Is There Really a Rape Culture on Our Campuses?

Many people believe that the nation’s college campuses have become hotbeds of sexual assault. In June, after a student at Stanford University was convicted of rape but given a light sentence, Vice President Joe Biden wrote an open letter to the female victim:

You were failed by a culture on our college campuses where one in five women is sexually assaulted—year after year after year. A culture that promotes passivity. That encourages young men and women on campuses to simply turn a blind eye.

The statistics on college sexual assault haven’t gone down in the past two decades. It’s obscene, and it’s a failure that lies at all our feet.

An American Psychological Association blogger wrote in 2014:

Let’s make something clear right from the start: Rape is caused by rape culture. … Rape culture is so entrenched in our society, and its components so ubiquitous, we may sense that something doesn’t taste right, but be at a loss to pinpoint the problem.

Wendy McElroy will have none of this. She says that the chances of being raped are more like one in a hundred per year for college women (or 4 percent during a student’s four years).

In addition, the prevalence of rape is on the decline, and “rape culture hysteria” is destroying the lives of male students by denying them due process and damaging women by teaching them not to protect themselves.

McElroy has written a book, Rape Culture Hysteria, to make her case.

She contends that “social justice warriors” are creating hysteria about a non-existent rape culture in order to “impose a specific ideology that legally disadvantages one class of people (white males) in order to benefit others.” The rape culture, she says, is a Big Lie (a reference to George Orwell), and a popular delusion (a reference to Charles Mackay’s book Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds).

Well-known in libertarian circles, McElroy considers herself a feminist and respects what she calls “individualist feminism,” which developed out of the anti-slavery movement in the 19th century. Those feminists “championed human rights while insisting that people shoulder responsibility for themselves,” she says. “The current movement is a mockery of itself.”

To puncture the claims that rape is frequent, McElroy presents an exhaustive analysis of available statistics. Four major studies and three minor ones, all produced by federal agencies, have attempted to calculate the prevalence of rapes. The definition of rape varies widely—one of these studies even counts “rape by deception,” or having sex “with someone because he or she lies to you.” And the study techniques range from a review of police statistics to online surveys.

Certainly, there are rapes on campus. The famed 1-in-5 statistic (more precisely, the claim that 19.8 percent of female seniors have been raped during their college years) comes from an online survey conducted at two universities by the National Institute for Justice (part of the Justice Department).

That number combines rape and sexual assault, both completed and attempted; assaults can include just forced kissing or grabbing. (The authors of the study say that figures for rape alone over four years, completed or attempted, would reduce the figure to 14.3 percent or 1 in 7 female students.) McElroy points out that only 42 percent of the surveyed women responded to the survey, even though they were offered a $10 Amazon gift certificate and an iTunes song download.

At the other extreme is the National Crime Victimization Survey, an annual survey by the Bureau of Justice (another arm of the Justice Department). It does not count as rape a situation in which one of the partners is incapacitated by drink or drugs—frequently the case when someone is accused of rape on campus. The survey found in 2013 that the rate of rape or sexual assault was 4.4 per 1,000 female students or less than half a percent in that year (or, estimated over four years, still less than 2 percent).

So, one study includes forced kissing (and has a low survey response), and the other doesn’t include rape when the victim is intoxicated. McElroy calls the findings from these studies “an onslaught of confusion.” But at the very least, she adds, “statements like the one by Vice President Biden are misleading and unnecessarily alarmist.”

Perhaps the most important part of the book is her discussion of the negative impact of rape culture hysteria, as her subtitle, ”Fixing the Damage Done to Men and Women,” suggests.

First, there is the elimination of due process for the accused. Protections for accused men were swept away in 2011 when the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a “Dear Colleague” letter that mandated certain rules when on-campus rape accusations were made.

The biggest change was to instruct schools to use the civil-suit standard in assessing guilt: a person is guilty if the “preponderance of the evidence” leads to that conclusion. This is a much weaker standard than the criminal standard, which requires a judgment of guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The department contends that since an on-campus guilty verdict can at most lead to a student’s expulsion, not incarceration, the easier standard is justified. Yet McElroy observes, “the permanent notation in a student’s records can haunt him for life.”

In addition to affecting the future of men who may be falsely accused, what are the impacts on women? Perhaps the most interesting is that the “rape culture” hysteria discourages women from protecting themselves.

Self-defense “used to be a matter of common sense,” says McElroy. “People avoided walking down alleys at midnight in high-crime areas. They bolted the door behind them at night. They…did not pass out drunk in a stranger’s apartment.” But to bring this up is called victim-blaming. There’s a feeling that a woman should be able to do whatever she wants, including drinking heavily, without fear of assault. If she can’t, it is the fault of the “rape culture.”

McElroy’s book emerges at a time when things may be changing slightly. The Department of Education recently settled a complaint with Wesley College in Delaware for failing to provide a male student due process when he was accused of sexual misconduct. According to Inside Higher Ed, this could be the first out of nearly 200 Title IX investigations to go after a school for failing to provide due process for the accused.

There is also some pushback from faculty. Law school faculty at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania have chastised the Department of Education for misusing Title IX. Says McElroy, “Merely rolling the provision back to the status it enjoyed before the dear colleague letter (pre-2011) would be a sharp turn toward sanity.”

And yes, we could use some sanity on campus.

  • Justice4all

    Excellent review of McElroy’s dynamic book. Rape culture on college campuses is an ideological weapon used against college men to punish them for having sex with a willing but too often inebriated partner. Being drunk and consenting to having sex is not rape, although Uncle Joe certainly believes so. Rape is a heinous act in which someone is either forcibly violated or is incapacitated beyond the point of providing consent. Your average citizen understands that but when you politicalize a crime and then rewrite the rules to deny due process, you get the kind of Orwellian environment that male college students are facing today. Thank you for providing a fair and balanced treatment to this emotionally charged issue.

    • DrOfnothing

      So, your argument is that alcohol doesn’t impair anyone’s judgement and therefore should not be factored into legal assessments of decision-making? That is an unsustainable proposition. Anyone accused of sexual assault can be excused for his actions if his partner was inebriated and offered a mumbled “ok” or simply failed to say “no”? The standard you are setting makes no sense at all from either a legal standpoint or an ethical one. It also ignores the simple fact that most women are generally _reluctant_ to make accusations of sexual assault. Lastly, calling the book “fair and balanced” simply because it accords with your ideological view is hardly a valid assertion.

      • bdavi52

        Not at all.
        That rapists swim in the sea of the general population (including the 22M people who live on college campuses) is not news. According to the FBI, ~ 85K rapes are committed annually. That we, perhaps (since there’s been no trial, no just outcome), find one living in Madison, Wisconsin tells us nothing about the validity of the insane claim that 2.2M women are not raped annually on college campuses.

        And no, the argument is not that alcohol does not impair judgment…the argument rather is that alcohol impairs everybody’s judgment — and the outcome of two drunken people, making drunken decisions, is manytimes drunken & regretted sex. It happens every day.

        That recent rulings seem to absolve the woman of any responsibility (because, gosh, she’s consumed alcohol and can’t be held responsible) and place all that responsibility upon the male (because, gosh, he, too, has consumed alcohol but he’s a male and therefore accountable)…. is just another example of the infantilizing hysteria which has infected our colleges & universities.

        As for the book being fair & balanced — having not read it none of us can say with any degree of certainty — still we can be absolutely confident that any study which challenges the validity of the irrational assertion that 20% of all college women are raped during their college career is eminently more fair & balanced than the screeds it opposes.

  • George Leef

    The “rape culture” claim is just another of those hobgoblins the left uses to scare people into giving them power to “do something” about a mostly imaginary threat. H.L. Mencken understood the m.o. perfectly.

    Rape and sexual assault is pretty rare on campuses, but would be far more rare if we didn’t lure lots of academically unprepared and uninterested kids (men and women both) to college with easy loans and grants and the promise that a college degree is essential to having a good life. So to whatever extent this problem exists, it is mainly due to leftist meddling in the market for education.

    • DrOfnothing

      Sexual assault is somehow the result of loans and grants from the federal government? This is a remarkable conflation of ideology, specious reasoning, and flat-out nonsense. Also, none of these statistics indicate that the threat of rape is an “imaginary” one. Even the low-end stat of 1/100 in any given year, which would make it 1/25 over a four year degree, represents a serious social problem. If you can go to a high school graduation ceremony, look around at the seniors, and tell yourself “it’s not a problem if one out of every 25 of these young girls is raped in college,” you are suffering from a serious lack of moral perspective and, one might even say, basic human decency.

      • Hugo von Hoffmann

        Women of college age are statistically less likely to be raped if they live on campus than are women of the same age who do not live on campus. That fact alone should dispel the myth of campus “rape culture.”

        • DrOfnothing

          No one denies that the US culture has a shockingly high level of rape _outside_ the university environment, and you are right to point this out. University campuses, however, are supposed to be places of relative safety, especially for young women. In that context, even the low end stat of 1/25 over a four-year period represents an unacceptably high number. I see no compelling reason why our society, collectively, should not have a “zero-tolerance” policy for sexual assault in these circumstances.

          • Hugo von Hoffmann

            What would your version of a “zero-tolerance” policy for sexual assault on college campuses look like?

  • whatever69

    How about talking about the alcohol culture on campus and how drinking like a fish isn’t a good idea.

  • bdavi52

    Rape Culture????
    If we wish, truly, to consider a Rape Culture…if we’d like to see what one actually is like….we’d be well served to consider Berlin, Spring of ’45. There, at the end of a bloodbath which consumed 200K lives (22K civilian), 2.5M Soviet troops occupied the defeated city. It was the End Time: no law, no justice, no police, no rules, no authority…and a civilian population exposed, weak, and absolutely vulnerable to an armed & overwhelming enemy which had just witnessed the brutal murder of 26M of their countrymen.

    It is very roughly estimated that over 100K women were raped in that apocalyptic time…perhaps as many as 10K dying in the aftermath. Given the approximate population in the city at that time, we can guesstimate a rape rate as horrendously high as 5%.

    Let me repeat that: estimated to be perhaps has high as 5%.

    The rape rate in the U.S., today, as calculated using current FBI crime stats places the national annual rape rate at .05%.

    Berlin, in the midst of that horrible, unimaginable time experienced a rape rate almost 10,000% higher than what we see here in the U.S. today…. but nowhere, nowhere near the 20% rate which is trumpeted by the Rape Epidemiologists as characteristic of the American College campus.

    Does this extraordinary exaggeration not seem at all insane to those who tear their hair and beat their breast and proclaim from every campus podium all men rapists? Is the lie not incredibly evident?

    The Democratic Republic of the Congo — popularly known as the “most dangerous place on earth to be a woman” and the “rape capital of the world” experiences a rape rate of ~ .9% (1700% higher than the U.S. rate). Still, incredibly, that Congolese rate would have to be expanded by more than 2000% to reach the 20% rate experienced at our Universities.

    Are we truly saying that the most dangerous place on earth NOW to be a woman is the American college quad after a Frat party? And if that were true, why are Mothers & Fathers sending their daughters (as cannon fodder??) to these hotbeds of felony rape in record numbers??

    So no, absolutely not! This is not a rape culture….women are not being raped at a rate which dwarfs both the DRC and Berlin of ’45….American college men are not more demonic than the avenging Red Army. It is not happening; it has not happened; and the sky, Dean Chicken Little, is not falling.

    But the Big Lie has taken hold. And careers are being made. And millions of dollars being spent. And an entire gender criminalized with the shouted accusation: Sexual Assault (meaning, of course, any (ANY!)) unwanted sexual contact.

    What was once funny in the extremity of its hyper over-reaction (see Tom Brady in this SNL skit from ’05: is now simply tragic. We should be ashamed…but that would require that every College Administration admit that they’re wrong…and that’s simply not happening (especially not when the Nightly News is watching).