Last week, I published an op-ed in US News & World Report that touched on rape culture activism and sexual assault policies on campuses. My argument was simple: 1) the statistics used to bolster the claim that campus rape is an “epidemic” are untrustworthy; and 2) allowing these activists to have unchecked influence will further compromise the rights of the accused. As a graduate of Duke University, where several lacrosse players were falsely accused, I am keenly aware of what can go wrong when zealotry prevails.
The response from readers, including several scholars and researchers, was overwhelmingly positive. The notable exception was Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel. In an article entitled “‘Rape Culture’ is just Drunk College Sluts Lying, says Major Magazine,” she accused me of attacking rape victims. Never mind that I never implied that any victims of rape lied (with the exception of a case in North Dakota, in which I reported that the police determined an accuser had filed a false report) and said not a word about alcohol. As I read Ryan’s screed, it occurred to me that she might be talking about some other article. The fact that she referred to me by the wrong last name added to the confusion—an error they later fixed without any indication of a correction. Fervent Jezebel readers, many relying on Ryan’s caricature, proceeded to bombard me with insults, calling me a “rape-denying harpy,” “disgustingly anti-woman,” and a “small-town bigot”—among many other choice epithets.
There’s so much wrong with Ryan’s rant, it’s hard to know where to begin. I’ll start with the research.
The “1 in 5 college women will be raped” claim has been repeated so many times, it has become a dogma to sexual assault activists. Activists cling to this statistic and build movements around it despite the fact that it has been discredited many times. As far back as the early 1990s, scholars and journalists showed that the advocacy research surrounding campus sexual assault was methodologically flawed. It is beyond the scope of my op-ed to delve into all of the flawed research, but for more in-depth explanation, see here, here, and here. (And if you are going to contest my analysis, please read these links.)
Because of the serious flaws in the advocacy research, Department of Justice estimates are the best and perhaps only reliable source for assessing the prevalence of sexual assault. Ryan criticizes my use of the “Violent Victimization of College Students” report because she says that most victims she knows don’t describe their attacks as “violent.” Apparently, she got confused by the report’s title and failed to actually look at it. The report in fact specifies that sexual assaults “may or may not involve force” (emphasis added). The BJS’s definition includes “attacks or attempted attacks generally involving unwanted sexual contact between victim and offender,” including “verbal threats.” As I explain, this comprehensive survey of sexual assault occurrences on college campuses (mandated by the Violence Against Women Act, no less) puts the rate at one victimization per forty women. That is still a tragedy to be sure, but it’s a far cry from the “1 in 5” mantra.