It's Not "Rape Light"

Speaker giving presentation

David Lisak spoke on campus on March 28, the first male keynote speaker for Women's History Month

by Stacey Jones

Misconceptions about campus sexual assault start with erroneous assumptions about date rape.

Myths are persistent things. Perhaps it is because we often believe in them without realizing it. Take, for example, the types of myths surrounding so-called date rape on college campuses: “He was drunk and so was she”; “There was miscommunication between them”; “It was an accident of circumstance”; “He would never do anything like this again”; and “He’s basically a nice guy.”

Lisak speaking

David Lisak, a clinical psychologist and retired faculty from the University of Massachusetts–Boston, has been studying campus sexual assault for more than three decades. What he and others have found is that perpetrators of campus sexual assault are not-so-nice (and mostly) guys who exhibit many of the characteristics of the serial rapists found among prison populations. These men find the most vulnerable victims—typically freshmen women—stalk or “groom” them, and then commit acts of sexual assault that leave their assailants as traumatized as those who have been victimized by strangers. But unlike them, campus sexual assault victims are apt to run into their assailants in residence halls, classrooms, or anywhere on campus.

Lisak, who spoke at Emory on March 28 as the first male keynote speaker for Women’s History Month, says that research has found that the vast majority of campus sexual assaults are committed by a small subset of serial rapists. One study published in 2002 in Violence and Victims identified 120 rapists in a sample of 1,882 college students. “Of the 120, 76 were serial rapists who had each, on average, left 14 victims in their wake,” wrote Lisak. For purposes of comparison, the FBI counts a serial rapist as someone who has committed three acts of rape. “Their collective, grim tally included . . . 439 rapes and attempted rapes, 49 sexual assaults, 277 acts of sexual abuse against children, and 214 acts of battery again intimate partners,” he added.

By committing acts of sexual assault on college campuses, these men “are successfully exploiting a wide seam in the criminal justice system,” Lisak said. That’s because, given the prevalence of drinking that is connected with these acts, those investigating allegations of campus sexual assault are typically left with a “he said, she said” scenario that leaves many of them, including government authorities, reluctant to “ruin someone’s life” over what is often wrongly perceived as a one-time mistake that might have been aided and abetted by excessive drinking.

Assault with a Deadly Weapon

A more likely scenario is that victims are plied with liquor in order to put them in the position of not being able to fend off an attack successfully, or worse, passing out during the commission of one. In his talk at Emory, Lisak showed a video reenactment of an actual interview he had conducted with a college rapist. Lisak got his subjects to speak by using descriptions of acts rather than labeling them, and the men readily talked about their conduct.

Director introducing speaker

Using the man’s own words, the actor portraying him tells how he and his undergraduate accomplices poured many types of liquor into a highly sweetened punch to mask the taste at their many campus parties. It took a young woman a matter of minutes to get highly intoxicated, which is when the man, who had singled her out, took her upstairs and assaulted her. Research has found that the antisocial traits of serial rapists wipe out the link between binge drinking and violence. These men use just enough physical force to get their victims not to resist, said Lisak. In the video, the actor pantomimed the rapist putting his forearm against the woman’s collarbone and windpipe as she struggled to get up, an act that with enough pressure could kill.

“This is a challenge to our schemas,” Lisak said. “We don’t like to think of 'our' people as criminals, and most of our people are not, but that very small number are sex offenders. And once the pattern is established, it tends not to be something that just stops—it tends to go on.”

And that pattern can sometimes be set before they even get onto a college campus or military base. “There’s pretty solid evidence that, for a substantial portion of these individuals, this behavior started in adolescence or earlier—before they came to college,” Lisak said. One study of military recruits found that men who committed rape prior to enlistment were ten times more likely to rape in their first year of service.

Lisak speaking

Colleges can do little to identify those most likely to commit sexual assault on their campuses before they are admitted, Lisak said. However, once campus officials start to see patterns consistent with those of serial sex offenders, they need to expel these students, he said firmly. “He’s got to be out of the community—not just to protect the community but to send a message.”

Colleges and universities should institute “bystander programs” as well, he said, which empower others to step up and help prevent the sexual assault of vulnerable people such as those under the influence of drugs or alcohol or otherwise incapacitated. He likened the effort to changes in drunk-driving laws and new norms such as designated drivers that groups such as Mothers against Drunk Driving brought about in less than a generation.

There is no single college or university that is currently a model for doing all that needs to be done to reduce the prevalence of sexual violence on its campus, Lisak said. However, it only takes one institution to decide that the potential risks of tackling these issues honestly and forthrightly will bring reward, not reproach, in their efforts to make their campuses safe for all students.

Stacey Jones is the associate director for editorial with Emory Creative Group, a member of the Center for Women's Editorial Advisory Board, and a former Transforming Communities Project facilitator.

The federal government has put colleges and universities on notice about the prevalence of sexual assault on their campuses. In April 2011, the US Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter that emphatically stated its belief that sexual assault represents a violation of Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs and activities. The letter went on to state, “The sexual harassment of students, including sexual violence, interferes with students’ right to receive an education free from discrimination and, in the case of sexual violence, is a crime.”

With this year’s renewal of the Violence against Women Act, lawmakers and the White House are clearly paying attention to these types of issues. “There are now clearer indications that this is not an issue that is going away, and the pressure on universities is not going to dissipate but is going to intensify,” said David Lisak, an advocate for victims of sexual violence and abuse. “One of the most important factors driving change is an increase in the number of victims who are willing to come forward to publish their stories on the Internet to tell their communities and the world what their experience has been.”

Lisak said that parents can help as well by holding institutions accountable. “Every college and university has a problem with sexual violence—it exists across the board,” he said. Parents should not hesitate to ask the university they are sending their child to what it is doing “actively, aggressively, and assertively” to prevent sexual violence on its campus.