By Cathy Young
Wednesday's announcement of a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault is the culmination of the Obama Administration's years-long efforts in support for the feminist crusade against campus rape. It is too early to tell what new remedies for sexual assault on campus the task force will propose. So far, however, the initiative relies on the same old approach: wildly inflated numbers, the rhetoric of female victimhood, and complete disregard for any rights that the accused may have.
The report from the White House Council on Women and Girls, "Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action," asserts that one in five female college students are sexually assaulted during their college years, with one 12% of these victims reporting the assault to law enforcement. These figures draw on the Campus Sexual Assault Study, conducted in 2005-2007 at the request of the National Institute for Justice, and a 2007 federally sponsored national study of rape from the National Crime Victims' Research and Treatment Center.
I analyzed the CSA and its numbers nearly three years ago when the administration launched its first initiative to combat campus sexual assault in April 2011, with the "Dear Colleague" letter to college and university presidents from the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. The vast majority of the incidents counted as assault involved what the study termed "incapacitation" by alcohol (or, rarely, drugs). But "incapacitation" is a misleading term, since the question used in the study also measured far lower degrees of intoxication: "Has someone had sexual contact with you when you were unable to provide consent or stop what was happening because you were passed out, drugged, drunk, incapacitated, or asleep?" This wording does not differentiate between someone who is unconscious or barely conscious and someone who is just drunk enough to go along with something he or she wouldn't do when sober. The questions related to sexual assault by physical force--particularly attempted sexual assault--are also worded so ambiguously that they could refer to a clumsy attempt to initiate sex, even if the "attacker" stops at once when rebuffed.
Three quarters of the female students who were classified as victims of sexual assault by incapacitation did not believe they had been raped; even when only incidents involving penetration were counted, nearly two-thirds did not call it rape. Two-thirds did not report the incident to the authorities because they didn't think it was serious enough.
When feminists first began to draw attention to the problem of date rape thirty years ago, they argued that many women don't realize forced sex is rape if it happens in a dating situation. Even if it was true in the early 1980s, it is very unlikely to be true today, in the age of mandatory date rape awareness workshops on college campuses.
Moreover, the government's numbers are wildly at odd with actual crime records. Several years ago, Carnegie Mellon business professor Chad Hermann analyzed the number of sexual assault reported at Pittsburgh's three major campuses (the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon, and Duquesne) and concluded that even if 90 percent of such assaults go unreported, a woman's annual risk of sexual assault at these schools ranges from 1 in 3,700 to 1 in 650. Spread out over four or five years of college attendance, that still adds up to somewhere between 1 in 130 and 1 in in 925. There is little doubt that records from other campuses would yield similar results.
There is no doubt that sexual assault on college campuses--sometimes involving physical aggression, sometimes assaults on genuinely incapacitated women--is a real issue. But the chase for the phantom rape epidemic can only trivialize this issue, redefining sexual assault to include sex under the influence or due to "verbal pressure"--and cast suspicion on male students, believed to have an army of rapists walking among them.
Already, many have expressed concern that excessive zeal in the campus "war on rape" is creating a "presumed guilty" mindset toward accused men. One thing you will not find in either the official White House statement or the council's report is any recognition that protections for victims must be balanced with fairness to the accused, or any acknowledgment of that such concerns legitimately exist. Instead, the focus is exclusively on "survivors." The only mention of false accusations in the report is a passage decrying the "myth" that "many women falsely claim rape." Cited in rebuttal is a 2010 article by University of Massachusetts psychologist David Lisak and his colleagues, which analyzes several studies (and a sample of its own) and concludes that "only 2-10% of reported rapes are false."
Of course, the upper range of that estimate is hardly a trivial rate. But there is another issue, too. Lisak's numbers refer to cases in which a rape allegation is more or less definitively proven to be false. Given how difficult it is to prove a negative, the existence of these confirmed false allegations suggests that a certain percentage of unresolved charges--in which there is no conclusive proof one way or the other--are likely false as well.
The orthodox feminist position, apparently endorsed by the Obama administration, is that unless a charge of rape is clearly demonstrated to be false, it must be true. That is the very definition of "presumed guilty."
Cathy Young, a columnist for Newsday, is a regular contributor to Real Clear Politics and Reason.
(Photo Credit: AP/Politico)