Kitchener Waterloo Chamber eLearning Center

For Valid Sexual Assault Rates, We’re Better Off Asking the Rapists

by Paul Hatford

Much of the talk of combating sexual assault on college campuses has been sidelined by debates over how often rape actually occurs. Columnists like Cathy Young point to a bias against males based on a bogus statistic that claims 1 in 5 women will experience sexual assault on campus. The Obama administration stands by the 20% number based on a government study. Young:

Unfortunately, the campaign is less likely to prevent real crimes and protect real victims than to promote gender animosities on college campuses, stigmatizing men and infantilizing women.

According to the White House, one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college. These staggering numbers come from the Campus Sexual Assault Study, commissioned by the National Institute of Justice and conducted from 2005 to 2007. The majority of the assaults in this study — 70 percent — involved “incapacitation’’ by alcohol or drugs. But the survey question was worded so broadly that “incapacitation” could mean a lot of different things: from being unconscious or barely conscious to being intoxicated enough to suffer from impaired judgment.

Young relies on the perception of the female victims, noting that only 37% of the incapacitated women believed they had been raped. It is not clear whether they had no memory of the incident, felt responsible for the rape because they were drunk, or did not understand that consensual sex is not possible with an incapacitated person. She also notes that only 2% of the women felt that they had suffered emotional or psychological injury as a result.


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Is the victim’s perception of an incident the appropriate way to tally crimes? If a woman beaten black and blue by her husband refuses to press charges when neighbors call the police, can we say that a crime has not been committed? Or that for her own reasons, including fear, shame, and trauma, the woman’s denial of her victim status erases any criminal act? This pattern of denial and remaining with abusers is well documented.

What if we decided to count rapes based on what men actually admitted doing? We could dispense with notions of false rape accusations, and misogynist claims about rape reports being nothing more than a “get out of jail free card” and “buyer’s remorse.”

Of course, it seems likely that rapists would underreport their crimes for fear of reprisal. To get around this, researcher David Lisak had the idea of asking men about their actions without labeling those actions as crimes:

Lisak avoided the use of terms such as “rape,” “assault,” and “abuse,” instead describing in detail the behavior in question, without applying labels that the perpetrators might not identify with.

Although the situations described are legally rape, Lisak found the men were not reluctant to talk about them, seeing them as sexual conquests to brag about, and did not think of themselves as rapists; according to Lisak, such men are narcissistic and “like nothing better” than to talk about their “sexual exploits.”

In a study of nearly 2,000 Boston area college males, 120, or 6.4%, self-reported acts of rape or attempted rape.

This self-reporting required admission that they had had sex with someone who did not want to by using or threatening physical force or harm, or by using intoxication as a method of incapacitating the victim.

Note: The raping of intoxicated victims did not include incidents where both parties were incapacitated and had drunken sex. Only an affirmative answer to this question counted as rape:

Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated (on drugs or alcohol) to resist your sexual advances, (e.g. removing their clothes)?

None of these men had ever been prosecuted by criminal justice authorities.

Lisak found that two-thirds of the rapists were repeat offenders. Those who had used overt force (30%) committed an average of 5.8 rapes each. For the group that used intoxication (70%), the mean number of rapes was 3.2.

Lisak also found that these undetected rapists shared key personality traits with incarcerated rapists:

  1. High levels of anger at women
  2. The need to dominate women
  3. Hypermasculinity (high testosterone)
  4. Lack of empathy
  5. Psychopathy and other antisocial traits

Let’s apply Lisak’s self-admission statistic of 6.4% to get a sense of just how many rapes occur on an American college campus:

At a large university like University of Michigan, which has 43K students enrolled, there are approximately 1,400 male rapists enrolled at any one time.

400 rapists will use overt force, and rape 6 times, for a total of just under 2,500 rapes during their time in school.

1,000 rapists will use intoxication, and rape 3 times, for a total of just under 3,000 rapes.

That’s 5,500 rapes over a four-year period. That’s 1,375 deliberate, premeditated rapes per year on one campus alone.

Assuming that victims are raped just once, 6.4% of the women at these campuses will be raped each year. An incoming freshman stands a 23.4% chance of being raped during her four years. Although the totals will obviously change at smaller schools, the percentages will still apply. (Note: Lisak researched males raping females, but is thought that gay males are the most likely group to suffer sexual assault.)

Is that number low enough to conclude that the current attention to sexual assault is hysteria?

Reports of sexual assault are increasing sharply – an early look at New England colleges shows a 40% increase between 2012 and 2013. But the numbers are still extremely low. For example, the college with the highest rate of sexual assaults has received reports for only 1.4% of students, or 2.8% if you restrict it to women.

Colleges and universities should be held accountable for the safety of their students. While I encourage young women to make good decisions and stay out of harm’s way, the truth is that at least 6% of the males on campus are rapists and willing to brag about it.

Both male and female students need to be educated specifically about what comprises sexual assault. Then they need to be fully informed about the resources available to them should it happen. We need to encourage victims to come forward for justice rather than suffering in silence and shame. According to one source, one local university is offering legal counsel to victims, who can advise them whether they have enough evidence to press legal charges.

RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, and the leading voice for sexual assault victim advocacy, “urges the White House to “remain focused on the true cause of the problem” and suggests a three-pronged approach for combating rape:

  • Empowering community members through bystander intervention education
  • Using “risk-reduction messaging” to encourage students to increase their personal safety
  • Promoting clearer education on “where the ‘consent line’ is””

It remains to be seen whether these measures will discourage that 6% of males who have raped with impunity in the past. The first two serve to make victims and witnesses more aware, but by all accounts the rapists themselves don’t have much regard for the notion of consent. Sexual exploits, indeed.