Public Interest Advocacy

Bad Science Makes Bad Policy on Campus Rapes

Campus PredatorThe federal requirements for responding to campus rape has garnered much criticism for lack of due process, presumption of guilt, and discrimination against men.  Recent reports indicate that it also is based on bad science.

The marquee study of campus assaults is the 2002 study by David Lisak and Paul Miller.  Dr. Lisak has built a career on his subsequent claims that 90 percent of college rapes are committed by serial rapists who cannot be educated about consent. He says flatly, “These are predators.”

That study and Dr. Lisak’s claims have driven the government’s policy about campus rape. President Obama’s memo announcing his new initiative to combat campus rape cited Dr. Lisak’s study numerous times. Senators are pushing federal legislation based largely on Dr. Lisak’s claims. Activists and journalists demand action to stop campus predators. New studies and investigations of Dr. Lisak’s study, however, indicate that many of those predators do not exist.

An eye-opening investigation by Linda LeFauve of Reason found that the 2002 study did not actually study either college students or college rapes.  Rather than being one study, it compiled the results of four studies conducted twenty years at a commuter college in Boston. According to a companion article by Robby Soave, researchers set up tables on campus and handed out questionnaire packets to men who passed by. They made no effort to limit the participants to students. The men answered questions about their sexual past, but the questions made no effort to limit the incidents to college campuses or the participant’s college experience. In other words, the offenses “may or may not have happened on or near a college campus, may or may not have been perpetrated on other students, and may have happened at any time in the survey respondents’ adult lives.”

Now a new study challenges Dr. Lisak’s thesis, and one of its authors accuses him of misrepresenting his research. The new study followed men from age 14 through college, and interviewed them at set intervals. Like Dr. Lisak’s study, it depends on self-reporting, a method that can be notoriously unreliable.  However, it did actually measure events by male students during their student years. The authors concluded

Although a small group of men perpetrated rape across multiple college years, they constituted a significant minority of those who committed college rape and did not compose the group at highest risk of perpetrating rape when entering college. Exclusive emphasis on serial predation to guide risk identification, judicial response, and rape-prevention programs is misguided. 

Dr. Mary Koss, an author of the new study, strongly criticizes both Dr. Lisak and the government policies built on his study. “It’s one of the most egregious examples of a policy with an inadequate scientific basis that lives on because it offers a simplistic solution.” 

Politicians and activists like to cloak themselves with scientific studies and claim that their policies are merely good science. It’s time, however, to take another look at the supposed science underlying the rush to demonize male college students. It’s past time to either change the policies or admit that they simply reflect prejudice and ideology.

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