Skewed Response to Critique of Campus Rape Expert

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I recently published an article dismantling putative campus sexual assault expert David Lisak’s contention that 90 percent of campus rapes are committed by psychopathic serial predators. I showed that none of the research for this claim—data collected, as it turned out, not by Lisak but by his students while working on their dissertations, some of it more than two decades old—had anything to do with campus sexual assault.  In fact, the paper in which he made this claim included not a single reference to student violence.  Even the nature of the assaults as “serial” was undermined when Lisak admitted during a telephone interview with me that “a number” of the incidents reported were domestic violence; that is, abusive, not predatory.  His descriptions of targeted victims and meticulous planning were based, he’d said, on interviews he’d done. When I asked how he had interviewed men completing anonymous surveys for his graduate students, he refused to answer any more questions. 

I thought my critique of Lisak’s work, cited by policymakers at the state and federal level as proof of a rape epidemic, might give pause to the higher education community.  I hoped that belief in David Lisak’s monstrous predator would be reconsidered. 

When the article was published, I did hear from many people happy to see a light shone on such a flawed theory. Within 48 hours of the article’s publication, I had been a guest on four radio shows whose conservative hosts were thoughtfully appreciative of the work. Most of the subsequent coverage was through conservative media, virtually all of it positive. 

I found myself waiting for the other shoe to drop. I had certainly expected to hear from detractors. Lisak maintains a high profile as a campus rape expert and, by pointing a finger at a “cause” with a “solution,” he had given college campuses an anchor around which to develop sexual assault programs, a godsend considering the pressure campuses are under to address the issue. (The irony that the pressure is in large part due to Lisak’s influence with policymakers is an issue unto itself.) He has also generated near acolyte behavior among his followers, and I had prepared myself for accusations about my motivation or about the harm I was somehow inflicting. 

I am still waiting. To date, I have heard from no one, and read nothing, defending Lisak or claiming harm to campus efforts to curb sexual violence because I had dared to call out this foundation of prevention efforts. Perhaps the article never made it onto the radar of people so inclined. Perhaps they didn’t consider my critique or Robby Soave’s revealing conversation with Lisak’s former student, Jim Hopper, important. Or credible. Or relevant. 

Or perhaps the fact that the media response has come from one end of the ideological spectrum has revealed this a political issue. 

On that, let me be clear. I personally use neither “conservative” nor “liberal” pejoratively; to me, they are simply convenient labels for the way perspectives on complex issues tend to cluster. I am nearly pathologically objective on matters of research protocol, statistical analysis, and the logic driving conclusions.  I have no agenda, no ulterior motive. Lisak’s claims about campus serial predators are simply not credible. 

Further, questioning research that has driven federal policy and spawned countless campus programs is not the equivalent of questioning the issue of campus violence itself. That David Lisak’s assured statements have been assumed to be correct is even understandable when he is continuously presented as the nation’s expert on campus sexual assault.  When evidence is presented that contradicts that carefully cultivated status,  it can be jarring to pause, reconsider, and reevaluate what campuses have done in response to his presumed expertise. 

But dismissing a critique of any research as politically motivated—if indeed that is what is happening—carries with it long-term consequences.  In the case of campus sexual assault, both the safety of our students and the principle of due process are at risk.  All ideological perspectives should weigh in on those points. 

I’d been prepared for detractors when my article was published.  The silence has been worse.  To those inclined to be dismissive of anyone questioning the form or degree of campus violence, I note only this:  When we are skeptical of mythical monsters, we clear the way for informed action.

Linda LeFauve is associate vice president for planning and institutional research at Davidson College and a contributor to Reason.

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