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Campus Rape Debate Needs Better Numbers

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Back in the dark ages, when I was in college, we marched to the slogan "No means no!" Those were the days when we were still trying to convince people that date rape was real rape -- that women did not somehow imply consent because of the way they were dressed, or where they'd chosen to do their drinking.

Back then, the assumption was that most campus rape was caused by a bad culture -- that men were committing rape because they'd been raised to understand that women who placed themselves in certain situations were "asking for it." In the years since then, however, that assumption has been shifting. Now the focus is on serial predators, men who may be enabled by a culture that shames victims of sexual violence, and fails to do enough to protect them, but are very different from the majority of men who realize that rape is not really all right if she showed up at your fraternity party in a short skirt. 

One of the major foundations of this shift in focus is a 2002 study by David Lisak, which has been widely cited in support of the emerging model of campus rape as a crime committed by serial predators who will perpetuate a cycle of violence unless stopped. This has major consequences for how you address the problem. If the issue is that most boys don't understand a woman's right to say no right up until the end, then what you need is a lot of education, combined with punishment of those who don't get the message. If the problem is a small number of repeat offenders, then what you need is not so much education as much as better methods to identify and neutralize them.

Unfortunately, a new article in Reason magazine suggests that this foundation is much shakier than most people working on this issue -- myself included -- may have assumed. (Full disclosure: the Official Blog Spouse is an editor at Reason.) The author, Linda M. LeFauve, looked carefully at the study, including conducting an interview with Lisak, and identified multiple issues:

  1. Lisak did not actually do original research. Instead, he pooled data from studies that were not necessarily aimed at collecting data on college students, or indeed, about rape. Only five questions on a multi-page questionnaire asked about sexual violence that they may have committed as adults, against other adults.
  2. The campus where this data was collected is a commuter campus. It's not clear that everyone surveyed was a college student, but if so, the sample included many non-traditional students, with an average age of 26.5. Yet this data has been widely applied to traditional campuses, even though the two populations may differ greatly.
  3. The responses indicate that the men identified as rapists were extraordinarily more violent than the normal population: "The high rate of other forms of violence reported by the men in Lisak’s paper further suggests they are an atypical group. Of the 120 subjects Lisak classified as rapists, 46 further admitted to battery of an adult, 13 to physical abuse of a child, 21 to sexual abuse of a child, and 70 — more than half the group — to other forms of criminal violence. By itself, the nearly 20 percent who had sexually abused a child should signal that this is not a group from whom it is reasonable to generalize findings to a college campus."
  4. The data did not cover acts committed while in college, but any acts of sexual violence; a number of them seem to have been committed in domestic violence situations. 
  5. Lisak appears to have exaggerated how much follow-up he was able to do on the people he surveyed, at least to LeFauve: "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." Robby Soave of Reason, in a companion piece, also raises doubts about Lisak's repeated assertions that he conducted extensive follow-ups with "most" of the respondents to what were mostly anonymous surveys.

In short, Lisak's 2002 study is not a systematic survey of rape on campus; it is pooled data from surveys of people who happen to have been near a commuter  campus on days when the surveys were being collected.

Before I go any further, let me note that I'm not saying that what these men did was not bad, or does not deserve to be punished. But if LeFauve is right, this study is basically worthless for shaping campus policies designed to stop rape.

And that does matter. Policy -- even crime policy -- needs to be shaped to circumstances. If you think that you are mostly dealing with undetected serial predators, you will take different steps than you would if you think you're dealing with a more pervasive problem of many offenders with low victim counts. Soave points to a recent study that looked specifically at college students and rape on campus, and found very different results from Lisak. "Although some men perpetrate rape across multiple college years, these men are not at high risk entering college and account for a small percentage of campus perpetrators — at least 4 of 5 men on campus who have committed rape will be missed by focusing solely on these men," say the study's authors.

The study still found appalling high levels of rape -- nearly 11 percent of men in the study reported completing at least one rape either in college, or before. The scope of the problem is real. But the shape may be much different than we thought.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net