On January 22, President Barack Obama issued a memorandum announcing the formation of a White House task force to protect students from sexual assault. “The prevalence of rape and sexual assault at our Nation’s institutions of higher education is both deeply troubling and a call to action,” he said. “Studies show that about one in five women is a survivor of attempted or completed sexual violence while in college. In addition, a substantial number of men experience sexual violence during college. ”
In April, the task force published a report, “Not Alone,” spelling out recommendations for preventing sexual assaults on campus. “One in five women is sexually assaulted in college,” stated the report. “Most often, it’s by someone she knows – and also most often, she does not report what happened. Many survivors are left feeling isolated, ashamed or to blame. Although it happens less often, men, too, are victims of these crimes.”
The “one woman in five” figure has become an article of faith, a mantra repeated endlessly without question by the anti-rape movement on campuses around the country. The conviction that universities are experiencing “an epidemic of rape” abetted by a “culture of rape” is driving a White House-led wave of so-called reforms to reduce the incidence of sexual assault on college campuses — including the University of Virginia, as I documented here.
In that post, I characterized the movement to transform college cultures across the country and at the University of Virginia as “ideologically driven.” By that, I meant that the White House is imposing a narrative upon the issue of sexual assault on campus, and that its recommendations for addressing the problem flow from that narrative. With today’s post, I back up that statement.
Sexual assault statistics. The best place to start unpacking the ideological biases of the anti-rape movement is the ubiquitously quoted “one woman in five” figure. The most authoritative source for that figure comes from a 2007 study, “The Campus Sexual Assault Study,” prepared for the National Institute of Justice and written by Christopher P. Krebs, Christine H. Lindquist, and Tara D. Warner.
That study was based upon a Web survey of 5,466 college women at two large public universities, one in the South and one in the Midwest. As the authors concede, a “limitation of the CSA Study, inherent with Web-based surveys, is that the response rates were relatively low. … lower than what we typical achieve using a different mode of data collection (e.g. face-to-face interviewing).” The authors recruited students through emails and recruitment letters. The authors do not consider the possibility that women who had experienced a sexual assault were more motivated to respond to the survey — especially if campus anti-rape groups were drawing attention to the surveys and urging women to participate.
The survey also questioned 1,375 males about sexual assault, asking them to self-report (with promises of anonymity) instances in which they perpetrated sexual assaults. Only 1.8% of males reported perpetrating any type of sexual assault while in college. In other words, there was a vast gulf in perception between males and females — 2% versus 20% — regarding the incidence of sexual assault. The numbers reported were so low, wrote the authors, that they “seriously doubt the validity of the data.” But was that skepticism warranted? While it is possible that males under-reported the rate at which they committed sexual assaults, it is also possible that females over-reported the extent to which they were the victim of assaults. Rather than question the validity of the data reported by females, the authors chose to question the validity of the data reported by males. Needless to say, no one in the “epidemic of rape” movement quotes the 1.8% figure reported by males.
Another crucial issue is how the authors define “sexual assault.” Not only does the term include assaults occurring as the result of physical force but those that are achieved by the “incapacitation of the victim” — “any unwanted sexual contact occurring when a victim is unable to provide consent or stop what is happening because she is passed out, drugged, drunk, incapacitated or asleep.” Unwanted sexual contact includes not only oral, anal or genital rape but “sexual battery (i.e. sexual assault that entailed sexual touching only).” It goes without saying that ascertaining sexual assault when one or both parties are drunk, drugged or otherwise incapacitated is a highly subjective matter — a matter that may explain much of the difference in male and female perception.
Those who decry the “epidemic of rape” do not cite these caveats because doing so would undermine their “one woman in five” narrative. Nor, incidentally, do they typically cite the authors’ findings that certain factors are associated with an increased risk of sexual assault. The more women drink, the greater the chances they will experience an incident that gets classified as sexual assault. Likewise, the greater the number of sexual partners, the greater the chances of sexual assault. (That’s not to say that women who drink or have sex with many partners “deserve” to be raped — they don’t. But it is to say that their encounters may fall into gray areas in which the issue of consent is not easily sorted out.)
Interestingly, a Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report published earlier this month, “Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization Among College-Age Females, 1995-2013,” shows a dramatically lower rate of victimization — between four and nine incidents annually per 1,000 students between 1997 and 2o13, a rate that translated into roughly five percent of all female college students over the period. The BJS study does employ a narrower definition of sexual assault — threatened, attempted or completed rape and assault — while excluding unwanted contact such as forcible kissing, fondling or grabbing, so the numbers aren’t directly comparable to the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study. But two findings stand out. First, the rate of sexual assault declined by roughly half between 1997 and 2013, in direct contrast to the rising alarm on college campuses. Second, the rate of sexual assault for non-students is 1.2 times higher than for students, suggesting that factors not related to the college experience may be playing a role.
If “epidemic of rape” advocates suddenly begin footnoting the caveats in the 2007 study or citing the findings of the Bureau of Justice Study, then it would be plausible to portray them as fair-minded pragmatists interested in pursuing a non-ideological truth. In the absence of such rhetoric, however, it is reasonable to assume that they cite numbers that depict the phenomenon in the most dire terms possible — in terms, in other words, that support their view that a “culture of rape” prevails in American campuses and that drastic changes in that culture are called for. (For the record: Liberals and progressives aren’t the only people who cherry pick data. I have seen conservatives carelessly citing the Bureau of Justice Statistics findings to debunk the 2007 study without acknowledging that the two studies are measuring different things, hence are not directly comparable.)
Framing the issue. Campus anti-rape advocates also betray their ideological blinders in the way they frame the issue of sexual assault. While some concede that alcohol (and to a lesser extent other drugs) fuel sexual misconduct, culture-of-rape proponents absolve women for any responsibility in ambiguous situations, declaring that to do so would constitute “blaming the victim.” Clearly, there are incidents on campuses in which men do sexually assault women, either through physical coercion or the use of date-rape drugs, and there is universal agreement across the ideological spectrum that such behavior is reprehensible and criminal and should be punishable with jail time. But those cases are a small (though not trivial) percentage.
A majority of episodes occur in ambiguous circumstances, a manifestation of the drunken party hook-up culture in a university setting in which men and women get wasted, losing their inhibitions and judgment as a consequence. “Epidemic of rape” advocates maintain that women can behave as provocatively as they want and it’s the obligation of men, whose inhibitions and judgment are likewise impaired, to read the signals when women stop giving consent. Likewise, if the two parties are too drunk to remember what happened the next day, the male still is held responsible for anything that might have occurred. Following from these premises, “epidemic of rape” advocates call for sterner measures against male offenders.
Now, it’s one thing for “culture of rape” advocates to hold these positions and it’s quite another to pretend, as some commenters on this blog do, that these positions aren’t ideologically driven. Of course they are. There are other ways to frame the sexual-assault issue. Some conservatives peddle a counter-narrative that liberals are wildly exaggerating the problem of sexual assault on campus. Alternatively, in “Sex, Genes, Love and Rape,” I accept that there is a tragic sex culture on campus but that many if not most so-called sexual assaults stem from a mix of assertive female sexuality, boorish and insensitive male attitudes, and a promiscuous hook-up culture fueled by alcohol and drugs. The reason that my framing of the issue is non-ideological, I would suggest, is that I hold it up as a hypothesis and I’m willing to modify my beliefs based on the data.
Pre-Jackie Sexual Assault Thinking at UVa. While the case is clear cut that the “epidemic of rape” movement is ideologically driven nationally, the picture is more nuanced at UVa. One can glean from anti-rape rallies, articles in local publications and blog posts and comments that the “culture of rape” movement is strong in Charlottesville. But the UVa administration was less dogmatic about these issues — at least early in 2014 before Rolling Stone magazine aired the gang-rape story by the woman it called Jackie.
The “Dialogue at UVa: Sexual Misconduct Among College Students” conference in February 2014 is a good marker for gauging the thinking of President Teresa Sullivan. Some conference speakers appear to be aligned with the culture of rape” movement but not all of them were. For example, speakers delved into the effect of alcohol and discussed the effect of hooking up — “sex without strings” — on sexual misconduct.
In introducing the conference, Sullivan eschewed simple formulas:
We need to acknowledge that the issues surrounding sexual misconduct are complex. For example, if both parties involved in an alleged case of misconduct are our students, we have to be impartial in the adjudication process and respect the rights of the accused. …
We also need to acknowledge that alcohol, drug use, and the ‘hook-up’ culture among students frequently contribute to sexual misconduct. These cultural issues are serious problems in their own right, and when sexual misconduct is involved, they magnify risk and complicate the adjudication process.
And she said this in her closing remarks:
We agreed that the hookup culture exists on our campuses, although it’s not always clearly defined, and we further agreed that this lack of definition can lead to misperception and misinformation. We learned that about 80 percent of students would prefer to be in a relationship, and that many who do engage in hook ups hold out hope that the hook up could lead to a more stable and meaningful relationship.
Nicole Eramo, Associate Dean of Students, expressed similarly nuanced views in a Sept. 16, 2014, interview on WUVA radio. A majority of sexual assault cases at UVa don’t fit the “culture of rape” template of unambiguous male aggression. Of the 38 “survivors” she spoke with last year, only nine brought forward a complaint, and only five of those advanced to formal hearings. “I think you would be surprised by the number of survivors I’ve worked with who don’t even want to file a complaint because they don’t want to get the accused person in trouble,” she said. “They have a personal connection to this other person and do not want to see them punished.”
Eramo pushed back against the interviewer’s indignation that no men accused of sexual assault have been expelled from the university. Internal UVa hearings use a “preponderance of the evidence” standard versus “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of criminal trials. The goal is to help women achieve closure and to rehabilitate the accused. “We’re trying to balance the rights of the individual who is being accused as well as the rights of the complainant,” she said. “And sometimes that’s very difficult.”
Post-Jackie Sexual Assault Thinking at UVa. The University participated in the White House task force on sexual violence and incorporated much of its thinking into its own policy agenda. But, other than the get-bystanders-involved initiative, none of those proposals surfaced publicly until after the Rolling Stone article. In response to the firestorm, the university rolled out an updated sexual misconduct policy, promised to conduct campus climate surveys, found funding to bolster counseling and trauma services, and promised to address student adjudication issues.
The rhetoric changed dramatically. Suddenly, Sullivan sounded like one of the anti-rape activists demonstrating in front of the Phil Kappa Psi fraternity house:
I write you today in solidarity. I write you in great sorrow, great rage, but most importantly, with great determination. Meaningful change is necessary, and we can lead that change for all universities. We can demand that incidents like those described in Rolling Stone never happen and that if they do, the responsible are held accountable to the law. This will require institutional change, cultural change, and legislative change, and it will not be easy. We are making those changes.
Sullivan promised unspecified changes to the student culture, extending to “student behavior,” drinking and the Greek life. Without any evidence other than the Rolling Stone article that any wrong had been committed, she shuttered social events for all sororities and fraternities until the beginning of the spring semester.
Even as the Rolling Stone article collapsed and the gang rape story was exposed as a hoax, Sullivan reiterated her determination to forge ahead: “I remain committed to a fearless examination of our culture and practices,” she said, in laying out an action plan. Her shift from pragmatist to ideologue was complete. Summarized a UVa press release: “Sullivan said the well-being of students, especially survivors of sexual assault, remains the first and foremost concern — regardless of the ongoing scrutiny of the magazine’s account.”
More data, please. The true test of Sullivan’s mettle will come this spring when UVa makes good on its promise to conduct a comprehensive “campus climate” survey on sexual violence. The Obama administration recommends that universities use the Rutgers Campus Climate Survey as a template.
If Virginia uses the Rutgers questionnaire, it will yield fore-ordained findings that generate predetermined talking points. Only the details remain to be filled in. The most contentious part of the survey appears in “Section Four” devoted to student sexual experiences. The questionnaire defines sexual assault and violence as broadly as possible:
“Sexual assault” and “sexual violence” refer to a range of behaviors that are unwanted by the recipient and include remarks about physical appearance, persistent sexual advances that are undesired by the recipient, threats of force to get someone to engage in sexual behavior, as well as unwanted touching and unwanted oral, anal or vaginal penetration or attempted penetration.
The questionnaire then asks two sets of questions. Has the respondent experienced “unwanted sexual contact” under physical force, and has the respondent experienced unwanted contact while “passed out, drugged, drunk, incapacitated or asleep?” The inevitable result will be a finding that [fill in the blank] percent of female students experienced sexual assault and/or violence in the past year; X percentage involved force of the threat of violence; Y percentage took place while incapacitated without consent. Everyone will get up in arms, demonstrations will take place, and the UVA administration will be pressured into “taking action.”
But the Rutgers template deliberately obscures more than it reveals. It doesn’t ask students to categorize “unwanted sexual contact” by degree of offensiveness. It doesn’t distinguish between an unwanted kiss on the cheek and rape at gunpoint. It conflates the horrible with the mundane and then paints it all as an undifferentiated mass of horrible.
The Rutgers questionnaire does not inquire into the context in which “unwanted sexual contact” takes place. How wasted was the woman and/or the man? Did they make out with each other? Did they grope each other? Did they disrobe? Did they disappear into the privacy of a bedroom? What kind of “signals” of consent were given? All of these are unknowable without in-depth personal interviews.
The questionnaire presumes that sexual “assault’ is the only thing worth measuring. But how about the emotional impact of casual coupling? Did the respondent ever feel bad after having sex, even if consensual? Did her sex partner treat her shabbily? Did she make the “walk of shame” alone back to her dormitory room? Did she regret the lack of emotional connection? Did casual, meaningless sex make her feel unfulfilled or even depressed? These questions never get asked, so issues relating to the hook-up culture never enter the dialogue.
If UVa models its questionnaire after the Rutgers template, we’ll know the ideological fix is in. There is no underestimating the importance of this survey in the ongoing battle over student culture. Where will Teresa Sullivan stand? On the side of the pragmatists or the “culture of rape” ideologues? Her recent public statements have not been encouraging.There are currently no comments highlighted.