Misleading Data Fuels Campus Rape Terror, But Why Won't Everyone Admit Controversy?

A recent Atlantic article ignores the dispute over David Lisak's serial predator theory.



When a foundational scientific study underscoring a major public advocacy campaign is called into question, will its adherents grapple with the consequences? If this Atlantic piece on campus sexual assault—which ignores very recent developments that undermine the author's point—is any indication, the answer, unfortunately, is a resounding no.

Davidson College Associate Vice President Linda LeFauve—who spearheaded Reason's recent investigative series on the misleading statistics ginning up hysteria about campus rape—recently penned an article for Real Clear Politics in which she wondered whether writers and activists who previously cited those statistics would come forth to defend them. Enter Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology at Stony Brook University, who set out to explain the "structural factors" that contribute to sexual violence on college campuses in a recent article for The Atlantic. Unfortunately, Kimmel's piece relies upon the research of David Lisak—research that collapses under scrutiny, as LeFauve's investigation shows—without even bothering to acknowledge its controversial status.

Lisak, a psychologist and former professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, is a prominent authority on sexual assault—anti-rape activists, members of Congress, and even the White House cite his research—but his oft-quoted 2002 study does not actually support his theories about serial campus rapists, according to LeFauve's investigation. Astonishingly, the study wasn't even about student-on-student violence: a fact that has been ignored by adherents of Lisak's views—Kimmel among them.

In his Atlantic piece, Kimmel begins by pointing out a seeming contradiction: one-third of university presidents believe sexual assault is a serious problem on campuses in general, but just 6 percent of them think it's a serious problem at her own institution. Kimmel partly rationalizes this by pointing out that about a third of surveyed presidents came from commuter colleges, which don't have on-campus housing and active social scenes for students—meaning that they also have less sexual violence, according to Kimmel. The community college presidents are therefore justified in their assertions that sexual violence is a serious problem but their own campuses are exceptions.

Then he brings in Lisak, and his argument goes off the rails:

The second variable I considered involves the rapists themselves. While the Justice Department estimates that one in five female college students experience some form of sexual assault, the other half of the equation is far more circumspect: Only 6 percent or so of male college students commit sexual assault, with each committing nearly six rapes on average, according to the psychologist David Lisak, who's conducted extensive and widely cited research on sexual assault. That suggests that many sexual assaults on campus are committed by serial predators.

What Kimmel does not appear to realize is that the Lisak study he cites here was itself conducted on a commuter college campus: the University of Massachusetts-Boston, where Lisak taught psychology throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. In other words, if Lisak's science was sound, his theory about serial predation would be most relevant to the kinds of universities that Kimmel grants are less likely to have serious sexual assault problems. There is no equivalent study finding that four-year universities are stamping grounds for hordes of serial predators.

To belabor the point a bit: Kimmel recognizes that commuter colleges and four-year universities are distinct demographic institutions. But for some reason, he applies the level of commuter serial predation uncovered in Lisak's study to the climate on traditional campuses. (Kimmel also cites the infamous "one in five" statistic without acknowledging the considerable public debate over its accuracy.)

Lisak himself has admitted on multiple occasions that his study was set at a commuter college and his participants are an atypical college sample. Had Kimmel bothered to Google Lisak's name, he would have come across articles about the controversy—written by Reason and other news outlets—among the very first search results.

Kimmel's problems go beyond failing to note controversy over Lisak's work, since the study doesn't hold up, even when restricted to commuter colleges. Participants in Lisak's UMass-Boston study constituted a random sampling of people who crossed paths with Lisak's team of researchers and answered survey questions about violence they committed against children, parents, and spouses. They were never asked about violence they had committed against other students. It's not even clear how many of the participants were students themselves (most, but not all, likely were students), since researchers did not exclude non-students from participating. Simply put, the study that supposedly confirms the serial predator theory of campus sexual assault is not actually a study of campus sexual assault at all.

This isn't merely my opinion: It's hard to come to any other conclusion, given LeFauve's exhaustive review of Lisak's work.

Nor are we the only ones scrutinizing Lisak. A new study authored by Georgia State University's Kevin Swartout took aim at Lisak's theory; Swartout and his colleagues concluded that their own findings "do not support the campus serial rapist assumption," according to The Huffington Post.

Given that this new study has caught the attention of HuffPost's education reporter, one might expect a HuffPost Live roundtable on campus sexual assault would at least acknowledge the recent challenges to Lisak's thinking. Sadly, this is not so. The discussion, led by Zerlina Maxwell—she who wants us to "automatically" believe all rape victims (check the URL)—turned to Lisak around the 7:20 mark, when participant Jaclyn Friedman cited the serial predator theory (without mentioning Lisak by name). "We know that the average campus rapist has six victims," said Friedman. "Why is that? Because we let them keep doing that," she continued.

Again, I would point out that the research supporting that conclusion consists of a study of random men between the ages of 18 and 71 at a commuter campus—none of whom were asked about violence they had committed on campus, or against students. There is no excuse for routinely citing Lisak's study as a source of unique insight into the patterns of campus rapists—it is only tangentially related to student violence.

When I mentioned this out on Twitter, Friedman responded that Lisak's result "has been replicated by others. Read the McWhorter study." I have read the McWhorter study, "Reports of Rape Reperpetration by Newly Enlisted Navy Personnel," which was published in 2009 and found evidence of serial predation among men who had entered the U.S. Navy. The study replicated Lisak's findings among a different male population, but like Lisak's study, was never intended as a measure of sexual assault among college students. McWhorter, in fact, has even less to do with college students than Lisak—its participants were all enlisted U.S. Navy personnel. Only 7 percent of the men in the study had even attended college.

No one contests the existence of serial rapists. The question is whether they constitute a majority of all rapists on college campuses—and there is no reliable data suggesting that this is so. This is not just a matter of semantics; if most student rapists are repeat offenders who will continue to offend until they are caught, anti-rape efforts should be geared toward identifying and removing them from campuses as quickly as possible. Under this thinking, administrators have had any easier time denying fair hearings to accused students. If on the other hand, most campus rapists are one-off offenders whose bad behavior could have been forestalled by less draconian means, then the serial predator theory is stoking unjustified fears and distracting from better approaches.

I raised some of these issues with Kimmel in an email exchange, but he declined to answer my questions or provide comments for this article.

To his credit, he does mention the role that illicit, booze-fueled college parties play in creating the environment where most college rapes occur. "It likely happens the most on residential college campuses where there are lots of people of the same age going to alcohol-soaked parties in all-male residences with no official administrative oversight," he wrote. Kimmel claims that tinkering with the "variables" that produce campus sexual assault could lessen its frequency; alcohol is one variable for which I agree that tinkering is a very wise idea.

But campus sexual assault is a multi-faceted problem encompassing a wide-range of undesirable behaviors—from hazy, alcohol-induced hookups that one or both parties later regret to disputes stemming from a lack of proper education about consent definitions to full-on violent assault. Kimmel writes that if the universities addressed all of the issues he raises—including, very dubiously, a "sense of entitlement" among men (he cites Lisak for this point as well)—campus rape rates "would plummet." But it's hard to take that claim as anything other than wild speculation stemming from a profound misunderstanding of the data that propels campus rape paranoia.

For more on this subject, read my op-ed, "An Elusive Plague of Serial Rapists," in Friday's print edition of USA Today

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  1. “…one might expect a HuffPost Live roundtable on campus sexual assault would at least acknowledge the recent challenges to Lisak’s thinking. Sadly, this is not so. The discussion, led by Zerlina Maxwell….


    Oh, Robby. When will you stop assuming there is even an ounce of intellectual honesty among the people who make a living out of pumping this topic?

    You’re assuming they *care* whether the things they cite are true or not.

    1. Let’s all rush to discredit the already shaky foundation of what’s been getting us attention recently.

    2. Many also assume they actually care about sexual assault. They don’t. That isn’t their agenda.

  2. Can we get a Trump story and a circumcision story and an immigration story to get our daily allowance.

    I’m good on rape now for today – thanks, Rico

    1. “a circumcision story'”

      Which reminds me… time for lunch.

  3. Misleading Data Fuels Campus Rape Terror, But Why Won’t Everyone Admit Controversy?

    If you think the indignation industry is going to give up one fucking customer, you’ve got another thing coming.

    1. also, shouldn’t the headline read, “Why won’t Anyone admit controversy“?

      There may be one or two token gestures of acknowledgement made to critics of the prevailing narrative, but that’s all they’re ever going to get.

      The idea that one should “expect” a HuffPo Roundtable lead by Zerlina Maxwell to engage in any critical self-examination borders on the delusional.

      1. Yep, it would be like Salon doing a critical self-examination of the value of labor Unions in the digital media sphere.

  4. Why Won’t Everyone Admit Controversy?

    they like rape? did you hear about the rapist at Baylor and the one weird trick they tried? they didn’t have the SJWs try him. the state did instead and sent him to real prison.

  5. To his credit, he does mention the role that illicit, booze-fueled college parties play in creating the environment where most college rapes occur.

    How does this deserve credit? It’s like giving the scorpion credit for being honest with the frog about needing to cross the river.

    1. he does mention the role that illicit, booze-fueled college parties play in creating the environment where most college rapes occur.

      By what definition of rape?

      Just curious. It seems plausible to me that most college rape-rapes occur in connection with booze.

      But you’d think, by now, everyone would regard everything the Rape Crisis OMG! crowd says with extreme skepticism, and would start at the beginning, with definitions of terms.

      1. Michael Kimmel I’m pretty sure applies the “it’s rape if the woman wasn’t completely sober and accompanied by least two notaries to witness the signing of the copulation contract” definition.

        Kimmel is a bona fide lunatic. He belongs to the camp that basically wants to seem most of the male population sent to prison. My college brought him in as an ‘educational’ speaker; I would’ve gone to ridicule him in public but had exams to study. But yeah, that guy is a real piece of shit.

  6. “….one-third of university presidents believe sexual assault is a serious problem on campuses in general, but just 6 percent of them think it’s a serious problem at her own institution.”

    Shocked I am. Completely shocked.

    1. That’s because they aren’t down in the trenches with us faculty members. I’ll tell you, every night, when I go to bed…the minute I close my eyes, I recount the shrill screams of women…young women and girls…that I am subjected to daily as I walk by the tuition-funded rape camps euphemistically known as “dormitories”.

      *shudders* It’s worse than the Killing Fields of Cambodia, I tell you.

  7. Why hasn’t anyone done a real study on this? A lot of people in academia really believe this 1 in 5 bullshit, so you think one of them would have ran a good study about it by now. It’s not like the money doesn’t exist with all the organizations and groups dedicated to the subject.

    1. They don’t want to discredit something they use for political leverage that they have to know, or at least suspect to be, untrue.

    2. They don’t need a study. They already know.

      Also, it is 5 out of 4, not one in five.

      Seriously, they aren’t going to do a study because they know it is bullshit and they don’t want to discredit their bullshit. The whole point is to destroy the rule of law and they have made surprising progress to that end. They aren’t going to derail it now.

    3. People in academia don’t believe they 1 in 5 number, they know it to be correct. Since it is an absolute truth, no further studies are required.

      1. Sigh, yeah I guess so. It’s not like discrediting studies do any good anyways. Just look at the wage gap numbers that still get thrown around.

      2. People in academia don’t believe they 1 in 5 number, they know it to be correct.

        If they really believed that number, they wouldn’t act the way they do.

        1. They believe it, they just know it isn’t true at their institution, at their friends’ institutions, or at any institution they know. Since all those places are safe it’s okay to go there, send their children there, etc. It’s all those other schools that have Rape Someone as a gradutation requirement that are the problem.

      3. It’s like climate change.

        If they did a study the they would have to falsify their data to meet the narrative.

    4. Because real study would tell them what they don’t want to know.

      Seriously though, if you ask a social scientist, they’ll tell you that it’s nearly impossible to get funding for any study that even leaves open the possibility of a conclusion that would contradict feminist canon on matters like rape. Career-wise it’s shooting yourself in the foot to even consider doing such research. Just look at what Murray Straus has been put through by feminists for daring to be an honest researcher.

  8. That WaPo link is nice. The picture at the top shows some students holding up signs like “Women Over Tradition” and “Fight The (white supremacist corporate capitalist) Patriarchy”

    The best sign, however, is the one on the right. It reads: “No More Impunity” – yet upon closer inspection, you can see how the “student” meant to write “No More Imunity” – fortunately, someone who can actually spell must have pointed this out to them and a quick fix was devised.

  9. facts don’t matter we need make example of people here.

  10. What does that potential rapist in the picture intend to do with that erect finger?

  11. Silly Robby….social justice doesn’t involve debate with evil. You vanquish evil. You conquer evil. You don’t engage in this silly little discussions of “facts” (social construct) when you already know the truth and answers.

    You would only pick apart Lisak’s study if you are a social oppressor/man-lover/all-around asshole. Who would talk to people like that?

  12. In a secret bunker, under the cold sewers of Boston…

    Our hero, David Lisak, sits and ponders the finer points of victimology with his sidekick, Anti-Boy-Cis-Warrior Justina Socio, a multi-demographic identity goldmine with an African American belt in confabulation. Suddenly, a pack of starving Feminites bursts through the outer defenses of the bunker. If only the defenses had been fortified with the steel of Structure and Reason! “By what right have you come by this place, you Anti-i-Cis of Womynia?” exclaims David, reaching for his “Ally” button that sits idly by the rainbow flag near the waste bin.

    “We demand proof that we are telling the truth!” bellows a larger Feminite, whose own particular brand of Feminitis has rendered her uterus tragically useless, in the social sense.

    David Lisak grins, knowing that for know, he still has control of them. Our crafty hero brushes the collected crumbs of the strumpets from his white coat, collected during his Dishonest Tea. “Have you all forgotten our Secret Justice Weapon?” An unprecedented hush falls upon the Feminites, who watch eagerly, as Justina Socio, in all it’s/their glory, produces an ancient scroll, bearing all the trigger warnings known to man. David Lisak snaps his fingers, locking all the Feminites in a trance. Non-culturally appropriated music, “Indigo Ambient Music And Sensually Jostled Wimpers,” begins to play from the loudspeakers.

    “Repeat after me. ‘I am the victim.'”

  13. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go? to tech tab for work detail,,,,,,,

    1. Still more credible than Huffpo.

  14. ‘Well, I meant to write that London will be uninhabitable in 2095, so I just missed the date!’
    /Paul Ehrlich

  15. At this point, I think a professor could take a shit in a box and say, “See? This proves that all white hetero men are pigs,” his shit would be widely cited and discussed by apparently brilliant people.

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