cited by White House officials and reporters for major newspapers.David Lisak’s serial predator theory of campus rape has made him a celebrity. Once a virtually unknown associate professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, his work is now
His influence is evident in the recent documentary The Hunting Ground, and the producers continue to promote his work along with their film. In Jon Krakauer’s new book, Missoula, about sexual assault at the University of Montana, Lisak’s name appears more than 100 times.
Much of the urgency around the topic of sexual assault on college campuses traces back to Lisak’s repeated claim that campus offenders are violent sociopaths who use "sophisticated strategies to groom" their targets and "terrify and coerce their victims into submission." Lisak asserts that 90 percent of campus rapes are committed by serial offenders who average six rapes each. He has said that "every report should be viewed and treated as an opportunity to identify a serial rapist."
Yet for all the attention paid to David Lisak, the problematic paper on which his fame rests has been left largely unscrutinized. And as it turns out, the paper relies on survey data not collected by Lisak, with no direct connection to campus sexual assault.
"Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists" was published in 2002 in the journal Violence and Victims. Lisak has recently encouraged the impression that he conducted the research himself.
He did not. The paper was based on pooled data from four studies conducted by others on his campus between 1991 and 1998. I spoke with Lisak in March of this year. When I asked about those studies, he first said he was unable to remember their topics, then that they "may have been about child abuse history or relationships with parents." I asked whether they were about campus sexual assault; he conceded they were not.
Asked who the investigators of those previous studies were, he again said he was unable to recall but, when prompted, acknowledged his co-author, Paul Miller, as the lead investigator of two of them, conducted while Miller was a master’s and then doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. I asked if the others were also Lisak’s doctoral students during that time. "Yes, probably," he said.
It is not unheard of for a researcher to repurpose data from other studies. It was, however, unusual to hear a researcher so vague about his subject matter and authorship.
The survey instrument used to collect the data on sexual assault was the Abuse Perpetration Inventory. This is a long, detailed, and graphic instrument created by Lisak. There are seven pages of items that ask about childhood experiences of a sexually and physically violent nature. There are only five questions that ask respondents about sexual violence they, as adults, may have committed on other adults.
There were 1,882 subjects in the pooled data, men ranging in age from 18 to 71. Assuming they reflected the demographics of the university, most would have been part-time students, many of whom would also be holding down jobs away from campus. All would have been commuters.
Among these men, 120 had engaged in actions that meet the legal definition of rape or attempted rape, based on responses to an anonymous survey they completed. (Subsequently, Lisak refers to them all as rapists, although he does not indicate how many he’d classified as rapists and how many as attempted rapists.) Of those 120 men, 76 met Lisak’s definition of multiple offenders.
Lisak told me that he subsequently interviewed most of them. That was a surprising claim, given the conditions of the survey and the fact that he was looking at the data produced long after his students had completed those dissertations; nor were there plausible circumstances under which a faculty member supervising a dissertation would interact directly with subjects. When I asked how he was able to speak with men participating in an anonymous survey for research he was not conducting, he ended the phone call.
(Lisak did not respond directly to Reason’s repeated requests for follow-up interviews, nor did his co-author, Paul Miller. Reason’s Robby Soave spoke with Jim Hopper, the author of one of the four surveys on which Lisak’s 2002 study was based. Read that story: "How an Influential Campus Rape Study Skewed the Debate.")
Two points bear emphasis:
- The basis of Lisak’s 13-year old paper was not his own research but data collected as part of one student’s master’s thesis and three dissertations, none of which were about campus sexual assault.
- The most widely quoted figures—that 90 percent of campus rapes are committed by serial offenders and that they average six rapes each—were calculated on a total of 76 non-traditional students who were not living on a college campus, and whose offenses may or may not have happened on or near a college campus, may or may not have been perpetrated on other students, and may have happened at any time in the survey respondents' adult lives.
In March, when I pointed to the differences between the men in Lisak's paper and the student population on which his popular campus presentations focus, Lisak responded: "Are you asking if there are comprehensive studies about sexual offenders on traditional college campuses? No, there aren’t." Yet this is exactly how Lisak’s work has been treated.
Even the serial nature of the assaults reported in Lisak’s paper is speculation, since he did not distinguish between multiple offenses committed against multiple victims and multiple offenses committed against one victim. In fact, when asked about the high number of assaults by individuals who allegedly remained "undetected" by law enforcement, Lisak stated that "a number of these cases were domestic violence," i.e., ongoing abuse in intimate partnerships, including marriages.
This is an important revelation. Even a single rape is abhorrent. Even one woman, victimized multiple times, endures trauma. But campus training and government policy, citing Lisak, are being built around presumptions of serial, predatory behavior from most campus rapists, a fact not established in the data and potentially contradicted by Lisak’s own characterization of the men included in his paper.