It’s back: the “campus rape crisis.” The latest all-hands-on-deck alarm comes from the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), a nonprofit foundation based in Washington and specializing in what it describes as “investigative journalism about issues of public interest,” which teamed up with the investigative unit of National Public Radio (NPR) to issue a report in late February pointing out—yet again–that “roughly one in five women who attend college” can expect to be a victim of rape or attempted rape by the time she graduates.
This extraordinarily high number, which translates into about 240,000 out of the 6 million or so women enrolled in four-year colleges during any given year, has been knocking around since 1987 (as Heather Mac Donald pointed out in a 2008 article for City Journal), when a University of Arizona Health professor, Mary Koss, first published a version of the statistic that was picked up in a Department of Justice study filed during the waning months of the Clinton administration. In other words, as KC Johnson pointed out in a post for Minding the Campus this past December, the average college campus is supposedly 45 times as dangerous for women as the city of Detroit, the highest-crime city in America, where the rape rate is only .06 percent.
Another problem with the CPI-NPR numbers: No police department or local prosecutor’s office has reported a two-decade-long epidemic of rapes or attempted rapes on nearby college campuses. The rape-crisis people’s explanation for this is simple: The vast majority of rapes and attempted rapes at colleges are never reported even to campus authorities, much less law enforcement—because the victims themselves are unaware that what happened to them was rape. The Justice Department’s 2000 report maintained that 65 percent of college women who suffered sexual assault remain silent, a figure that the CPI inflated to “more than 95 percent” in its report. The CPI—and NPR—attributed the low reporting rates to the “failure” (as NPR writer Joseph Shapiro wrote) of schools and the U.S. Education Department to take significant steps to prevent, ferret out, or punish campus rape.
Neither NPR nor the CPI explored an alternative explanation for the huge disparity between reported incidences of campus sexual assault and the huge number of such assaults that Mary Koss and the Justice Department insist exist: That the vast majority of the unpleasant campus sexual encounters aren’t really rape at all, or at least could never be proved as such in a court of law. The dictionary (and statutory) definition of rape is sexual intercourse by force or fear (the definition also includes sex with minors and others deemed legally incapable of giving consent). The law takes rape seriously. Because of the physical and emotional trauma that rape usually inflicts, it is regarded as one of the gravest of felonies. Until recently convicted rapists could be sentenced to death. Although in former times the police and legal system were said to have been insensitive to rape victims, laws and procedures have changed drastically over the past few decades, and police and prosecutors are trained to collect physical evidence efficiently and treat alleged victims professionally (female officers predominate in rape detail). The logical and natural response to an incidence of rape, whether on or off a college campus, is to call the police promptly.
Most of what is supposed to be campus rape is something far more murky, however, and can be better defined as sex between students accompanied by large quantities of alcohol, preliminary consensual physical contact, or both. The result is typically an ambiguous “he said, she said” event that no prosecutor would want to touch because few juries would vote for conviction.
Typical is the sad case of Laura Dunn, poster child of Shapiro’s NPR report. Dunn said she was raped in 2004 by two male fellow students whom she said she knew and trusted while the three were en route between parties toward the end of her freshman year at the University of Wisconsin. Dunn “was drinking so many raspberry vodkas that they cut her off” at the first frat-house party that night, and she told Shapiro that the two young men later “raped her as she passed in and out of consciousness.” Dunn had been a virgin and nearly engaged to a longtime boyfriend. After the incident she lost sleep and broke up with her boyfriend, but she never reported the incident to anyone for a full 15 months, when, inspired by a feminist professor, she contacted the dean of students. By then one of the young men had graduated, and the other maintained that the sex had been consensual. After a nine-month investigation the university decided that no punishment was warranted. So Dunn filed a complaint against the university under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, which forbids discrimination in higher education on the basis of gender (she maintained that the university had forced her to endure sexual harassment by allowing her alleged assailant to remain on campus with her). The department ruled in 2008, two years after Dunn’s graduation, that the university had acted properly, and the department assessed no penalty.
So—was Laura Dunn raped? Perhaps she was—but perhaps she wasn’t. What sort of sanctions could the university have been expected to levy against a young man who maintained his innocence in a situation where, because of the passage of time, witnesses were long gone, and alcohol consumption had interfered with everyone’s perceptions and memories? Certainly his conduct and that of his friend was un-chivalrous at the very least. Too bad there was no one to tell them that a gentleman does not take advantage of an inebriated lady; he takes her back to her dorm room. And it’s equally too bad that no one told the 19-year-old (or thereabouts) Laura Dunn that vodka is 80 proof and that it’s not a good idea to go off to an after party with two guys, neither of whom is your boyfriend, when you’ve already drunk yourself silly at the first party. Dunn likely, and understandably, fumed with rage at the men who had involved her in multiple-partner sex before she ever had sex with the young man she loved, but was there any real miscarriage of justice in the university’s decision not to discipline the remaining student-perpetrator in the absence of evidence of duress or genuine lack of consent?
The “campus rape crisis” is really a breakdown of manners and mores, not a breakdown in the justice system that has suddenly given young men free rein to rape and pillage just because they have enrolled in college. What the rape-crisis people want to do is to redefine rape for purposes of campus disciplinary proceedings so that it can include acts that could never be proved to be rape in the official legal system. At the same time, the rape-crisis people want to clothe those ambiguous acts in all the moral opprobrium of actual rape, with sanctions to be levied against the offenders accordingly. The CPI and NPR reporters took umbrage at the “secrecy” surrounding many on-campus disciplinary proceedings in sexual-assault cases, paying no mind to the fact that such proceedings lack the procedural protections of court trials (such as attorneys, high evidentiary standards, and often even the right to confront one’s accuser) while maintaining the potential to destroy the reputations and professional futures of those accused. Indeed, with the aim of securing more stiffer sanctions against male students, a Justice Department-sponsored report of 2005 advocated the “anonymous reporting” of alleged sexual assaults—which would mean that an accused student-rapist could find it almost impossible to prepare a defense. Other rape-crisis people want the Education Department to exact heavier monetary penalties against colleges deemed not sufficiently aggressive in disciplining alleged rapists (or reporting more sexual assaults under the federal Clery Act), as an incentive for the institutions to relax evidentiary standards and secure more expulsions and other sanctions.
The one thing that the rape-crisis people do not want to do is to discourage unrestricted liquor-fueled sexual activity on the part of college students, especially females. That would be prudish and patriarchal. In a Sept. 9 article for the online American Prospect, Jaclyn Friedman, co-editor of the anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape (2008), argued that colleges should stop (as if they ever started!) “telling girls to mind their liquor so they don’t ‘get themselves’ raped.'” Any hints that female students might want to dress more modestly, avoid drinking to excess, and not stay out too late was anathema to Friedman. She instead advocated placing all the burden on male students of determining when consent to sex is “freely and enthusiastically given”—and woe to the young man who misgauges his partner’s enthusiasm. And just to make that burden heavier—and to absolve young women of all moral responsibility for their actions—let’s define rape down even further.