Dr. Mary Koss—a scientist, feminist, and acclaimed expert on the subject of campus sexual assault—says the psychologist who popularized the serial predator theory of student-on-student violence has misrepresented his research for years.
"It's one of the most egregious examples of a policy with an inadequate scientific basis that lives on because it offers a simplistic solution," said Koss, in an interview with Reason.
Her analysis supports the findings of a recent Reason investigative series scrutinizing the work of Dr. David Lisak, a psychologist and former University of Massachusetts-Boston professor whose faulty 2002 study on undetected rapists persuaded advocates, policymakers, and even the White House that most campus rapists are serial predators.
Koss, an American Regents' Professor in the College of Public Health at the University of Arizona, criticized Lisak for broadening his data and misapplying the serial predator theory to the majority of campus rapists.
Lisak's 2002 study, "Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists," produced the statistics he relied upon to make the claim that most campus rapists were repeat perpetrators rather than one-off offenders. But a detailed investigation spearheaded by Reason contributor Linda LeFauve found significant flaws with the study, which was actually based upon surveys that had nothing to do with student-on-student violence.
In a companion piece, I presented evidence that the vast misrepresentation of the study's scope and subject matter was at least partially Lisak's own fault. When I asked Koss for her thoughts on Lisak's complicity, she vehemently agreed with me that the man himself was responsible: for 13 years, Lisak has "seriously advocated" that colleges should adopt his strained interpretation of the data, she said.
"It didn't happen by accident," she said. "He played more than a role. He described his information as being relevant to serial rape from day one."
Koss isn't someone typically associated with campus rape contrarianism. In fact, her early work on campus sexual assault can best be described as anti-contrarian: It contributed to the well-known "1 in 5" statistic, which holds that an extremely large percentage of college women are victims of sexual assault. This thinking became conventional wisdom but has since generated its own share of detractors (Reason writers included). She considers herself "a scientist informed by feminism," according to a profile of her in National Journal.
Her most recent work, however, has brought her squarely into conflict with Lisak's views. Koss is a co-author of a new paper, "Trajectory Analysis of the Campus Serial Rapist Assumption," taking issue with the "surprisingly limited" scientific basis for the campus serial predator theory. The paper's authors (Kevin M. Swartout, Jacquelyn W. White, Martie P. Thompson, Antonia Abbey, Alexandra L. Bellis, and Koss) found:
Although a small group of men perpetrated rape across multiple college years, they constituted a significant minority of those who committed college rape and did not compose the group at highest risk of perpetrating rape when entering college. Exclusive emphasis on serial predation to guide risk identification, judicial response, and rape-prevention programs is misguided. To deter college rape, prevention should be initiated before, and continue during, college. Child and adolescent health care professionals are well positioned to intervene during the early teenage years by informing parents about the early onset of nonconsensual sexual behavior.
The disagreement between Swartout et al and Lisak isn't merely academic. Whether most campus rapists are serial predators or single-instance offenders is an important question with enormous policy implications.
Per Lisak's thinking, educational efforts and awareness campaigns will do little good to deter serial rapists. Instead, it makes sense to prioritize the identification and swift removal of rapists from the campus community—since most of them have raped before and will do so again. To that end, Lisak has advised college administrators to treat rape disputes between students as opportunities to apprehend and excise serial rapists.
"I agree with him that these kinds of serious, repetitive rapists need to be dealt with harshly and definitively," said Koss. "What I'm trying to raise people's awareness of is all men who rape during college are not alike."
In fact, most of them are not serial predators, according to Koss. They are young men, uneducated about mature relationships, responsible drinking, and laws relating to consent. They can be taught better behavior—and that, in some sense, should be the university's mission.
"These are educational institutions, so at our foundation we have some faith that people can change over time," she said.
Some perpetrators should be dealt with via the criminal justice system, Koss said. But others might be best served by something Koss calls "restorative justice." Such a process can take many forms, but involves dialogue between the students involved in a rape dispute. The goal is not necessarily to punish a rapist, but to allow both parties to achieve closure on the incident and grow from it.
Koss believes that universities—which possess significant resources to assist students who are dealing with trauma but are often unequal to the task of fairly adjudicating sex crimes—are an ideal vehicle for restorative justice in cases where victims are looking for validation and assistance instead of punitive justice.
"In my work with the restorative processes, there are a couple of preconditions," said Koss. "One precondition is that due process is observed. A second precondition is that victims' rights are observed. A third thing is that participation is voluntary by both people."
Those guarantees might not set due process advocates at ease entirely, given how poorly university administrators have handled sexual assault in the past. But voluntary university-sponsored mediation would still be a vast improvement over the current regime, which requires that universities play judge, prosecutor, and jury at mandatory, farcical extra-judicial proceedings.
There is a big obstacle standing in the way of this approach, however: the federal government. In the last few years, the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights has consistently told universities that federal law—Title IX of the Higher Education Act, specifically—requires them to adjudicate rape disputes.
Koss's solution would also no doubt be opposed by many victims' advocates—the Emma Sulkowicz types, for instance—who see expulsion as the only just outcome when a student is accused of rape, even if not all victims actually prefer that outcome, according to Koss.
And that's why it matters so much whether Lisak's theory is accurate or—as recent evidence shows—uncertain. If most student rapists are irredeemable villains, it's easier to justify draconian efforts to hunt them down and expel them from campus. But if most student rapists are one-off offenders—ignorant about relationships, capable of growth—school might actually be the right place for them.
The validity of Lisak's work and influence is very much an open question within the community of experts who have studied sexual assault. But it remains unscrutinized by policymakers who have been all-too eager to implement Lisak's suggestions and media figures who have cheered them for doing so. The serial predator theory casts a long shadow over the campus rape crisis, but neither rape victims nor accused students are well-served by the sacrosanct status it has achieved.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.