Stuart Taylor and I have a jointly authored piece debunking the Washington Post series on campus sexual assault. The collection of articles, accompanied by a misleading poll, has also received searing, effective criticism from Ashe Schow in the Washington Examiner, Robby Soave in Reason, and David French in NRO. I recommend each piece.
The series included the work of four reporters, plus a lengthy, mostly cell-phone poll—so the Post clearly devoted an extraordinary amount of resources to this project. The framing of the articles makes clear that the Post has an intense ideological commitment to the administration’s “rape culture” narrative. Beyond the specific critiques mentioned above, four general comments about the Post’s effort.
(1) Mix and match. The Post’s apparent goal was to overwhelm readers with story after story of college students victimized by sexual assault. The series included a page in which 49 “sexual assault survivors tell their stories.” The page was framed with an explanation that “the Post’s policy is not to identify victims of alleged sex crimes.” The “alleged” here is rather odd, since if the crimes were only “alleged,” how did the Post reporters determine their subjects were “sexual assault survivors”?
Not an Attacker, Not a Student
Many of the Post’s stories—if even close to true—were sexual assaults. (That said: the Post almost never spoke to the alleged attacker.) But to get its large number, the Post included alleged assaults that occurred off-campus by non-student perpetrators. It led with a story that doesn’t appear to have been a sexual assault at all, and in which the alleged attacker wasn’t a student at the same college as the alleged victim.
Then there are stories like one from a former student at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. She lived with a man (who she had started dating in high school) for several years. “He would continue to berate me until I gave in,” she recalled. “It was never taught to me, that that was an option, to really say no and mean it.” Post reporters paraphrase her perspective in the following way: “She said she and her boyfriend grew up believing that in a relationship, it is the woman’s job to meet the needs of the man. She believed that if she withheld sex, it would physically harm her boyfriend.”
The Post doesn’t say what percentage of female college students live in off-campus houses with long-term boyfriends, but I would imagine the number is very small. Yet casual readers of the Post series who simply looked at the paper’s display and didn’t individually click each of the 49 stories doubtless would not have expected the UNO former student’s story, and it’s hard to see what possible public policy ramifications of this story could have.
(2) Indifference to prevention. As Robby Soave observed, the Post-Kaiser poll indicated that students considered excessive alcohol use a more serious problem on campus than sexual assault. The vast majority of cases that have attracted public attention since 2011 have involved one or both parties drinking lots of alcohol. Soave has suggested that the best way to deal with this problem is to lower the drinking age to eighteen. (I agree.) Another approach would be for schools to take a BYU-style approach and simply make use of alcohol a disciplinary offense.
No Interest in Rape Prevention
Either way, however, the goal here would be to prevent assault, something to which most activists on this issue appear indifferent. Rather, the goal is to (a) dramatically expand the definition of what constitutes sexual assault, but just for college students; and (b) make it all but impossible for an accused student to defend himself in campus tribunals.
Ironically, the Post series coincided with publication of a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, which showed how training female undergraduates to resist assault had been “successful in decreasing the occurrence of rape, attempted rape, and other forms of victimization among first-year university women.”
This sounds like excellent news—but instead it has been met with outcry by victims’ rights advocates. Here’s Dana Bolger, an Amherst graduate who was a colleague of Amherst accuser AS in the campus victims’ rights movement, dismissing the significance of the study: “As a friend of mine once said, ‘If you’re pushing a woman to change her behavior to ‘prevent’ rape, rather than telling a perpetrator to change his, you’re really saying, ‘Make sure he rapes the other girl.’ There will always be another girl at the bar.”
Prevention, it seems, is not a legitimate goal.
The Most Troubling Finding
(3) Burying the lede. The quartet of Post reporters hyped the dubious 20 percent claim, without providing any context (that is: if 20 percent of college students are sexually assaulted, then colleges have a much higher violent crime rate than the most dangerous cities in the country, something virtually no one actually believes). But the reporters basically ignored the most troubling finding from the poll: whether students found it more unfair that a guilty student got away or an innocent student was falsely punished. By a 49-42 margin, today’s college students—tomorrow’s legislators—found it more unfair that the guilty went free. (This could be called the reverse-Blackstone effect.) Among college women, the margin was 56-36.
The question, actually, was a good one, since there is, at least in a crude way, a connection between enhancing procedural protections for the accused and running the risk that more guilty will go free. In an important editorial from the legal publication XX, which called for the administration to withdraw the “Dear Colleague” letter, the editors noted, “We can all agree that people who commit crimes should be brought to justice. At the same time, most of us share a profound commitment to affording those accused of a crime with certain rights—to know the accusation, to confront the accuser, to cross-examine witnesses and to due process. We know that each of these rights means that an accusation is less likely to result in a conviction. Yet no serious person proposes doing away with those basic rights, solely for the sake of increasing the conviction rate. If a mere accusation is sufficient to mete out punishment, we know how this story ends.”
No serious person might want to do away with these rights, but lots of people on campus do. To the extent that even students believe the principal problem is a need to punish the guilty, expect little interest among undergraduates in protecting due process. And this concern, again, comes amidst a process that already is deeply unfair to accused students.