“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 others—for example, radio hosts, authors, or filmmakers—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 individuals—none of whom actually resemble the finished product—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-time—many with jobs and families—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.