Are you a high school senior, recently admitted to the college of your choice? Congratulations, you are about to be raped. Probably.
That's according to a new viral awareness campaign launched by members of the creative team behind The Hunting Ground. That film, like the new, short videos, relies on misleading statistics and thinly-veiled junk science to create a public panic about sexual assault on campuses. [Related: "How The Hunting Ground Spreads Myths About Campus Rape"]
This new ad campaign is, if anything, even more alarmist. The videos, "Unacceptable Acceptance Letters," show high school students joyously reading college admissions letters. Eventually, the letters turn to the subject of rape, and matter-of-factly inform students there is a good chance they will be abused. Prettybird, the production company behind the videos, also purchased ad space in The Harvard Crimson. The ad is a fictitious acceptance letter that warns a hypothetical student:
"We know that you will make lifelong friends and memories here on campus. We're sorry that one of those memories will include being raped by someone you thought you could trust. You'll fear him the night he presses you against a wall and every day after that."
The ads conclude with an infamous statistic: one in five women are sexually assaulted in college.
I presume that the purpose of this campaign is to create awareness about the sexual assault problem on campus. But what Prettybirds has actually done is use inaccurate data to frighten people. The one-in-five statistic is based on several surveys of college-aged women that use slippery language and expansive definitions to inflate the numbers of victims. The Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, for instance, uses a definition of sexual assault that includes everything from unwanted touching to forcible, penetrative sex. There's a whole lot of the former—college students getting drunk, awkwardly hooking up, and misreading social cues—but very little of the latter. [Related: "How to Make More Victims of Campus Rape"]
The ad campaign also seems to double down on the serial predator theory: the idea that most campus rapists are repeat offenders, not one-off mistake makers. The theory, made prominent by celebrity anti-rape psychologist David Lisak, is central to The Hunting Ground's rapists-are-everywhere narrative. It has also been cited by the White House.
But, as Reason's investigative series on Lisak has shown, the serial predator theory is much less persuasive than is popularly believed. In fact, the study commonly cited in support of it actually had very little to do with campus rape. [Related: "How an Influential Campus Rape Study Skewed the Debate"]
College campuses are not perfectly safe places, of course. But they are not veritable hunting grounds, either. And non-students are actually at much greater risk of sexual assault.
The anti-rape activist community likes to portray female students as helpless prey and male students as violent sociopaths. It's a simple, false narrative. The truth is much more ambiguous—students are getting drunk, hooking up, and making mistakes. If we want to make these occurrences less common—and we should—we need to have grown-up conversations about consent education, alcohol abuse, bystander intervention, norms of due process, and related subjects. Panic-inducing assertions that everyone headed for college is about to be raped aren't justified, and they aren't helping.