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New study finds that one in 10 male college students have committed rape

In 2002, a ground-breaking study found that the majority (63 percent) of campus rapists were serial offenders, with each repeat perpetrator committing six rapes on average. David Lisak’s finding has remained a major talking point among lawmakers, reporters, and activists ever since. Nine in 10 rapes are perpetrated by repeat offenders. If we can only catch those criminals and incarcerate them, we’ll dramatically reduce violence in our communities.

This week, a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics challenged Lisak’s conclusion that most college rapists are repeat perpetrators. The study found that of the men who reported committing rape, only some 25 percent said they had done so  over multiple years — in comparison with Lisak’s 63 percent. It also found that 10.8 percent of male college students — or more than one in 10 — reported having committed rape, in contrast with only 6 percent in Lisak’s study.

Of course, there are limitations to the new study: it was conducted at two universities in the southeast, the vast majority of participants were white, and the sample size was small. And while the study suggests that perpetration patterns over time in an individual’s life aren’t as straightforward as Lisak’s findings suggested, it tells us little about perpetration patterns in a given year. As RTI International research sociologist Christine Lindquist explains,

I definitely think that this study helps contribute to our understanding of the consistency of rape behavior among men from one year to the next. But not necessarily whether a small number of men account for the vast majority of rapes on a given campus…. Someone who only committed rape during his freshman year (but not any other years) could have raped 10 people (or one person 10 times) and still not be identified in the ‘increasing’ trajectory.

But the study should certainly give us pause, particularly as legislators across the country ponder potential legislation that would dramatically expand the criminal justice system’s response to campus rape, all in the name of locking up offenders. As one of the study’s authors, Kevin Swartout, explains,

There’s an assumption that if we can stop one particular group of serial rapists, that will solve the problem of campus sexual assault…. Our findings aren’t in line with that strategy. We found that there are multiple, distinct groups of men who are perpetrating sexual assault on campus.

I’ve seen some feminist pushback on the new study, some defensiveness of Lisak’s old findings. And I get it, I think. Lisak’s research made the problem of sexual violence seem smaller, more contained, and the potential solutions simpler and more straightforward. It backed up a whole host of talking points: Rape is committed by violent repeat offenders. It’s not the result of confusion or misunderstanding. Only a small fraction of men are perpetrators.

Lisak’s finding appealed to the criminal justice-minded, suggesting that if we only separate the bad guys from the good, we’ll all be safe. And it allowed us to believe (foolishly, understandably, desperately) that it is in fact possible to separate the bad from the good. It individualized the problem — it’s just a few bad apples! — erasing its rootedness in a culture that normalizes and excuses violence, glorifies celebrity rapists, and criminalizes survivors. And, in so doing, it allowed us to let everyone who wasn’t Lisak’s rapist off the hook.

“That vision,” Alexandra wrote, “depends on an assumption that violence is a discrete patch on our community, the outline already visible and perforated: if we just push gently, it will pop out of our lives like a paper doll from cardboard. That’s a comforting idea for those who lack power (change is possible!) and those who hold it (but not that much change is needed!).”

But perpetrators aren’t distinct and separate from our communities. And we can’t — and shouldn’t — lock up 11 percent of the male population in some comforting but naive attempt to isolate “the real criminals” from the rest of us. Ending violence will require nothing short of radical cultural transformation, everything from comprehensive sex ed for middle schoolers to the repeal of laws criminalizing survivors of color. Ending violence will require disruption of the status quo and, as Alexandra writes, “though all men can help, most won’t want to.”

Header image credit: Columbia Spectator

New Haven, CT

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and the co-founder of Know Your IX, the national youth-led organization working to end gender violence in schools. She's testified before Congress on Title IX policy and legislative reform, and her writing has appeared in a number of outlets, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. She's also a student at Yale Law School, and you can find her on Twitter at @danabolger.

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and a student at Yale Law School.

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