Politics & Policy

The Rape Epidemic Is a Fiction

Sexual assaults today are a third of what they were twenty years ago.

Rape is a vicious crime, one that disproportionately affects poor women and incarcerated men, but Barack Obama knows his voters, and so his recent remarks on the subject were focused not on penitentiaries, broken families, or Indian reservations but on college campuses, where the despicable crime is bound up in a broader feminist  Kulturkampf only tangentially related to the very real problem of sexual violence against women.

The subject is a maddening one. President Obama repeated the endlessly reiterated but thoroughly debunked claim that one in five women will be sexually assaulted in her college years. The actual rate is . . . sort of an interesting problem, the information being so inconsistent and contradictory that one almost suspects that it is so by design.

President Obama, who gives every indication of being committed to the bitter end to his belief in the omnipotence of his merest utterance, gave a speech in which he affirmed his position that rape is wicked and that we should discourage it. Instead of giving a content-free speech, he should have directed his Department of Justice to put together some definitive data on the question.

Much of the scholarly literature estimates that the actual rate is more like a tenth of that one-in-five rate, 2.16 percent, or 21.6 per 1,000 to use the conventional formulation. But that number is problematic, too, as are most of the numbers related to sexual assault, as the National Institute of Justice, the DoJ’s research arm, documents. For example, two surveys conducted practically in tandem produced victimization rates of 0.16 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively – i.e., the latter estimate was eleven times the former. The NIJ blames defective wording on survey questions.

This is a matter of concern because a comparison between the NIJ’s estimates of college-campus rape and the estimates of rape in the general population compiled by the DoJ’s National Crime Victimization Survey implies that the rate of rape among college students is more than ten times that of the general population.

It is not impossible that this is the case, but there is significant cause for skepticism. For example, in the general population college-age women have significantly lower rates of sexual assault than do girls twelve to seventeen, while a fifth of all rape victims are younger than twelve. Most of the familiar demographic trends in violent crime are reflected in the rape statistics: Poor women are sexually assaulted at twice the rate of women in households earning $50,000 a year or more; African American women are victimized at higher rates than are white women, while Native American women are assaulted at twice the rate of white women; divorced and never-married women are assaulted at seven times the rate of married women; women in urban communities are assaulted at higher rates than those in the suburbs, and those in rural areas are assaulted at dramatically higher rates. But there is at least one significant departure from the usual trends in violent crime: Only about 9 percent of those raped are men.

It is probably the case that the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses is wildly exaggerated—not necessarily in absolute terms, but relative to the rate of sexual assault among college-aged women with similar demographic characteristics who are not attending institutions of higher learning. The DoJ hints at this in its criticism of survey questions, some of which define “sexual assault” so loosely as to include actions that “are not criminal.” This might explain why so many women who answer survey questions in a way consistent with their being counted victims of sexual assault frequently display such a blasé attitude toward the events in question and so rarely report them. As the DoJ study puts it: “The most commonly reported response — offered by more than half the students — was that they did not think the incident was serious enough to report. More than 35 percent said they did not report the incident because they were unclear as to whether a crime was committed or that harm was intended.”

If you are having a little trouble getting your head around a definition of “sexual assault” so liberal that it includes everything from forcible rape at gunpoint to acts that not only fail to constitute crimes under the law but leave the victims “unclear as to whether harm was intended,” then you are, unlike much of our culture, still sane.

Of all the statistics and evidence that are prevalent in the discussion of sexual assault, there is one datum conspicuous in its absence: the fact that sexual assault has been cut by nearly two-thirds since 1995. Under the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ apples-to-apples year-over-year comparison, sexual assault has declined 64 percent since the Clinton years. That is excellent news, indeed, but it does not feed the rape-epidemic narrative, and so it must be set aside.

#page#The fictitious rape epidemic is necessary to support the fiction of “rape culture,” by which feminists mean anything other than an actual rape culture, for example the culture of the Pakistani immigrant community in Rotherham in the United Kingdom. “Rape culture” simply means speech or thought that feminists disapprove of and wish to suppress, and the concept has been deployed in the cause of, inter alia, bringing disciplinary action against a Harvard student who wrote a satire of feminist rhetoric, forbidding politically unpopular speakers from speaking on campuses, and encouraging what often has turned out to be headlong and grotesquely unjust rushes to judgment, as in the case of the Duke lacrosse team. Feminism is about political power, and not the Susan B. Anthony (“positively voted the Republican ticket — straight”) full-citizenship model of political power but rather one dominated by a very small band of narrow ideologues still operating under the daft influence of such theorists as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, each of whom in her way equated political opposition to feminism with rape.

This has some worrisome practical results, not the least of which is muddying the water on the issue of sexual assault itself. For example, feminists energetically protest that advising women to take such precautionary measures as moderating their alcohol intake at college parties is a species of rape-culture victim-blaming (rather than reasonable advice), and so it is no surprise that, as the DoJ notes, many surveys inquire of rape victims whether they believed their attackers to have been under the influence of drugs or alcohol but decline to ask the victims whether they were under the influence. Evidence very strongly suggests that rapists frequently use intoxicants, openly or surreptitiously, as part of a strategy conceived with malice aforethought to render their victims vulnerable. It might be useful to know how often this is the case and how often it works or fails to work, but we will not know if we refuse to ask the question.

Our policy debates are dominated by relatively narrow-minded and self-interested elites, and so it is natural that our discussion of sexual assault focuses on what might be happening at Villanova University rather than what’s happening on Riker’s Island or on Ojibwe reservations. But the way we talk about rape suggests that we do not much care about the facts of the case. If understanding and preventing rape were our motive, we’d know whether the victimization rate was x or 11x, and whether elite college campuses are in fact rather than in rhetoric more dangerous than crime-ridden ghettos and isolated villages in Alaska, a state in which the rate of rape is three times the national average. We’d never accept that the National Bureau of Economic Research  didn’t know whether the inflation rate were 1.6 percent or 17 percent. We’d give the issue properly rigorous consideration.

But if your interest were in making opposition to feminist political priorities a quasi-criminal offense and using the horrific crime of rape as a cultural and political cudgel, then you’d be doing about what we’re doing right now.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.