearly 20 percent who had sexually abused a child should signal that this is not a group from whom it is reasonable to generalize findings to a college campus.

Yet in spite of the peripheral relationship between his research and college campuses, Lisak has called for draconian action against students accused of sexual assault: "These men," he has said of "undetected rapists" and "serial sexual predators…cannot be reached or educated. They must be identified and removed from our communities." His justification appears to rest on three assertions.

The first is that these men are "undetected" and thus able to continue a relentless pursuit of new victims.

That none of the men in his paper had been charged with sexual assault has never been established. In fact, as he stated in his paper, in order to "avoid evoking defensive reactions in participants," the survey specifically did not ask that question. Rather, "overwhelming evidence" of the hidden nature of subjects' criminal activity is offered via separate studies which found incarcerated serial rapists committed more assaults than they'd been charged with by police. That is, Lisak uses confessions of convicted rapists as evidence for his assumption that the men in his paper had never been charged or prosecuted.

The second assertion is that these men prey on vulnerable women in a campus environment where "alcohol is the basic weapon of choice."

There is, in fact, no foundation for the connection between Lisak's paper and higher education. This point cannot be emphasized enough: Nothing about the studies from which he repurposed data depended on survey respondents being students, or acts they reported taking place while in college. Nothing in the research protocol indicates prospective respondents were even asked whether they were students when they agreed to complete very personal surveys in exchange for $3. There is not a single statement in the paper about assaults taking place on or near a campus; there is not a single reference to the campus environment.

Instead, Lisak's research questions were more general. Prompted by studies of incarcerated rapists, he and his co-author wondered if "a substantial number of undetected rapists rape more than once" and if they were likely to have committed other kinds of violence as well. That he was speaking of the wider community, and not college campuses, is made particularly clear by the language he used when speculating about how such assaults remain under the radar:

Given the number of interpersonal crimes being committed by these men, how is it that they are escaping the criminal justice system? …These rapists create "cases" that victims are least likely to report, and that prosecutors are less likely to prosecute.

"These men," "criminal justice system," and "prosecutors" have now been seamlessly replaced by "college students," "college campuses," and "university officials" when David Lisak discusses his work, his 2002 paper now presented as though it has obvious applicability to the campus environment. Even his own disclaimer in the paper—"because of the non-random nature of the sampling procedures, the reported data cannot be interpreted as estimates of the prevalence of sexual and other acts of violence"—has given way to explicit assignment of the serial perpetrator role to male college students and the setting to the college campus.

The third assertion undergirding Lisak's recommended policy is his claim that this is a monstrous subset of college men likely to include batterers, child abusers, and perpetrators of all manner of violence.

However, the kinds of violence perpetrated by the men in Lisak's paper, far from providing evidence of additional hidden criminal activity among college men, demonstrate instead that his findings are not appropriately generalized to the college campus. To do so is to accept not only that serial predators are stalking fellow students but that, for example, nearly a fifth of them have sexually abused children as well.

In spite of all these issues, sweeping changes are being made. The Department of Education's 2011 Dear Colleague Letter on campus sexual violence outlined actions colleges must take when an accusation of assault is made. Among its provisions, it confers an obligation addressing recurrence. As Christina Hoff Sommers wrote in an article this past January, "The Dear Colleague letter tacitly assumes the truth of Lisak's predator theory. So it rules discretion out of order and mandates strict legal procedures and harsh punishments."

Organizations such as Security on Campus have popped up to help students file complaints based on the Clery Act's "timely warning" provision (by which colleges must alert all members of the campus community if there are immediate threats to their safety), citing Lisak's paper as evidence that any accusation of sexual assault carries with it an ongoing danger to other students.

When I asked him to comment on these cases, Lisak labeled it "sloppy thinking" and said that he "can't be held accountable for what campuses do." Emily Yoffe, in a well-researched article last December, provided multiple examples of campus disciplinary decisions fueled by Lisak's specious conclusions. Given his influence, it is especially troubling to hear Lisak's callous dismissal of responsibility for how his paper and presentations are used.

Asked to comment on his influence with the Department of Education, particularly the Dear Colleague letter, he repeated that he is not accountable to them. "Show me," he said, "show me where it states 'Dr. Lisak says…'"

Yet when he organized last year's Summit on Sexual Assault, he included Catherine Lhamon of the Department of Education as a keynote speaker and applauded the Dear Colleague letter in his own address, saying "we need to thank the Department of Education for firing a shot across the bow of higher education." He continues to advise colleges on enacting policies to meet their Title IX obligations with respect to campus assault.

To be clear: No one has suggested that rape is a uniquely one-off crime. There are serial rapists just as there are serial murderers and career psychopaths. There are also people who commit a criminal act one time under a particular set of circumstances. To attach the presumption of multiple undetected offenses based on research limited in both scope and subject pool is unwarranted. To suggest that college women are in such mortal danger from sociopathic predators disguised as fellow students that due process is a luxury campuses can ill afford is unconscionable.

Did David Lisak find a group of repeat offenders on which to base his 2002 paper? He did, or at least the students who conducted the original research did: 76 men with violent histories who happened to be on or near a college campus enrolling non-traditional, part-time students. They reported behavior with no reference to their status as students, no reference to other students as victims, and no reference to a campus as the scene of the crime.

In an opinion piece in the Boston Globe this past February, Harvey Silverglate called the campus rape panic the most recent "of the many runaway social epidemics in our nation's history that have ruined innocent lives and corrupted justice." This time, the panic is traceable to a particularly flawed study that has become a star vehicle for one man and cast the more nuanced conclusions of other research into the shadows.

It is long past time to remove the spotlight. Campuses are training staff and implementing new policy to meet the federal mandate that they have a system for handling complaints related to sexual violence with little guidance from the Department of Education. They are relying on Lisak and other questionable research to find their way.

The higher education community might be best served by doing what it is uniquely positioned to do: Read the original paper. Critically consider whether every accusation represents such dire danger to a campus community that the only prudent policy is to preemptively assume a pattern of offense. Act accordingly, and in the best interests of all students.

Linda M. LeFauve (lilefauve@davidson.edu) is Associate Vice President for Planning and Institutional Research at Davidson College.

(For more on this story, please see Robby Soave's piece, "How an Influential Campus Rape Study Skewed the Debate.")