David 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.
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.