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Last week, I published an op-ed in US News & World Report that touched on rape culture activism and sexual assault policies on campuses. My argument was simple: 1) the statistics used to bolster the claim that campus rape is an “epidemic” are untrustworthy; and 2) allowing these activists to have unchecked influence will further compromise the rights of the accused. As a graduate of Duke University, where several lacrosse players were falsely accused, I am keenly aware of what can go wrong when zealotry prevails.
The response from readers, including several scholars and researchers, was overwhelmingly positive. The notable exception was Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel. In an article entitled “‘Rape Culture’ is just Drunk College Sluts Lying, says Major Magazine,” she accused me of attacking rape victims. Never mind that I never implied that any victims of rape lied (with the exception of a case in North Dakota, in which I reported that the police determined an accuser had filed a false report) and said not a word about alcohol. As I read Ryan’s screed, it occurred to me that she might be talking about some other article. The fact that she referred to me by the wrong last name added to the confusion—an error they later fixed without any indication of a correction. Fervent Jezebel readers, many relying on Ryan’s caricature, proceeded to bombard me with insults, calling me a “rape-denying harpy,” “disgustingly anti-woman,” and a “small-town bigot”—among many other choice epithets.
There’s so much wrong with Ryan’s rant, it’s hard to know where to begin. I’ll start with the research.
The “1 in 5 college women will be raped” claim has been repeated so many times, it has become a dogma to sexual assault activists. Activists cling to this statistic and build movements around it despite the fact that it has been discredited many times. As far back as the early 1990s, scholars and journalists showed that the advocacy research surrounding campus sexual assault was methodologically flawed. It is beyond the scope of my op-ed to delve into all of the flawed research, but for more in-depth explanation, see here, here, and here. (And if you are going to contest my analysis, please read these links.)
Because of the serious flaws in the advocacy research, Department of Justice estimates are the best and perhaps only reliable source for assessing the prevalence of sexual assault. Ryan criticizes my use of the “Violent Victimization of College Students” report because she says that most victims she knows don’t describe their attacks as “violent.” Apparently, she got confused by the report’s title and failed to actually look at it. The report in fact specifies that sexual assaults “may or may not involve force” (emphasis added). The BJS’s definition includes “attacks or attempted attacks generally involving unwanted sexual contact between victim and offender,” including “verbal threats.” As I explain, this comprehensive survey of sexual assault occurrences on college campuses (mandated by the Violence Against Women Act, no less) puts the rate at one victimization per forty women. That is still a tragedy to be sure, but it’s a far cry from the “1 in 5” mantra.
Ohio University, mentioned in my piece for its anti-rape culture movement, has 11,052 female students. If one in five of those students was a victim of rape at some point over the course of four years, that would mean that approximately 553 females are being raped each year on that campus alone. Yet the Ohio University Police Department reports that in 2012, there were only 7 reports of rape or other sex crimes. Of course, sexual assault is among the most underreported of crimes. It’s also possible, as activists allege, that universities underreport crime data. But these facts are unlikely to fully account for this massive discrepancy. As Canadian columnist Margaret Wente recently wrote in The Globe and Mail, “[S]uch an astronomical number of serious unreported sex crimes would require a near-universal conspiracy of silence.” AEI’s Christina Hoff Sommers has noted that if sexual assault advocacy statistics were true, the prevalence of sex crimes in the US would be comparable to that of the war-stricken Congo.
Of course, we must protect victims of sexual assault and confront cultural forces that contribute to its incidence. I never implied—nor do I believe—that sexual assault on college campuses is not a very serious problem. But victims of violence will be best served by good research and accurate statistics. It does no service to victims to promote inflated statistics and impulsively attack any person who presents contrary information as a “rape denier.” We owe it to victims to have sound and informed procedures for investigating cases of sexual misconduct on campuses. For that, sound research is essential.
Next, a word about the falsely accused. A common response from Ryan and Jezebel’s disciples has been that the number of men falsely accused of sexual assault is minuscule in comparison to the number of assaults that go unpunished. They interpret any defense of the rights of the accused as victim-blaming.
Contrary to Ryan’s characterization, I did not say or imply that “across the country, poor men are being kicked out of college in droves.” What I actually said is that campus tribunals fail to provide the procedural safeguards necessary to protect students from false accusations. Though Ryan seems not to care, research shows that false accusations may be more common than gender activists realize. In an excellent review of the literature, Rachael Larimore and Yale Law School’s Emily Bazelon explain that the research surrounding false accusations varies widely in its estimates, but most credible studies converge around a rate of 8% to 10% for false reports of rape. False accusations may or may not be rampant, but they are certainly not trivial. And if we continue to promote policies aimed solely at protecting the rights of the accuser without protections for the accused, wrongful convictions will become much more likely.
The activists’ lack of concern for those falsely accused is troubling. Discussions surrounding sexual assault policies should not be based on a numbers game of false accusations vs. unreported victimizations. We should be focused on ensuring justice and basic fairness for all students. Sexual assault activists may not like it, but our country upholds the presumption of innocence as one of the central tenets of the justice system. To say that young men accused of sexual assault should be guaranteed due process by no means implicates victims.
It’s not easy for campus judiciaries to find the correct balance between protecting the rights of the accused and cultivating a safe environment for victims of sexual assault. There needs to be more civil discussion on how to fix the way universities respond to cases of sexual misconduct, and it needs to be informed by a commitment to protecting the rights of both parties.
Unfortunately, hardline gender activists have created a hostile environment for reasoned discussion. They prefer to shout “victim blamer!” and “rape apologist!” whenever they encounter a perspective that does not further their victim agenda. Many social scientists hesitate to broach the topic at all because of the moral fervor and stridency of the activists. But the fervor and stridency are getting in the way of reason and compassion—for both victims and the accused. That has to change.
I urge everyone to read my analysis with an open mind and explore some of the hyperlinks backing up my claims. If you can find any part where I say or even imply that sexual assault is ever in a girl’s “jungle-juice addled slutty imagination,” then Jezebel: you win.
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