Policy

The Misleading Video Interview With a Rapist at the Heart of the Campus Sexual Assault Freakout

How influential sexual assault expert David Lisak used a misleadingly edited video to sell his serial predator theory of campus rape.

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“This is a reenactment of an interview conducted by Dr. David Lisak, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Massachusetts, Boston, as part of a study of men who had raped but were never reported or prosecuted for their crimes.”

So begins the set piece of David Lisak’s best-known presentation to college campuses, the military, the  judiciary, law enforcement, and untold conferences where his expertise on sexual assault is lauded. It is a seven-minute video that shows Lisak and "Frank," an actor speaking an allegedly verbatim transcript from an interview with one of Lisak’s "undetected" campus rapists.

The introduction and the surrounding content  strongly suggest the interview is linked to research Lisak claims to have conducted at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Certainly that is the impression cultivated. Even when the video is specifically identified as such by othersâ€"for example, radio hosts, authors, or filmmakersâ€"Lisak lets the implication stand. 

Together, Lisak's statements about serial sexual offenders and revelations about their motivations illustrated in the interview have significantly shaped the debate on campus sexual assault. Yet there is no relationship between the interview and the research at UMass Boston. 

The provenance of the interview, however, is only one of its issues. Far more troubling is the discovery that what is presented as material from a single interview is actually material from multiple individualsâ€"none of whom actually resemble the finished productâ€"edited to align with Lisak’s theory of serial sexual predators on college campuses. (This theory is featured prominently in The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual assault on campus set to air on CNN beginning November 22.) [Note: For more on The Hunting Ground, see Robby Soave's article on the documentary's many problems and inaccuracies.]

More troubling still is that those interviews were conducted with just 12 individuals nearly 30 years ago, a decade before many students on college campuses today were born, when Lisak himself was still a doctoral student.

Lisak’s Serial Predator Theory

The "Frank" video, and its supposedly unfiltered look inside the minds of predatory rapists on college campuses today, is a critical component of Lisak’s theory of sexual assault. He has claimed that his research at the University of Massachusetts Boston showed that 90 percent of campus rapes are perpetrated by serial offenders who meticulously plan their assaults, and who average six rapes each. These frightening statistics are regularly cited by government officials, including those at the White House.

But as Reason’s Robby Soave and I previously demonstrated, Lisak didn’t do research on campus sexual assault at the University of Massachusetts. Rather, he analyzed a subset of data collected by several of his doctoral students for their dissertations, none of it related to campus sexual assault, and found what he has subsequently described as evidence of serial rapists on college campuses. The paper he and his former student, Paul Miller, published in 2002 never even suggests that the acts perpetrated by his 76 serial rapists took place while they were students or on a college campus, nor that the victims were students themselves.

As these were primarily older students attending a commuter campus part-timeâ€"many with jobs and familiesâ€"reporting on acts not limited to their years as students or attendance at the university, the paper’s connection to campus assault is tenuous at best. Lisak himself additionally undermined the paper’s connection to serial predators when he told me that a number of the assaults reported were ongoing abuse in domestic partnerships.

Lisak has also asserted that he interviewed the subjects of his students’ doctoral research. As reported earlier, when I asked how he could have interviewed anonymous subjects of research he had not conducted, he refused to answer and ended the conversation. In fact, he has published nothing related to interviews with the subjects of the paper in which he proposed his serial-predator theory, and there is no evidence they were ever asked, by anyone, about how or why the crimes occurred.

This unfounded theory of campus serial predators, however, gained no small amount of its traction from Lisak’s provocative declarations about their methods and motivations.

The graphic and disturbing alleged interview with Frank has driven those declarations home in dramatic fashion.

Frank’s language in the video is graphic, his attitude callous, and his account of assaults committed highlights Lisak’s theory that these serial predators are unfeeling sociopaths who target their victims and meticulously plan their attacks. The video not only highlights his theory’s touchpoints, it illustrates them perfectly.

But if Frank is not drawn from Lisak’s 2002 paper, on whom is he based?

The Origin of the Frank Interview

Lisak regularly presents the Frank interview as representative of the mindset and motivation of a typical college perpetrator, the kind of serial offenders supposedly responsible for 90 percent of campus assaults.

Instead, the source used to compile the Frank script traces back to just 12 students interviewed sometime in the 1980s. The path to the discovery of the video's origins starts with a paper Lisak published in 1990 based on the research he’d done for his doctoral dissertation at Duke.

In Motives and Psychodynamics of Self-Reported, Unincarcerated Rapists, Lisak and his co-author Susan Roth reported on 15 college students at a "major southeastern university" classified, via a survey, as having engaged in rape or attempted rape and, for purposes of comparison on various psychological measures, 15 control subjects, also students at the same university, who had not engaged in sexual violence. The final pool of offenders was 12; three dropped out before the study was completed.

The primary question addressed by that paper was whether research others had done on convicted rapists had applicability to college men who had engaged in sexual violence but remained "undetected." Through a battery of psychological inventories, projective tests, and interviews, Lisak concluded that the men in his case studies were similar to the convicted rapists in terms of attitudes toward women but that family dynamics played a greater role for his own subjects’ behavior.

The paper included summaries of two of his 12 "undetected rapist" case studies. Given the complexity of the research reported in that paper, and its proximity to the year Lisak completed his PhDâ€"at a "major southeastern university," Dukeâ€"I wondered if the full research was contained in his dissertation. That instinct proved to be correct.

The two case studies reported in Motives and Psychodynamics of Self-Reported, Unincarcerated Rapists made their first appearance in Lisak’s doctoral dissertation at Duke. This is not unusual; many newly minted PhDs turn their dissertations into a first publication. Lisak’s dissertation was submitted to the Department of Psychology at Duke University in 1988, which would put the bulk of the research for itâ€"including interviews with his "undetected" subjectsâ€"conservatively between 1986 and 1987. This is the material from which Lisak has created "Frank."

Even if the mindset presented in the Frank video was typical of some college men at that timeâ€"the results of the psychological tests for the 12 subjects aggregated to create him suggest instead particularly troubled young menâ€"presenting perspectives on any of a number of issues from the 1980s as though they were current is deceptive. Worse is the intrusion of that mindset into federal policy, victim advocate guidelines, or campus programming based on attitudes that might once have been ascribed to a small group of men three decades ago.

Cutting and Editing to Bolster a Theory

That Lisak presents the "Frank" video as typical and current when its content is nearly 30 years old is not the only cause for concern here. As described in material from the National Judicial Education Programâ€" where Lisak is a long-time faculty member and from whom the video is officially suppliedâ€"the video "is a reenactment of part of an interview conducted by Dr. David Lisak." But as it turns out, even though it is presented here and elsewhere as an interview with a single subject, read verbatim by an actor, "Frank" is not one student. 

Rather, he is an aggregation of several interviews from Lisak’s dissertation research, which raises the level of concern by an order of magnitude. Material cut-and-pasted is material at risk of serving an agenda. Had Lisak described the video as intentionally designed to make a point, it mightâ€"mightâ€"even be an understandable agenda were it not for the two problems already noted: It is based on material decades out of date, and it is edited to make a point about serial predators not backed by research. 

Lisak himself has never bothered to clarify either the source or the timeframe for the interview. Whether discussing his theory on NPR, making presentations to the U.S. Army, talking to reporters, vilifying the fraternity system, or as an invited speaker on college campuses, he allows its misrepresentation.

A passage from Jon Krakauer’s Missoula, a book published this year in which Lisak figures prominently as Krakauer reports on sexual assault at the University of Montana, is an excellent illustration, first, of the way research Lisak did not conduct is linked to interviews he never did:

Lisak devised a study that would provide insights into offenders who’d managed to avoid both punishment and scrutinyâ€"a population that accounted for the overwhelming majority of rapists. Specifically, he designed his study to reveal whether these "undetected rapists," like their incarcerated counterparts, showed a propensity to rape more than once and whether they were likely to commit other types of interpersonal violence. The study, titled "Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists," co-authored by Paul M. Miller and published in 2002, added significantly to the understanding of men who rape.

Any participant who answered "yes" to one of the questions on the questionnaire was subsequently interviewed and asked follow-up questions. When interviewing his subjects, Lisak said, "I made sure I didn’t in any way suggest that I was judging them or that I was horrified by what they were telling me." 

Krakauer then discusses "Frank," unknowingly but neatly wrapping up the conflation of unrelated and duplicitous information in service of Lisak’s agenda:

To illustrate a rapist’s worldview, Lisak opened his laptop and played a video he’d christened The Frank Tape. It’s a harrowing reenactment of an unedited, five-minute segment of an interview he did with a student rapist, performed by an actor who has precisely mimicked the rapist’s delivery and callous self-regard. 

Repeating Lisak’s assertion that Frank is a typical example of Lisak’s campus predators, Krakauer says that "it’s crucial for police officers, prosecutors, and campus administrators to regard them as such." 

The Dissertation Interviews

The evidence that Lisak has, in fact, curated segments of multiple interviews to make a point not found in any of them is found in his own dissertation.

A word, first, about the availability of doctoral dissertations. Most doctoral dissertations are contained in an electronic database to which a large number of academic libraries subscribe. Lisak’s dissertation is not. That makes it unavailable to most people and an exceedingly unlikely source for anyone to check. It is, however, housed in one of the libraries at Duke and so available, via interlibrary loan agreements, with other academic libraries. It was thus that I was able to read David Lisak’s 345-page tome.

Its length is due, in large part, to the detailed case-study material on the 12 subjects classified as "undetected rapists." Included are their scores on various psychology inventories, descriptions of the their projective tests, and biographical information. Also included are descriptions of the sexual violence they committed as obtained through Lisak’s interviews with them.

The information and verbatim quotations from those interviews make it absolutely clear: Not one of them, in isolation, could be the person represented as "Frank" in Lisak’s video. Frank is a carefully constructed compilation.

For example, video-Frank, presented as a member of a fraternity, describes pinning a woman down and wrestling her clothes off. Case study Frank, however, is not a member of a fraternity. The case study subject who is a member of a fraternity, Charles, describes his participation in two assaults but in both the woman was unconscious or semi-conscious. The reference Frank in the video makes to wrestling with a woman to undress her is from a third case study, Michael, who is also the source of video Frank’s "pissed" reaction to her resisting him. Case study Frank is the source of video Frank’s line about "overwhelming the other" but there he is referring to incidents that happened with women he was dating, not women he "targeted" at a party.

Charles does describe targeting girls at his European college before transferring to the "major southeastern university." However, he is not describing assaults but consensual if misguided relationships. As there were so many more woman than men on his previous campus, he explained, "The girls were easy. I’d have four calling me all the time. They’d come over and cook and clean. Sex was expected." Eventually he decided to live with one of them, after which he didn’t "go out and find targets all the time."

The contradictions go on. Reading the case studies makes clear that the student depicted in the video is a compilation of details across multiple and varied situations. What was selected for that compilation raises its own set of questions about how those selections were made.

The word that is most applicable to Lisak’s 12 undetected rapists, as a group, is not predatory but impulsive. The interviews reveal young men who were immature and/or inexperienced. Seven of the 12 used language that made it clear their aggression rose up in the moment, primarily out of frustration.

For six of the 12, the sexual violence that had classified them as rapists had occurred with someone they were dating in which the subject was aggressively pushing for intercourse or oral sex, the woman resisted, and the subject continued anyway. In two of those cases, the subject described himself as too drunk to stop. (This, too, differs from the way Lisak describes alcohol; for most of his interview subjects, drinking disinhibited their own behavior far more often than it was used as a "weapon" to make a woman more vulnerable.) In two cases, the subject did stop; one of them expressed anger at having to stop and the other regret that the situation had progressed as it had. In two others, the assaults were retaliatory when the subjects discovered the women they were dating were also dating others.

One of the 12 confessed to a stranger rape, committed when the subject was in high school. Two others had assaulted women who were not students and were not on campus; one was woman the subject had met at the home of a friend over the summer, and one was a woman the subject had hired for sex while visiting another city. In both these cases, the subject became aggressive when his assumptions about the encounter were not realized.

Three of the 12 met the women they assaulted at parties (apparently) on campus. Just one of them (Charles) displays the callous planning that is the focus of the Frank video, checking out women at a fraternity party, making assessments about who could be gotten drunk, and having sex on three occasions with women who were unconscious or semi-conscious. It is worth noting that there is no suggestion that this "targeting" began prior to guests arriving at the party; no grooming in the week leading up to the party as Frank in the video states.

Where Is the Research?

Let’s be very, very clear: In no way were the actions of any of the 12 subjects appropriate or acceptable. It’s an easy case to make that they were, in fact, criminal, including the violence committed against women the subjects were dating, and regardless of whether the subject had been drinking himself.

But the "undetected rapist" Lisak has chosen to highlight and on which he buildsâ€"the "typical" student committing sexual assault on college campusesâ€"is actually an outlier in his subject group. Charles from nearly 30 years ago (who somehow becomes Frank in the curated interview) is disproportionately represented as embodying the motivations and techniques of the typical perpetrator of sexual assault on American college campuses today.

This bears emphasis: The interview with an undetected rapist that is David Lisak’s dramatic centerpiece, presented as statements made by a single person and used to illustrate the typical mindset of a college rapist, is an edited compilation of interviews Lisak did with a handful of subjects in the 1980s. The material included in the video interview is not even typical of those subjects as a group. Insteadâ€"and at bestâ€"it has been edited so that it provides credibility to Lisak’s campus serial predator theory.

Why "at best?" Given his willingness to cut-and-paste in a way that supports his theory, the question of whether "Frank" also contains material not found in any of Lisak’s 12 interviewsâ€"that is, fictional statements or statements made by men otherwise removed from college campusesâ€"must remain, unfortunately, an open question.

Where in Lisak’s dissertation interviews, for example, are the references to grooming and isolating potential victims that give rise to Lisak’s characterization of campus perpetrators as unrepentant sociopaths?

None of the interview subjectsâ€"curated-video Frank asideâ€"are reported to have used such language or described such behavior. Such absence would not be merely incidental, as Lisak described the case study reports as intended "to synthesize the data on each rapist into a more coherent picture of the individual and to illuminate some of the psychodynamic characteristics which underlie his behavior" (page 98 of his dissertation). Yet the language of meticulous planning, so fundamental to the predator theory, is not found in these case studies.

Why, then, would Lisak choose to highlight the callous outlier rather than the anger and impulsivity the majority of his subjects displayed in ongoing relationships?  Why present as typical the case that is most unlike the others? Experience suggests that answers to these questions won’t be forthcoming from Lisak.

We are left with the larger question of what Lisak can really tell us about campus sexual assault, and how much expertise he can claim.

Relying as he does on 12 interviews from 30 years ago, and somewhat more recent research not originally conducted by him and not related to campus sexual assault, perhaps the more important question is what he means when he saysâ€"as he does frequentlyâ€"that he has been interviewing undetected rapists and conducting research on them for "over 20 years?" He published two papers based on his doctoral research, conducted in the 1980s, and one more soon after arriving at the University of Massachusetts based on repeating his dissertation survey (no interviews) with a sample of students there. (Interestingly, in that paper, he described the University of Massachusetts students as unlike typical college students.) The research conducted by his doctoral students at the University of Massachusetts that he has claimed as his own included no data about circumstances, motivations, or the predatory process Lisak ascribes to undetected rapists. He has written a small number of papers rehashing his conclusions about serial predators but added no new research. He has been called as an expert witness in criminal trialsâ€"apparently and ironically because of his presumed expertise on rapeâ€"but even if he had interviewed the accused in those cases, they were not students, their status as defendants precludes their status as undetected, and their modest number fails as research.

In fact, I found no evidence that David Lisak has conducted any new research of any kind on undetected campus rapists since his dissertation. What he has done is parlay conversations with 12 students almost 30 years agoâ€"and particularly one atypical conversationâ€"into a presumably lucrative career as a consultant and paid expert forensic witness.

David Lisak’s Staggering Level of Influence

The level of influence David Lisak has is staggering. In spite of having conducted no actual research on campus sexual assault beyond one project in the 1980s while still a student himself, he is introduced, in person and in print, as a prominent and still active researcher. He is an expert, a leading authority. References to his iconic status on the issue of campus sexual assault are legion. In spite of longstanding questions about his theory of serial predatorsâ€"including Reason’s investigation revealing the complete absence of a connection to college campuses and the publication of a study by a team of researchers that found no evidence of serial predation in a nationally representative sample, both published this summerâ€"his speaking engagements have not slowed at all.

Complimentaryâ€"if wildly misleadingâ€"bombast when introducing a keynote speaker is one thing. Influencing policy is something altogether more problematic. And David Lisak’s unfounded claims related to numerous facets of sexual assault are reflected in policies not only in higher education and sexual violence prevention organizations but at every level of government, from municipal police departments to the military to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to the White House itself.

A short list of organizations that include material from David Lisak shows not only the range of that influence but its insidious nature. These are not one-off presentations. The material lives on in guidelines, procedures, and court decisions, information passed on to new practitioners in ever-expanding spheres of impact.

Examples of organizations with policies or guidelines attributed to David Lisak

  • National Judicial Education Program
  • American Prosecutors Research Institute
  • National District Attorneys Association
  • United States Commission on Civil Rights
  • United States Air Force
  • Fraternity Sexual Assault Prevention Peer Education
  • National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence
  • Reporting on Sexual Assault Guide for Journalists
  • American Association of University Professors
  • White House Task Force on Women and Girls
  • Washington State Courts Manual on Sexual Offense
  • World Health Organization: Global Violence and Prevention

Momentum is a powerful force, and the David Lisak juggernaut seems unstoppable. Perhaps that is why he’s chosen not to respond to the growing list of questions and criticisms of his alleged research. (He did make one brief reference to the earlier Reason articles in which he misstated what the articles said.)

Finally, and sadly that it even must be said: Criticizing unduly influential research is not equivalent to dismissing the issue of campus rape itself. But we need something more than a belief in agenda-serving explanations and facile solutions.

To those inclined to be dismissive of anyone questioning the form or degree of campus violence, I offer this: Clearing college campuses of mythical monsters will change nothing. Rather, we should strive for campus environments where students are genuinely safe and due process is respected. Meeting that dual goal requires accurate and timely information. We are not there yet.