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