Date rape policies based on bad information, new study claims

November 24, 2015

By Marvin Harris at FOX Carolina

A new study challenges the widely accepted theory that most date rapes on campus are committed by serial rapists.

A 2015 study out of Georgia State University concluded that an overwhelming majority of college rapes are committed by men who are not serial predators, a misconception that has led to the systemic failure of rape-prevention policies.

“Although a small group of men perpetrated rape across multiple college years, they constituted a significant minority of those who committed college rape…” wrote Kevin Swartout, a psychology professor at GSU who headed the study.

The new study calls to question decades of government and university actions based on an inaccurate model, the study said.

“Exclusive emphasis on serial predation to guide risk identification, judicial response and rape-prevention programs is misguided,” he said. “To deter college rape, prevention should be initiated before, and continue during college.”

On college campuses, rape is the most common violent crime, and rapes are most often committed by date rape or by someone the victim knows as a boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, classmate or other relationship. Affecting 1 in 5 college women, rape most often happens the first two years a woman is on campus.

Victims often know their attacker, and many survive sexual abuse that occurs while they are drugged or drunk. Fewer than 5 percent of completed and attempted rapes of college students are reported to campus administrators or law enforcement. About 85 to 90 percent of sexual assaults that are reported are committed by somebody the victim knows, and about half of those occur on a date.

Few victims of date rapists press charges against their attackers by way of their schools’ judicial boards, and fewer still subject themselves to the grueling ordeal of reporting to off-campus police. It’s noteworthy that 5 percent of college men experience sexual assault.

The signature study whose landmark findings that campus rapists are typically men who commit as many as six offenses has often been cited by federal policymakers, including President Barack Obama, media outlets, anti-sexual violence organizations and universities.

It states that the perpetrator is not the “good guy” who makes a one-time mistake by misreading whether his date wants to have sex, said David Lisak, a national expert on sexual assault and former University of Massachusetts psychology professor.

“In the vast majority of cases, it’s not a matter of confusion,” said Lisak, reported the Bozeman (MT) Daily Chronicle, “and it is very likely the perpetrator is a serial offender.”

Lisak’s 2002 research concluded that serial offenders commit about 9 of 10 college rapes. Most rapists on campus are acquaintances or friends of the victim, he said, use alcohol as their weapon, not date rape drugs, and benefit from the victim’s silence to escape punishment.

The 2015 study turns all of those conclusions upside-down, and criticism is mounting.

A critic of Lisak’s study, Robert Soave, a staff editor at reason.com, said that under Lisak’s serial predator theory educational efforts and awareness campaigns will not stop serial rapists.

“Instead, it makes sense to prioritize the identification and swift removal of rapists from the campus community – since most of them have raped before and will do so again. To that end, Lisak advises college administrators to treat rape disputes between students as opportunities to apprehend and excise serial rapists.”

Soave said Lisak based his findings on a nontypical college sample that had little to do with campus assault, and despite that, has been used as a basis for the creation of “rape adjudication policies that are biased against accused students.”

Mary Koss, a University of Arizona professor who published the first national study on acquaintance rape in 1987, and a co-author with Swartout of the 2015 study, agrees that repeat rapists should go to jail..  But Koss said since most of the accused are not serial predators, colleges need to play a role in resolving a rape dispute by way of “restorative justice.”

“Such a process can take many forms but involves dialogue between the students involved in a rape dispute,” reason.com said. “The goal is not necessarily to punish a rapist, but to allow both parties to achieve closure on the incident and grow from it.”

Koss’ suggested approach must make way for a federal anti-discrimination law – specifically, Title IX of the Higher Education Act – which requires colleges to adjudicate rape disputes involving its students, a requirement the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education emphasized in a 2011 letter.  The letter said as soon as schools know or reasonably should know that an act of sexual violence has occurred, they must take immediate and appropritae action to find out what happened.

The letter lowered the standard of proof from what many schools had used. Formerly there had to be a standard of “clear and convincing” evidence, meaning there must be a 75 percent likelihood that the accused committed the act. Now, proof must consititue “the preponderance of the evidence, which means there has to be a 50-50 chance that the accused committed the act.

Why do colleges handle sexual assault cases?

The idea of having sexual assault victims report incidents to university authorities was intended to make it easier for victims to come forward.

“Many victims don’t want to endure the stress and emotional impact of a criminal trial but have the right to be safe on campus, wrote Allison Tombros Korman, executive director of Culture of Respect, an organization seeking to end campus sexual assaults, in The New York Times. The colleges can determine if there was a violation of student conduct.

The good news for survivors, according to knowyourIX.com, a national survivor-run, student-driven campaign to end campus sexual violence, is that survivors of rape on campus may choose to report to both the police and campus officials or only to campus officials.

Some survivors want to avoid the criminal justice system, knowyourIX.com says, for reasons that include the fear of skepticism and abuse from the system. They want to avoid the ordeal of a long trial, and the fear that their assailant will not even be prosecuted, much less convicted.

Fears that campus rapists will face few or no consequences are borne out by investigations.

In a yearlong investigation, members of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, spoke with 50 experts familiar with the campus disciplinary process and 33 female students who reported sexual assaults by other students. CPI surveyed 152 crisis services programs and clinics on or near college campuses and examined 10 years of complaints filed against institutions with the U.S. Department of Education under Title IX and the Clery Act, which requires universities to record campus crimes.

“The probe reveals that students deemed ‘responsible’ for alleged sexual assaults on college campuses can face little or no consequence for their acts,” CPI said. “Yet their victims’ lives are frequently turned upside down.”

Victims often dropped out of school, while their alleged attackers graduated. Victims pay in other ways, according to the National Institute of Justice, including, in addition to the immediate trauma, the risk of sexually transmitted disease, pregnancy and long-term mental health effects that can include depression and anxiety.

Are colleges prepared to handle sex assault cases?

Critics say universities are ill-equipped to handle sexual assault cases. Joe Cohn is legislative and policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit group that focuses on civil liberties in academia in the United States.

“Expecting amateur college panels to consistently make sound judgments about felonies without access to forensic evidence or the ability to subpoena witnesses or get testimony under oath is unreasonable,” he wrote in an opinion piece in The Washington Post. “And when allegations of sexual assault go without proper investigation for months or years … it becomes difficult or impossible for anyone to determine the truth.”

Agreeing that colleges exceed their competence in dealing with rape is David Cohen, a professor of law at Drexel University who has litigated Title IX cases. “Rape is an incredibly serious crime that college administrators aren’t equipped to handle,” he told pbs.org. “It’s an issue that very reasonable people disagree about who care deeply about rape survivors and justice.”

Colleges that fail to follow the Department of Education instructions about handling sexual grievances can be put on a list of colleges under investigation and be at risk of losing federal funding.

Both victims and the accused have a “nearly universal lack of confidence” in the proceedings, said Judith Shulevitz, a journalist, editor and culture critic. “Schools are being told to disregard what most Americans think of as the basic civil rights of a person accused of a heinous act,” she wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times. “… Neither party is allowed to cross-examine the other, lest direct questioning re-traumatize a victim.”

At least 30 male students, some suspended or expelled, she said, have sued their universities, claiming the process was unfair.

She suggests that universities “band together and demand that the government rethink its guidelines, especially those that flout the key tenets of due process,” ask federal officials to clarify their notion of sexual misconduct, and base guilt or innocence on a “reasonable-person” test.

Do colleges’ sexual-prevention programs work?

Colleges’ sexual-violence prevention programs face an open question – whether they deter those most likely to rape. The programs vary widely, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Some programs try to reach all incoming first-year students at orientation, and others some of their students throughout the year.

Some programs tell women  to attend parties and groups and guard their drinks to make sure they don’t get drugged. Other programs encourage men to intervene to prevent third-party assaults.

Campuses recently received new requirements to report, adjudicate and prevent sexual assault on campus. Effective July 1, 2015, nearly all colleges that could lose federal funding for noncompliance must comply with the federal Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, or SaVE.

SaVE’s provision on prevention training is the act’s most important provision, said Lisa Maatz, the vice president of government relations at the American Association of University Women, a nonprofit that advocates for female education and equality.

“… It is the tool we’ve needed to spur a shift on campuses,” she wrote in The Huffington Post. “While some schools have been making real efforts to address the epidemic of sexual violence, too many have been ignoring the situation – or worse, sweeping it under the rug.”

The White House’s efforts to battle sexual violence on campuses include releasing guidelines urging colleges to conduct  “climate surveys” to examine the amount of sexual assault and the perceptions of the campus community about sexual assault there. The surveys – like the survey of 27 campuses the Association of American Universities conducted – are designed to give a more realistic picture of the vastly under-reported crime to inform preventative steps.

The guidelines urge colleges “to conduct anonymous surveys about sexual assault cases, adopt anti-assault policies that have been considered successful at other universities and to better ensure that the reports of such crimes remain confidential.”

Another White House initiative is Not Alone: Together Against Sexual Assault, a website that contains information about resources on how to prevent and respond to sexual assault on college campuses.

In launching the It’s On Us public awareness campaign to help prevent campus sexual assault, the White House cited bystander education and training as a means to encourage others to intervene effectively to prevent campus sexual violence.

Such training is noted in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that said only “two programs have rigorous evidence of effectiveness for preventing sexual violence: Safe Dates and Shifting Boundaries. Both intervention programs were developed with middle/high school students but may provide useful models for the development of college prevention strategies.”

Americans may be able to learn from a Canadian study published in The New England Journal of Medicine about a program that taught first-year female college students ways to avoid rape, a rare success against the problem, researchers said.

“It’s an important, rigorous study that shows that resistance and self-defense training needs to be part of college sexual assault prevention,” Sarah E. Ullman, a professor of criminology, law and justice at the University of Illinois, and who had no role in the study, told The New York Times.

In a comment about the study, described as one of the few to “document a sustained effect of a rape-intervention program,” it was observed that “the onus of sexual violence prevention on college campuses cannot rest entirely with potential victims; we need interventions directed at men to prevent coercive behaviors and actions.”

Schools: Georgia State University