rape culture

This recent Rolling Stone article about rape at the University of Virginia is pretty upsetting.

It’s just the latest in a string of horror stories over the past year about rape culture, lack of empathy and denial, both generally and on American campuses in particular.  It seems hard to separate the brutality in the frat house, students’ misogynistic ideas about social hierarchy, negligence and mishandling of complaints by campus security, and a sweeping-under-the-rug attitude by PR-minded administrators.  This is a pervasive values problem. As the article notes,

UVA’s emphasis on honor is so pronounced that since 1998, 183 people have been expelled for honor-code violations such as cheating on exams. And yet paradoxically, not a single student at UVA has ever been expelled for sexual assault.

My first response was to try to pin the horror safely on the South.  The data, however, don’t cooperate.

A search for “rape at Princeton”—my alma mater, safely up north and recently ranked #1 in undergraduate education for the nth time by US News and World Report—turns up an official figure of 5 rapes on campus last year.  Maybe that doesn’t sound so bad; it’s lower than the CDC’s estimate of rape incidence in the US overall (about 1/1000 of the population per year).  But how real is this figure?  It seems that the same Title IX investigation now digging into mishandling of sexual violence complaints at UVA is also targeting Princeton, along with more than 50 other American universities.  I’ve put the complete list at the bottom of this post, for the interested.

I don’t know for sure why Princeton is on this list, but a piece in Jezebel from earlier this year might supply a clue.  It describes a rape survey report conducted in 2008, which the University tried to bury, concluding that

One in six female Princeton undergraduates said they experienced “non-consensual vaginal penetration” during their time at the University.

Sounds like rape to me—if narrowly defined.  Assuming four years at college and a student body of 5000 with the genders evenly split, that would amount to over 100 rapes per year.  Could this number have gone down by a factor of 20 between 2008 and 2014?  Really?

Despite decades of lip service, it seems at first glance like nothing much has happened for women’s rights since I went to college in the 90s.  But in the next decade, gender and sexual politics may really—finally—start to change.  Let’s be optimists.  Perhaps the parade of absurdist horror we’ve seen in the past year (more campus rapes, the Bill Cosby scandal, gamergate, Mattel’s Computer Engineer Barbie book, etc., etc.) heralds a shift in the wind, a collective sense that we’ve finally understood as a society that something is very wrong, has been for a long time, and that we’ve had enough.  As The Guardian points out,

[…] it’s no coincidence that anti-feminist backlash happens most often when women’s rights are on an upswing.

Maybe we’re finally getting it.

The Title IX investigation list:

AZ Arizona State University
CA Butte-Glen Community College District
CA Occidental College
CA University of California-Berkeley
CA University of Southern California
CO Regis University
CO University of Colorado at Boulder
CO University of Colorado at Denver
CO University of Denver
CT University of Connecticut
DC Catholic University of America
FL Florida State University
GA Emory University
HI University of Hawaii at Manoa
ID University of Idaho
IL Knox College
IL University of Chicago
IN Indiana University-Bloomington
IN Vincennes University
MA Amherst College
MA Boston University
MA Emerson College
MA Harvard College
MA Harvard University—Law School
MA University of Massachusetts-Amherst
MD Frostburg State University
MI Michigan State University
MI University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
NC Guilford College
NC University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
ND Minot State University
NH Dartmouth College
NJ Princeton University
NY Cuny Hunter College
NY Hobart and William Smith Colleges
NY Sarah Lawrence College
NY Suny at Binghamton
OH Denison University
OH Ohio State University
OH Wittenberg University
OK Oklahoma State University
PA Carnegie Mellon University
PA Franklin and Marshall College
PA Pennsylvania State University
PA Swarthmore College
PA Temple University
TN Vanderbilt University
TX Southern Methodist University
TX The University of Texas-Pan American
VA College of William and Mary
VA University of Virginia
WA Washington State University
WI University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
WV Bethany College
WV West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine
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13 Responses to rape culture

  1. Nat says:

    Women have been known to complain to campus authorities and police of non-consensual sex although they consented at the time, but then change their mind.
    They’ve also been known to complain of rape by guys they were mad at because the guys ignored them or turned them down when they offered their sex. These things have happened even though the complaints had serious consequences.
    You are talking about a survey asking women if they’ve ever had “non-consensual vagi­nal pen­e­tra­tion”. There are no consequences for what they say. I don’t see how you rule out the possibility that 1/6 may report an event of the above types or something else that you might not qualify as rape if the details were more clearly defined, explaining the entire finding.

    • blaise says:

      Nat, firstly, a reasonable brief definition of rape is “a non-consensual sexual act”. Rape statistics and definitions of rape are notoriously hard, but on the definition side one might begin at a site like https://www.rainn.org/get-information/types-of-sexual-assault/was-it-rape. Non-consensual vaginal penetration qualifies as rape according to every official definition in the US, including the one used by the FBI, “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

      Consent, especially when withdrawn at some point, can be a complex thing to parse, and there are surely edge cases. Some people have talked about calling certain edge cases “regrettable sex”, for example, to cover situations in which the woman (typically) wishes it had not happened, but consented at the time. This certainly happens, but I don’t think most reasonable people would answer “yes” to that survey question in this “regrettable sex” case.

      What all of the discussion and agonizing about edge cases masks is the actual proportions. Much play is given to false accusations of rape, for example, and how tragic this is for the poor men who are stigmatized this way. In this study http://mic.com/articles/41583/crying-rape-on-innocent-men-doesn-t-happen-as-often-as-you-might-think in the UK false accusations of rape were found to be <1%. I've seen other attempts to get at these kinds of figures, all in the single digits.

      Much more common, as Sara mentions, are the cases in which women fail to come forward because they fear stigma, fear that their complaint won't be followed up, don't want anyone to know, have internalized shame, etc. There are also ample data about this.

      • Nat says:

        I’m talking about when consent is withdrawn the next morning. Or the next week. Or when she sees him with someone else. Those cases seem to be common on campus these days. There have been several cases in the news. Do you think its rape when consent is withdrawn the next day?

        I’ve seen studies that show that 40% of rape claims were later retracted, but again, those were actual complaints made to the police. And of the 60% that were not retracted, presumably a decent fraction may yet have been false.

        I don’t think you have any rational expectation that college women responding to sex surveys are reasonable people by your apparent expectations of same.

        And here you are talking about a survey of the population, not women coming forward. (Or worse, was this a self-selected survey?)
        I fully believe the results of this may be consistent with 0 real rapes. Or maybe not, but I don’t think you have rational basis to assert otherwise.

        • blaise says:

          Perhaps against better judgment, I’ll bite.

          Wikipedia’s http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_accusation_of_rape page has a synopsis of the US findings on this topic, with primary sources referenced. I’ll quote, “Studies have found that police typically classify between 1.5 and 8% of rape accusations as unfounded, unproven or false, however researchers say those determinations are often dubious. The “conventional scholarly wisdom,” according to American law professor Michelle J. Anderson, is that two percent of rape complaints made to the police are false. The United States Justice Department agrees, saying false accusations “are estimated to occur at the low rate of two percent — similar to the rate of false accusations for other violent crimes.” However, others say eight percent or more of rape accusations are false, and as a scientific matter the answer remains unknown.”

          Further, when an anonymous survey finds a much higher incidence of something stigmatized than one finds in official reports involving the stigmatized parties “coming forward”– and especially when there are reasons to believe that complaints are getting brushed under the rug and underreported (per the Title IX investigation, and reports like Rolling Stone’s, and others like it)– then I think Occam’s Razor suggests taking a hard look at the official report. Neither of us know what the real number of rapes every year at Princeton is, but my money would be where Sara’s is– “likely to be closer to 100 than to 5”.

          Now, your own webpage, http://whyarethingsthisway.com/about/ (which does not include your real name) claims that you’re a very data-driven positivist sort of guy. Explicitly, “Please don’t believe anything I say unless I demonstrate it logically and with citations to your satisfaction […]”. So far you have cited no sources, and the numbers you quote seem at variance with the published data, so we’ll bear your advice in mind.

          • Nat says:

            The Wikipedia article you read reviews Kanin, which is a peer reviewed study that actually looked at police reports and found 40% were retracted. And as I said, more may have been false.

            The fact that the majority of researchers take the politically correct view that this is wrong does not prove it wrong, or even necessarily suggest its more likely to be wrong than right. Its my experience that when a small group of dissenters are presenting data and arguing logically, its far more likely they are correct if you take the time to examine the actual science (which I haven’t done in the case of rape) than the majority. That’s happened for almost every science issue I’ve actually looked into, and I think there is a neglected literature that discusses why and how this happens so consistently. http://whyarethingsthisway.com/2014/03/22/why-are-the-pediatricians-so-confused-about-the-actual-state-of-the-scientific-literature/

            Maybe its not happening for rape, but my guess is it is.
            Its also my impression that pretty much every high visibility rape case in my lifetime, from Kennedy kids to Tyson to Kobe (maybe not Willies, that seemed credible at the time given his Oxford history) to Tawana Brawley to the Duke Lacrosse team etc. etc. has been either found not guilty by a unanimous verdict, or the charges were dropped and seemed far more likely false than true, or the critical evidence was withheld from the trial because of laws preventing reasonable due process. In the case of Tyson for example, the woman had previously gone to a hotel room with another rich guy and later accused him of rape while there. IMO its a travesty of justice that the jury didn’t hear this history.

            For the specific case of college rape, there have been multiple news articles lately about guys deprived of due process by colleges who are suing, and in many of these cases the woman withdrew consent after the fact or the like. Virtually all the college cases I’ve read about have been travesties where the woman was accusing a guy because she later changed her mind. Now I’ve been reading about them only when the guy sues the University for no due process, so maybe these aren’t representative, but maybe they are.


          • Nat says:

            In fact, the Wikipedia article you refer to, seems on cursory examination like a good case study of Politically correct BS being substituted for actual science.
            Almost all the studies really say that women are rarely charged for false rape allegations. That is true and a scandal in its own right, but what does it have to do with the question of whether they make them?
            Most of the studies are based on recent surveys of the British Police. The British police have now become so politically correct, that during the entire period these investigators were asking them if women lie about rape, facilitating the rape of young white British women by Pakistani immigrants.
            Kanin seems like much the best data. He found actual data that in at least one town that investigated all the allegations of rape, what they actually found was 41% of them were later retracted by the women, who stated they were false and the facts were actually as the men had said. If that actually happened in one town, it is at least a strong existence proof that in some cultures women lie an awful lot about rape.
            Even when there are consequences for the guy,
            although in these 41% of the cases the women weren’t charged either. Women are very rarely charged for false rape allegations.

            And note, you are defending a survey, in which 1/6 of the women could be reporting more or less a fantasy of this type, with no consequences whatsoever. (And what was the response ratio of the survey? Maybe the women with a fantasy grudge are more likely to respond.)

          • blaise says:

            Anyone truly interested should go and read the Wikipedia article and the have a quick look at the sources, which (good old Wikipedia) include both a number of careful studies with fairly consistent conclusions (2%-8%, with some notable caveats on the high end about the difference between ‘false’ and ‘unsubstantiated’) and a few dissenting opinions over the years, of which Kanin is the most recent, though the article notes some problems with his methodology. By “the best data” I think you mean the only high percentage that even pretended to be science. I understand your contrarian bias toward the intellectual underdog; I guess this is the same impulse that has led you, per your website, to be a climate change denier and an anti-vaccine advocate.

            Again, false accusations of rape are a serious issue. Slate addresses it intelligently here, with attention to both false positive and false negative cases– http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2014/09/false_rape_accusations_why_must_be_pretend_they_never_happen.html
            in the context of the false accusation of Conor Oberst. “False rape accusations are a lightning rod for a variety of reasons. Rape is a repugnant crime—- and one for which the evidence often relies on one person’s word against another’s. Moreover, in the not-so-distant past, the belief that women routinely make up rape charges often led to appalling treatment of victims. However, in challenging what author and law professor Susan Estrich has called “the myth of the lying woman,” feminists have been creating their own counter-myth: that of the woman who never lies.” Newsflash– being of one gender or another makes you neither automatically a saint nor a sinner.

            I’d like to reemphasize that these considerations would be more salient if the official and survey numbers differed by, say, 30%, versus 2000%. Even if Kanin’s ~50% figure were correct (which is dubious), and the 5 rapes on campus were “convictions” with another 5 false accusations, there would be a huge underreporting and due process problem here.

            Also, your conflation of false accusation (which according to the Kanin ’94 paper you like can be motivated by alibi, revenge, or sympathy-seeking, none of which would apply in a survey) with rape fantasies (which are only related to the current topic via Freudian ideas about hysteria, formation of false memories, and other misogynistic nonsense from the early 20th century) is frankly disturbing.

            Lewis’s Law of social media: “Comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.”

  2. Sara A Solla says:

    I agree with your estimate that the number of rapes per year at Princeton is likely to be closer to 100 than to 5. As anybody who has ever volunteered in a women’s clinic can say, a large fraction of sexual assault incidents go unreported. Women fear the stigma of being identified as a rape victim, they do not trust that they will be heard and believed, they do not feel entitled to justice. This frame of mind is reinforced by the avoidance games that untrained and unsupportive school administrators are likely to indulge in. This being said, the degree of violence reported in the Rolling Stones article was so revolting that I had to put it aside for a while more than once before I could go on reading. How can such criminal matters be in the hands of university administrators? How can the soon to occur graduation of the perpetrator be a deterrence to prosecution? If the male student involved had been accused of aggravated assault, would an apparently concerned dean suggest to put all this to rest, as he will soon be leaving the school? Rape is not about sex, rape is about violence. Universities are not qualified to deal with violent crime. There can be no deliberation: the police has to be called, external authorities have to take charge, crimes have to be prosecuted. Attempts at dealing with this problem through internal procedures smell of cover up – a modus operandi that offends me as a woman and as a member of the academic community.

  3. Nat says:

    If you want a real rape culture, examine the multi-culties in Britain who in just one town facilitated the rapes of thousands of girls by Paki gangs. There were many dozens or hundreds of Dads who came to try to save their daughters from being kept in slavery and gang raped, but were prevented or arrested by police.
    And that’s one town. Presumably ongoing in other towns.

  4. Iwona says:

    The only way to tackle issues like this is using a scientific approach, otherwise you just end up with endless discussions leading nowhere (exchange above case in point). But this recent article makes me hopeful that we are heading in the right direction in this respect: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/economic-theory-can-help-stop-sexual-assault/.

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