Sexual assault trigger warning on this post.
Matt Yglesias writes about incidences of sexual assault in college, and a recent NPR story about David Lisak’s extensive research on college rapists. Thomas has also written extensively about this, and I would recommend reading his takes. NPR summarizes Lisak’s findings thusly:
There’s a common assumption about men who commit sexual assault on a college campus: That they made a one-time, bad decision. But psychologist David Lisak says this assumption is wrong —-and dangerously so.
It might seem like it would be hard for a researcher to get these men to admit to something that fits the definition of rape. But Lisak says it’s not. “They are very forthcoming,” he says. “In fact, they are eager to talk about their experiences. They’re quite narcissistic as a group — the offenders — and they view this as an opportunity, essentially, to brag.”
What Lisak found was that students who commit rape on a college campus are pretty much like those rapists in prison. In both groups, many are serial rapists. On college campuses, repeat predators account for 9 out of every 10 rapes.
In other words, the people who insist that on-campus rapes are the result of two people getting drunk and making a bad decision and the woman regretting it in the morning? Those people are wrong.
Unfortunatley, Matt’s take on the issue is… somewhat troubling. I’ll preface this by saying that Matt is a really smart guy and a feminist ally, and I also initially misread his post (I confused his comments about Lake’s quote to be about Lisak’s research) and I made the mistake of reading some of the comment thread, so that’s probably coloring my take a little bit. But I find his take-away from the NPR piece to be a bit lacking.
Here’s what NPR writes, and what Matt posts, about Lisak’s research:
[Lisak] found them by, over a 20-year period, asking some 2,000 men in college questions like this: “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated [on alcohol or drugs] to resist your sexual advances?”
Or: “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used physical force [twisting their arm, holding them down, etc.] if they didn’t cooperate?”
About 1 in 16 men answered “yes” to these or similar questions.
And these dudes who admit to having sex with people against their will? They don’t define what they did as “rape.”
Later in the NPR story:
“It’s very common for them to go out Wednesday through Saturday at a minimum, drink fairly heavily and hook up sexually with people that they may not know particularly well, may have met for the first time that night, or had been introduced through friends, or MySpace or Facebook,” [Peter Lake] says. “So you have a lot of sexual activity, you have alcohol, you have a population that’s sort of an at-risk age, and it’s in some ways, it’s a perfect storm for sex assault issues.”
And here’s what Matt says:
It’s seems incredibly pernicious to me to be running these things together. Lisak’s question specifically posits that the victim “did not want to” have sex, but was “too intoxicated … to resist.” What Lake is talking about conjured up an imagine of a young woman with impaired judgment doing something while drunk that she later regrets. Obviously, that does happen. But it’s quite a different situation from an encounter where even the perpetrator acknowledges that the victim was unwilling.
He updates later by saying:
Let me clarify this, as I don’t think I made my point very clearly. What I’m trying to here is that insofar as we’re talking about rapists who are clearly aware that their victims are unwilling, the effort by Lake to paint this as a situation where “drink[ing] fairly heavily” is the key variable is hugely problematic. A person who’s going to rape women he knows perfectly well don’t want to have sex is engaged in pathological violent behavior and would be a menace even if all alcohol were extirpated from the planet. The booze is incidental.
Well, no, the booze isn’t totally incidental. The booze is what makes the victim more accessible to the rapist. The rapist is seeking out situations where he knows he can find targets who will be less able to defend themselves. It’s like muggers who rob old ladies — the age of the old ladies isn’t incidental. Matt is right that a rapist is pathological with or without booze, and would be a menace even without alcohol. But it is important to recognize that some rapists do purposely use drugs to incapacitate their victims.
Matt also says that “What Lake is talking about conjured up an imagine of a young woman with impaired judgment doing something while drunk that she later regrets.” Now, he’s talking about that final quote about people going out drinking and whatnot — he isn’t talking about the Lisak study. But that line about how young women go out and get drunk and then regret their choices later? That is used all the time both to justify sexual assault and to warn women of the dangers of leaving the house to socialize. So if Matt is wondering why his feminist readers are a little salty at this post, that might be why.
That said, I do think Matt makes a good point that it is dangerous to conflate so-called “hook-up culture” and college drinking with rape. As Lisak’s research bears out, dudes who commit rape do it on purpose. These aren’t one-time misunderstandings or miscommunications or next-day regrets. These are men who know that the person they’re with either does not want to have sex or cannot possibly consent to having sex, and they have sex with that person anyway, explicitly against that person’s wishes. They know they are doing harm. They get off on doing harm. The Lake quote implies the opposite — that with a bunch of people drinking, it’s a “perfect storm for sexual assault issues,” because alcohol impairs everyone’s judgment and, whoops, now someone is saying something about rape!
It’s tough to discuss the interplay between alcohol and sexual assault, because too often the conversation veers into “drinking will get you raped” territory, with women being warned of all the things they should or shouldn’t do in order to avoid rape. Of course, drinking won’t get you raped — only being in the presence of a rapist will result in rape. At the same time, though, rapists do use certain tools to get to their victims. Often, they exploit trust — if you’re a regular feminist blog reader, you probably know by now that most sexual assaults are committed by people the victim knows. Women are also much more likely to be assaulted in their own home or in the home of someone they know than in a public place — the rapist in the bushes exists, but isn’t nearly as common as the rapist you hung out with a few times.
And college dudes who rape their classmates? A lot of those dudes rely on alcohol. It makes their victims less able to physically resist, and it has the bonus of laying some of the blame on their victims. After all, dudes know that women are treated to Ways To Not Get Raped lectures all the time — don’t go out at night by yourself, don’t walk down a dark alley, don’t drink too much. I don’t have any actual statistics on this, but my bet is that the woman who is raped by the stranger who jumps out of the bushes is more likely to report the rape than the woman who is raped at a party by the dude in her Bio class, especially if she was drinking. Men who rape on campus are repeat offenders in large part because they can get away with it. The discourse around sexual assault assumes that women must take self-protective steps, and if they’re raped anyway then they must have done something wrong. Campus serial rapists rely on that bias.
As Thomas points out, serial rapists also tend to embrace hyper-masculinity and woman-hate. If a dude sounds like he hates women or wants to control them? He’s probably not lying. And dudes on campus use alcohol instead of (or in tandem with) brute force as their tools. Thomas’s thoughts draw an apt conclusion:
Guys with rigid views of gender roles and an axe to grind against women in general are overrepresented among rapists. That won’t come as a surprise to most readers here, I expect. But it is important confirmation. Guys who seem to hate women … do. If they sound like they don’t like or respect women and see women as impediments to be overcome … they’re telling the truth. That’s what they think, and they will abuse if they think they can get away with it.
Lisak doesn’t actually say this, but having read some of his work in depth now, I really think the major difference between the incarcerated and the non-incarcerated rapists are that the former cannot or do not confine themselves to tactics that are low-risk to them. The undetected rapists overwhelmingly use minimal or no force, rely mostly on alcohol and rape their acquaintances. They create situations where the culture will protect them by making excuses for them and questioning or denying their victims. Incarcerated rapists, I think, are just the ones who use the tactics that society is more willing to recognize as rape and less willing to make excuses for.
- New Statistics on Military Rape and Reporting by Cara March 18, 2009
- How Do We Stop Rape? by Jill April 11, 2006
- Charlotte Allen Missed the Memo by Guest Blogger November 1, 2011
- Is she lying about rape? Just check out her pay stub. by Jill October 16, 2007
- Drunk women can consent to sex by Jill March 27, 2007