By Christina Hoff Sommers
On January 27, 2010, University of North Dakota officials charged undergraduate Caleb Warner with sexually assaulting a fellow student. He insisted the encounter was consensual, but was found guilty by a campus tribunal and thereupon expelled and banned from campus.
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A few months later, Warner received surprising news. The local police had determined not only that Warner was innocent, but that the alleged victim had deliberately falsified her charges. She was charged with lying to police for filing a false report, and fled the state.
Cases like Warner’s are proliferating. Here is a partial list of young men who have recently filed lawsuits against their schools for what appear to be gross mistreatment in campus sexual assault tribunals: Drew Sterrett—University of Michigan,“John Doe”—Swarthmore, Anthony Villar—Philadelphia University, Peter Yu—Vassar, Andre Henry—Delaware State,Dez Wells--Xavier, and Zackary Hunt—Denison. Presumed guilty is the new legal principle where sex is concerned.
Sexual assault on campus is a genuine problem—but the new rape culture crusade is turning ugly. The list of falsely accused young men subject to kangaroo court justice is growing apace. Students at Boston University demanded that a Robin Thicke concert be cancelled: His hit song Blurred Lines is supposedly a rape anthem. (It includes the words, “I know you want it.”) Professors at Oberlin, University of California, Santa Barbara, and Rutgers have been urged to place “trigger warnings” on class syllabi that include books like the Great Gatsby—too much misogynist violence. This movement is turning our campuses into hostile environments for free expression and due process. And so far, university officials, political leaders, and the White House are siding with the mob.
It appears that we are in the throes of one of those panics where paranoia, censorship, and false accusations flourish—and otherwise sensible people abandon their critical facilities. We are not facing anything as extreme as the Salem Witch Trials or the McCarthy inquisitions. But today’s rape culture movement bears some striking similarities to a panic that gripped daycare centers in the 1980s.
In August 1983, an anguished mother reported to the police that her 2-year old son had been horrifically abused in the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California. She described a network of underground tunnels where school staff had sodomized her child and forced him to watch animal sacrifices. The mother was mentally disturbed and her story had no basis in reality. But the news media seized on the story, and paranoia about Satanic Cults became a national epidemic. Parents were already on edge: advocacy groups, politicians, and the media had warned that nearly 50,000 children were being abducted by strangers, and 4,000 of them murdered, every year. As news of the McMartin barbarity spread, daycare personnel in schools across the nation found themselves implicated in the crime of satanic-ritual child abuse. A national network of abuse-therapists promptly materialized. Through the use of intimidating interviewing techniques, they egged on children to “remember” terrible abuses in their daycare.
The abuse therapists were joined by an influential group of conspiracy-minded feminists, including Gloria Steinem and Catharine MacKinnon. When a few civil libertarian feminists—Carol Tavris, Wendy Kaminer, Ellen Willis, and Debbie Nathan—tried to blow the whistle on the witch-hunt, they were vilifiedby the conspiracy caucus as backlashers, child abuse apologists, and “obedient ‘daddies’ girls of male editors.”
From the start of the scare in 1983 until its ending in the mid-1990s, untold numbers of children were subject to manipulative therapies and hundreds of innocent adults faced charges of ritual child abuse. Several of the accused would spend years in prison for crimes that never happened. A recent Slate article called it “one of the most damaging moral panics in America’s history,” which only began to abate when skeptical journalists got round to checking facts and asking questions. A 1985 story in the Los Angeles Times informed readers that, according to FBI reports, the number of child kidnappings by strangers in 1984 was 67, not 50,000
Today’s college rape panic is an eerie recapitulation of the daycare abuse panic. Just as the mythical “50,000 abducted children” fueled paranoia about child safety in the 1980s, so today’s hysteria is incited by the constantly repeated, equally fictitious “one-in-five women on campus is a victim of rape”—which even President Obama has embraced.
The one-in-five number is derived from surveys where biasedsamples of respondents are asked an artful combination of straightforward and leading questions, reminiscent of the conclusory interviews behind the daycare agitation. A much-cited CDC study, for example, first tells respondents: “Please remember that even if someone uses alcohol or drugs, what happens to them is not their fault.” Then it asks: “When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people ever had vaginal sex with you.” (Emphasis mine.) The CDC counted all such sexual encounters as rapes.
Reputable studies suggest that approximately one-in-forty college women are victims of rape or sexual assault (assault includes verbal threats as well as unwanted sexual grabbing and fondling). One-in-forty is still too many women. But it hardly constitutes a “rape culture” requiring White House intervention.
Once again, conspiracy feminists are at the forefront of this movement. Just as feminist psychologists persuaded children that they had been abused, so women’s activists have persuaded many young women that what they might have dismissed as a foolish drunken hookup was actually a felony rape. “Believe the children,” said the ritual abuse experts during the day care scare. “Believe the survivors,” say today’s rape culturalists. To not believe an alleged victim is to risk being called a rape apologist.
Some will say that these moral panics, while overblown, do call attention to serious problems. This is deeply mistaken. The hysteria around daycare abuse and campus rape shed no light: rather they confuse and discredit genuine cases of abuse and violence. Molestation and rape are horrific crimes that warrant serious attention and vigorous response. Panics breed chaos and mob justice. They claim innocent victims, undermine social trust, and teach us to doubt the evidence of our own experience.
E.M. Forster said it best in A Passage to India, referring to a panic among “good citizens” following a highly dubious accusation of rape: “Pity, wrath, and heroism filled them, but the power of putting two and two together was annihilated.”
By Kevin D. Williamson
Rape is a vicious crime, one that disproportionately affects poor women and incarcerated men, but Barack Obama knows his voters, and so his recent remarks on the subject were focused not on penitentiaries, broken families, or Indian reservations but on college campuses, where the despicable crime is bound up in a broader feminist Kulturkampf only tangentially related to the very real problem of sexual violence against women.
The subject is a maddening one. President Obama repeated the endlessly reiterated but thoroughly debunked claim that one in five women will be sexually assaulted in her college years. The actual rate is . . . sort of an interesting problem, the information being so inconsistent and contradictory that one almost suspects that it is so by design.
President Obama, who gives every indication of being committed to the bitter end to his belief in the omnipotence of his merest utterance, gave a speech in which he affirmed his position that rape is wicked and that we should discourage it. Instead of giving a content-free speech, he should have directed his Department of Justice to put together some definitive data on the question.
Much of the scholarly literature estimates that the actual rate is more like a tenth of that one-in-five rate, 2.16 percent, or 21.6 per 1,000 to use the conventional formulation. But that number is problematic, too, as are most of the numbers related to sexual assault, as the National Institute of Justice, the DoJ’s research arm, documents. For example, two surveys conducted practically in tandem produced victimization rates of 0.16 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively – i.e., the latter estimate was eleven times the former. The NIJ blames defective wording on survey questions.
This is a matter of concern because a comparison between the NIJ’s estimates of college-campus rape and the estimates of rape in the general population compiled by the DoJ’s National Crime Victimization Survey implies that the rate of rape among college students is more than ten times that of the general population.
It is not impossible that this is the case, but there is significant cause for skepticism. For example, in the general population college-age women have significantly lower rates of sexual assault than do girls twelve to seventeen, while a fifth of all rape victims are younger than twelve. Most of the familiar demographic trends in violent crime are reflected in the rape statistics: Poor women are sexually assaulted at twice the rate of women in households earning $50,000 a year or more; African American women are victimized at higher rates than are white women, while Native American women are assaulted at twice the rate of white women; divorced and never-married women are assaulted at seven times the rate of married women; women in urban communities are assaulted at higher rates than those in the suburbs, and those in rural areas are assaulted at dramatically higher rates. But there is at least one significant departure from the usual trends in violent crime: Only about 9 percent of those raped are men.
It is probably the case that the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses is wildly exaggerated—not necessarily in absolute terms, but relative to the rate of sexual assault among college-aged women with similar demographic characteristics who are not attending institutions of higher learning. The DoJ hints at this in its criticism of survey questions, some of which define “sexual assault” so loosely as to include actions that “are not criminal.” This might explain why so many women who answer survey questions in a way consistent with their being counted victims of sexual assault frequently display such a blasé attitude toward the events in question and so rarely report them. As the DoJ study puts it: “The most commonly reported response — offered by more than half the students — was that they did not think the incident was serious enough to report. More than 35 percent said they did not report the incident because they were unclear as to whether a crime was committed or that harm was intended.”
If you are having a little trouble getting your head around a definition of “sexual assault” so liberal that it includes everything from forcible rape at gunpoint to acts that not only fail to constitute crimes under the law but leave the victims “unclear as to whether harm was intended,” then you are, unlike much of our culture, still sane.
Of all the statistics and evidence that are prevalent in the discussion of sexual assault, there is one datum conspicuous in its absence: the fact that sexual assault has been cut by nearly two-thirds since 1995. Under the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ apples-to-apples year-over-year comparison, sexual assault has declined 64 percent since the Clinton years. That is excellent news, indeed, but it does not feed the rape-epidemic narrative, and so it must be set aside.
The fictitious rape epidemic is necessary to support the fiction of “rape culture,” by which feminists mean anything other than an actual rape culture, for example the culture of the Pakistani immigrant community in Rotherham in the United Kingdom. “Rape culture” simply means speech or thought that feminists disapprove of and wish to suppress, and the concept has been deployed in the cause of, inter alia, bringing disciplinary action against a Harvard student who wrote a satire of feminist rhetoric, forbidding politically unpopular speakers from speaking on campuses, and encouraging what often has turned out to be headlong and grotesquely unjust rushes to judgment, as in the case of the Duke lacrosse team. Feminism is about political power, and not the Susan B. Anthony (“positively voted the Republican ticket — straight”) full-citizenship model of political power but rather one dominated by a very small band of narrow ideologues still operating under the daft influence of such theorists as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, each of whom in her way equated political opposition to feminism with rape.
This has some worrisome practical results, not the least of which is muddying the water on the issue of sexual assault itself. For example, feminists energetically protest that advising women to take such precautionary measures as moderating their alcohol intake at college parties is a species of rape-culture victim-blaming (rather than reasonable advice), and so it is no surprise that, as the DoJ notes, many surveys inquire of rape victims whether they believed their attackers to have been under the influence of drugs or alcohol but decline to ask the victims whether they were under the influence. Evidence very strongly suggests that rapists frequently use intoxicants, openly or surreptitiously, as part of a strategy conceived with malice aforethought to render their victims vulnerable. It might be useful to know how often this is the case and how often it works or fails to work, but we will not know if we refuse to ask the question.
Our policy debates are dominated by relatively narrow-minded and self-interested elites, and so it is natural that our discussion of sexual assault focuses on what might be happening at Villanova University rather than what’s happening on Riker’s Island or on Ojibwe reservations. But the way we talk about rape suggests that we do not much care about the facts of the case. If understanding and preventing rape were our motive, we’d know whether the victimization rate was x or 11x, and whether elite college campuses are in fact rather than in rhetoric more dangerous than crime-ridden ghettos and isolated villages in Alaska, a state in which the rate of rape is three times the national average. We’d never accept that the National Bureau of Economic Research didn’t know whether the inflation rate were 1.6 percent or 17 percent. We’d give the issue properly rigorous consideration.
But if your interest were in making opposition to feminist political priorities a quasi-criminal offense and using the horrific crime of rape as a cultural and political cudgel, then you’d be doing about what we’re doing right now.
The redefinition of the word violence continues among revelations that discounting a sexual partner's feelings and withholding sex constitutes sexual violence at the University of Michigan. The relevant info can befound at the university's "Stop Abuse" webpage:
Examples of sexual violence include: discounting the partner's feelings regarding sex; criticizing the partner sexually; touching the partner sexually in inappropriate and uncomfortable ways; withholding sex and affection; always demanding sex; forcing partner to strip as a form of humiliation (maybe in front of children), to witness sexual acts, to participate in uncomfortable sex or sex after an episode of violence, to have sex with other people; and using objects and/or weapons to hurt during sex or threats to back up demands for sex.
Criticizing someone sexually and withholding sex are unkind things to do, but they aren't violent acts in and of themselves. Indeed, a university spokesperson could only defend the definitions as appropriate within "a larger context," according to Derek Draplin of The College Fix:
The definitions of behaviors of violence … describe most accurately what occurs in an abusive relationship,” [U-M spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald] said in an email. “Those behaviors not in the context of violence are not abusive. A reader of this site would recognize that it’s described as one behavior in the context of a pattern of behaviors to maintain power and control over an intimate partner."
But, as Draplin writes, universities make these slips all the time—treating disfavored behavior and physically painful behavior as one and the same. He cites an interview with the sexual violence support coordinator at Brock University in Canada in which the administrator claims "anything that makes someone feel unsafe" counts as violence.
Institutions of higher learning should be more precise with their definitions. Being insufficiently attentive to other people's feelings is not an act of violence.
For related coverage, see "Ohio State: Students Must Agree on Why They Are Having Sex."