The rape 'epidemic' doesn't actually exist

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Article Highlights

  • Universities have an obligation to protect the rights of all students – both victims of sexual assault and the accused.

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  • Campus judiciaries operate under a dangerously low standard of proof for sexual assault cases, thanks to federal mandates.

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  • In a court of law, we rely on procedural safeguards to ensure unbiased jury selection and due process

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A group of 100 protesters – including many topless women – recently marched the streets of Athens, Ohio chanting, "Blame the system, not the victim" and "Two, four, six, eight, stop the violence, stop the rape." Organized by an Ohio University student organization called "f*ckrapeculture," the protest was designed to bring attention to what the founders believe is a toxic culture of sexism and sexual violence infecting their campus.

F*ckrapeculture cofounder Claire Chadwick explained to the campus newspaper, "The name of our organization and the statements that we've made are loud. But it's because we need to be heard." But saying something loudly does not make it true or just.

Chadwick and the members of f*ckrapeculture aren't the only student sexual violence activists that are demanding attention. Since last spring, an expansive network of student activists has emerged to fight "rape culture" and change the way universities respond to cases of sexual misconduct. However, as universities reexamine their sexual assault policies, administrators should be wary of the demands of these "rape culture" activists. Not only is their movement built on a foundation of dubious statistics and a distorted view of masculinity, but it has already led to policies that have proved devastating to those who have been falsely accused.

Activists claim that reform is urgent because one in five women will be raped during her time at college. I have yet to see an article lamenting the campus rape culture that does not contain some iteration of this alarming statistic.

But is it accurate? Statistics surrounding sexual assault are notoriously unreliable and inconsistent, primarily because of vague and expansive definitions of what qualifies as sexual assault. Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute explains that the study often cited as the origin of the "one in five" factoid is an online survey conducted under a grant from the Justice Department. Surveyors employed such a broad definition that "'forced kissing" and even "attempted forced kissing" qualified as sexual assault.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics' "Violent Victimization of College Students" report tells a different and more plausible story about campus culture. During the years surveyed, 1995-2002, the DOJ found that there were six rapes or sexual assaults per thousand per year. Across the nation's four million female college students, that comes to about one victim in forty students. Other DOJ statistics show that the overall rape rate is in sharp decline: since 1995, the estimated rate of female rape or sexual assault victimizations has decreased by about 60 percent.

Of course, there are still far too many college women who are victims of sexual assault. But there's little evidence to support the claim that campus rape is an "epidemic," as Yale student activist Alexandra Brodsky recently wrote in the Guardian. 

Bolstered by inflated statistics and alarmist depictions of campus culture, advocates have been successful in initiating policy changes designed to better protect victims of sexual violence. Duke, Swarthmore, Amherst, Emerson and the University of North Carolina are among the many institutions that have recently reviewed and revised their policies. It is not clear that these policies have made campuses safer places for women, but they have certainly made them treacherous places for falsely accused men.

In January 2010, University of North Dakota student Caleb Warner was accused of sexually assaulting a fellow student. A UND tribunal determined that Warner was guilty of misconduct, and he was swiftly suspended from school and banned from setting foot on campus for three years. Yet the police – presented with the same evidence – were so unconvinced of Warner's guilt that they refused to bring criminal charges against him. Instead, they charged his accuser with filing a false report and issued a warrant for her arrest. Warner's accuser fled town and failed to appear to answer the charges.

Despite these developments, the university repeatedly rejected Warner's requests for a rehearing. Finally, a year and a half later, UND reexamined Warner's case and determined that their finding of guilt was "not substantiated" – but only after the civil liberties group FIRE intervened and launched a national campaign on Warner's behalf.

Unfortunately, Warner is not alone in his grievances. Across the country, students accused of sexual assault are regularly tried before inadequate and unjust campus judiciaries. At most schools, cases of sexual misconduct are decided by a committee of as few as three students, faculty members or administrators. At Swarthmore College, volunteers are now being solicited via email to serve on the Sexual Assault and Harassment Hearing Panel. Such a panel is far more likely to yield gender violence activists than impartial fact finders.  In a court of law, we rely on procedural safeguards to ensure unbiased jury selection and due process. But on the college campus, these safeguards have vanished.

What's more, campus judiciaries operate under a dangerously low standard of proof for sexual assault cases, thanks to federal mandates. Since April 2011, the Department of Education has required institutions to consider cases of sexual misconduct under a "preponderance of evidence" standard (rather than a higher "clear and convincing" standard, which was commonly used prior to the new guidelines). This means that if a majority of committee members believe it is just slightly more likely than not that a sexual assault occurred, they must side with the accuser. 

Sexual assault is a horrific offense, and institutions must do all they can to protect victims. It is admirable that activists like Chadwick are trying to fight it. However, a false accusation of rape can also have devastating, life-altering consequences. Universities have an obligation to protect the rights of all students – both victims of sexual assault and the accused. They must stop responding to questionable statistics and abstract claims about a rape culture and instead focus on ensuring basic fairness for all students.

Meanwhile, advocates for due process, rules of evidence, basic justice and true gender equality need to speak louder than the "f*ckrapeculture" alarmists.

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