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Junk Science and Campus Rape

A new inquiry casts serious doubt on the most influential study on collegiate sexual assault.

Washington State University Week Without ViolenceAlex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA/NewscomDavid Lisak is hardly a household name. But over the last decade, he has become the single most important expert on a topic of increasing national concern—sexual violence on college campuses. Lisak's authority on the subject is well-established: The White House cites him in briefing papers, anti-rape activists promote his work in movies and books, and university administrators invite him to give lectures and sit on panels. Even those who are skeptical about the existence of a massive new campus rape crisis have largely declined to dispute Lisak's most significant finding: that the majority of campus rapists are serial offenders who commit routine violence until and unless they are apprehended.

Lisak's views have dominated the conversation about campus rape ever since the release of his 2002 study, "Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists." He believes campus rape adjudicators should view each and every accusation "as an opportunity to identify a serial rapist," since the accused student is likely to have raped multiple women. He has encouraged colleges to do more to root out serial rapists and banish them from campus. Efforts to reduce campus rape that focus on education and awareness are unlikely to succeed on their own, according to his line of thinking. These men can't be taught not to rape—they are undetected career criminals, and their very existence justifies the federal government's meddlesome intervention into students' sex lives.

But unquestioned deference to Lisak may have been a serious tactical and intellectual mistake. Why? An investigation into Lisak's signature work casts serious doubt on the reliability of his serial predator theory. The 2002 study routinely cited as foundational evidence in collegiate sexual assault discussions isn't even about campus rape—and that's just one of its many flaws.

For years, Lisak has exaggerated the scientific support for his theory while selling himself and his policy solutions to advocates, administrators, and politicians. Given that his science is much less convincing than it seems, perhaps the policies based on it also deserve a more skeptical look.

Dubious Data

Public outrage over a purported epidemic of sexual violence on American college campuses may have reached a high water mark on January 22, 2014. That's when the Obama administration released a 34-page report establishing a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.

The report included several of the erroneous statistics that have inspired mass hysteria over the prevalence of rape on campuses. "College students are particularly vulnerable: 1 in 5 women has been sexually assaulted while in college," it asserts on page 1.

These are astonishing claims. Also astonishing is how quickly they collapse when scrutinized by fact checkers. Women attending college aren't "particularly vulnerable." The truth is precisely the opposite: Women attending college are less likely to be raped, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics—an unsurprising finding, since wealthier, better-educated people typically experience less violence than the socioeconomically disadvantaged. The 1-in-5 statistic holds up only slightly better; the study that produced that number had serious limitations. When surveyed, large percentages of college students will admit they've endured nonconsensual touching, but they do not see themselves as victims of rape.

That these claims overstate the extent of the problem is something that a growing and disparate chorus of voices now seems to recognize. In February 2015, the education reporter for the left-leaning politics/policy website Vox admitted that the 1-in-5 statistic was "probably inaccurate"; just five months prior, Vox Editor in Chief Ezra Klein had argued that the 20 percent figure was why he was supporting what he called a "terrible law" mandating affirmative consent for collegiate couples daring to touch each other. Nearly a year after the release of the White House memo, Inside Higher Ed ran a story skeptical about the statistic, and The Washington Post's fact-checking operation asserted flatly that the White House claims had gone too far.

Yet left unscrutinized until now was an equally disturbing "fact" cited later in the White House memo. "Notably, campus assailants are often serial offenders," it stated. "One study found that of the men who admitted to committing rape or attempted rape, some 63% said they committed an average of six rapes each."

That study was authored by Lisak, a former professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Lisak knew from his previous work on sexual assault that incarcerated rapists were often repeat offenders, and wondered whether "undetected rapists"—i.e., people who were never caught—would share this characteristic. His study interviewed 1,882 subjects at UMass Boston, 120 of whom he determined to be rapists who had never been caught. Seventy-six of those 120 were deemed to have committed multiple assaults, which led Lisak to conclude that a majority of undetected predators, just like their incarcerated brethren, were serial rapists.

"Those serial offenders were prolific," Lisak said in an October 28, 2013, interview with Al Jazeera. "The average number of rapes for each one of those serial offenders was six."

But were they in fact "campus assailants," as the White House claimed and based policy recommendations on? The researchers didn't even ask the participants—who ranged in age between 18 and 71, averaging 26.5, with more than 20 percent older than 30—whether they were students. They just set up booths at a commuter college and asked willing men to answer a long questionnaire for some pocket change (between $3 and $5). And none of the questions—not one—asked participants specifically about violence they had committed against other students, or on campuses.

Occasionally, Lisak has acknowledged his study's limitations, albeit without emphasizing that the participants were never asked about their enrollment status. "Students are a little bit older," he told an audience at Emory University during an April 2013 presentation. "They are working mainly, half-time, full-time some of them. Kind of a cross section of working-class Boston, but still, young people, in college."

But in the Al Jazeera interview, Lisak also asserted that the repeat offenders have "perfected ways of identifying who on campus, for example, are most vulnerable," as if he had gleaned personal insight into the minds of serial campus rapists in the course of extensive back-and-forths with the subjects. That impression, it turns out, is highly misleading.

Linda LeFauve, associate vice president for planning and institutional research at Davidson College, dug into the study for a July article at reason.com and made a startling discovery: The underlying research wasn't even conducted by Lisak. Rather, he had appropriated the data from four different surveys administered by his graduate students during the 1990s. The surveys, which are not specified in the 2002 study, were derived from his students' dissertations and master's theses. During a phone interview with LeFauve, Lisak was unable to recall which surveys had wound up in the study. Part-time Harvard University instructor Dr. James Hopper, a former student of Lisak's whose research was used in the study, was able to reconstruct the sources of much of the data.

Significantly, the surveys were not specifically about campus rape; they were about more general acts of violence that men did or did not commit over the course of their lives. Participants who answered "yes" to certain questions (such as: "Have you ever had oral sex with an adult when they didn't want to because you used or threatened to use physical force if they didn't cooperate?") were labeled rapists for the purposes of the study, and participants who had committed multiple instances of rape under this definition were labeled serial predators.

Lisak acknowledged during the course of a telephone interview with LeFauve that the surveys weren't primarily about campus violence. They "may have been about child abuse history or relationships with parents," he said. He also supposed that many examples of repeat rape in the study were domestic violence, i.e., not the kind of serial predation one would normally expect to find on a college campus.

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  • some guy||

    One study found that of the men who admitted to committing rape or attempted rape, some 63% said they committed an average of six rapes each."

    I blame STEVE SMITH for skewing the statistics.

  • JNP||

    "Lisak also asserted that the repeat offenders have "perfected ways of identifying who on campus, for example, are most vulnerable," as if he had gleaned personal insight into the minds of serial campus rapists..."

    Groundbreaking. Opportunistic criminal offenders look for people who appear vulnerable? I always wondered why 200lb males and campus security didn't get raped more often.

  • The Grinch||

    Isn't this a reposting of something from around three weeks ago? Why does Reason keep doing this without pointing out it's a repost?

  • Berserkerscientist||

    They want it to be picked up by the mainstream media. The fact it isn't is very telling.

  • PS||

    Oh noes, you've gone and interrupted the narrative. War on women. Think of the children. Social justice warrior, Screeeeeech.

  • PS||

    Oh noes, you've gone and interrupted the narrative. War on women. Think of the children. Social justice warrior, Screeeeeech.

  • Sevo||

    This won't make a bit of difference:
    "The world is over-populated!" - No, it isn't.
    "Everybody's getting poorer!" - No, they're not.
    "1/5 of US kids are starving!" - No, they're not.
    Doesn't matter; the meme has now been planted in the rotting compost which passes for a brain on the left; weeds like this will grow with abandon.

  • ||

    The thinking was that students who committed sexual violence against other students were typically single-instance offenders who had gotten carried away due to a variety of circumstances: heavy drinking, lack of understanding about sexual consent definitions, and so on. Date rape is no less serious than serial predator rape, but the tools needed to address a crisis consisting predominantly of the first kind of assault are different than the tools needed to prevent the second kind.

    I guess mens rea is dead, even at Reason.

    Lessons learned: If you accidentally sleep with someone, poison their coffee the next morning.

  • Chris F||

    If your allusion to mens rea being dead is in regard to the statement, "Date rape is no less serious than serial predator rape", I took this assertion to mean that the effect of date rape on the victim is [typically] no less serious than the effect of serial predator rape, NOT that the former is as egregious an act as the latter. (Note: I'm neither agreeing nor disagreeing with the claim that “A” is no less serious than “B”; I'm merely seeking to parse his statement).

    Do you, after re-reading the sentence, agree with my analysis ?

  • Tony||

    I will give you guys this. The part of the liberal movement that seems exclusively concerned with the problems of white people with money is starting to piss me off. It's quite valid to point out that "campus rape" is not the issue for most actual victims of rape. Or even that student loan debt is the major financial crisis out there. I think it's the Bernie Sanders thing. Insufferable white college kids and their pet unicorn with his hip ideas. People with the leisure time to invent 50 new pronouns and 1,000 new ways to be offended. A very troubling obsession with orthodoxy and language correctness, and lack of concern for civil liberties or good manners.

    Through it all is a pervasive laziness. Of changing the world through Twitter. Of, as this article notes, preferring simple solutions to more effective complex ones. When I was a young liberal, we actually cared about the civil liberties of those suspected with crimes, and we were free speech absolutists. We're supposed to be working to empty prisons, not dole out scarlet letters. I don't know what's happened to white liberals. They must be drunk on the power that the total intellectual collapse of the right has afforded them.

  • Tommy_Grand||

    Yet another time I agree with Tony. Several good points made. Now, about that "affordable" care act -- the one guaranteed to lower my kids' health insurance premiums.....

  • Frankjasper1||

    Wow good for tony

  • Chris F||

    All valid points, to be sure, though in keeping with the theme of "is this as ubiquitous as we're being told it is ?", are the "people with the leisure time to invent 50 new pronouns and 1,000 new ways to be offended" (a/k/a: victims of privilege) really as numerous as some would have us believe, or are they a relatively small group with a loud voice ? Additionally, might the fact that they seem so numerous be more than a little related to the amount of coverage they receive ?

    Moreover, can I really be the first to notice (or at least the first to point out) the similarities between this group and the Republican presidential nominee ?

    "When the facts are on your side bang on the facts. When the law is on your side bang on the law. When neither is on your side, scream about the tens of thousands of Muslims in Jersey City celebrating the fall of the WTC, or how by merely setting foot on a college campus a woman has a 180% chance of being sexually abused."

  • Maloo||

    But if most student rapists are one-off offenders—ignorant about relationships, capable of learning from their mistakes—school might actually be the right place for them.


    I simply don't believe that anyone who has survived to college age is so ignorant about relationships as to not know what rape is. And if they ARE that stupid, no amount of 'education' on the subject is going to fix the problem, because they're obviously totally fucking retarded.

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  • Al Sharpton||

    "If most student rapists are irredeemable villains, it's easy to justify draconian efforts to hunt them down and expel them from campus."

    Is it easy? It seems to me that's the entire point here- that no percentage of serial rapists can justify blowing away the concept of "innocent until proven guilty". It is the greater injustice to sacrifice one persons innocence on an alter of efficiency.

  • Chris F||

    If your allusion to mens rea being dead is in regard to the statement, "Date rape is no less serious than serial predator rape", I took this assertion to mean that the effect of date rape on the victim is [typically] no less serious than the effect of serial predator rape, NOT that the former is as egregious an act as the latter. (Note: I'm neither agreeing nor disagreeing with the claim that “A” is no less serious than “B”; I'm merely seeking to parse his statement).

    Do you, after re-reading the sentence, agree with my analysis ?

  • roversaurus||

    11% of males at college have forced themselves on a woman (or man) at least once?

    "Based on two surveys of the adolescent sexual histories of a combined 1,645 male college students, the authors found that 177 (11 percent) had committed at least one rape between age 14 and the end of their college careers"

    That is appalling. If *that* is true that is something that demands being addressed.

  • jacob||

    Define forced. Tried to slip in a kiss? Tried to take off a woman's clothes forcibly? Neither is acceptable but there is a world of difference between the two.

  • SimonD||

    That statistic cannot be true. That would indicate that college campuses are in the midst of the most vicious violent crime epidemic in the history of the nation. I call bullshit.

    I would guess it's a case of expanding a definition into non-existence. If they classify more and more things as 'rape', eventually the word will just mean 'anything I don't like'. The progs have done the same thing with the word 'racist'.

  • SimonD||

    For the record, the same statement jumped out at me, rover.

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