But this all raises an important question. I think the activists on this issue are mistaken when they say that we’re in the midst of a campus rape crisis. The data just don’t support the notion. And the studies that do have some serious flaws. The results produced by this debate are also troubling: Colleges and universities are essentially pulling an end-around the criminal justice system, adjudicating sexual assault cases on their own, on terms more favorable to the accusing party. The punishment isn’t as severe, but it can still be pretty devastating for the wrongly accused. And the guilty aren’t put away to protect society, but merely banished from campus to protect the students who pay tuition.
That said, there’s obviously no doubt that campus rape happens. The nature of the crime makes it extraordinarily difficult to assess its frequency. From the studies I’ve seen, it seems safe to say that it isn’t nearly as frequent as the one-in-five figure often raised by activists, but it happens often enough that there are likely thousands of assaults on campus every year. It’s also easy to sympathize with frustrations over how difficult rape can be to prove, especially those assaults that don’t produce any physical injury. And because rape can be so hard to prove, there’s no doubt that there are thousands of cases in which a rape actually occurred and for which the perpetrator was never disciplined, criminally, administratively or any other way.
So here’s my question: Given that there are so many legitimate incidents to choose from, why have so many high-profile cases ultimately fallen apart?
If you were to ask an average person today to name a prominent story about rape on college campuses, odds are pretty good that among the top four or five replies would be the Duke lacrosse case, the Rolling Stone cover story about Jackie and the University of Virginia, Columbia University “mattress girl” Emma Sulkowicz and one of the stories from “The Hunting Ground.” Yet in all of these stories, either the accusations were later shown to be a complete fabrication or at least serious questions were raised about them.
Each time a new high-profile story falls apart, a larger portion of the public becomes less likely to believe the next one. (It would be nice to think that we’d evaluate these stories on their own merits. But that isn’t how we tend to process contentious issues.) The anti-campus rape activists often claim that false accusations of sexual assault are practically nonexistent. (“Anti-campus rape activists” is a necessary but admittedly clumsy term. Every sane person is obviously opposed to campus rape. And even among activists who have made campus rape their issue, there is dissent and disagreement about strategy, priorities and reform.) But that so many of the accusations that they themselves have chosen as emblems of the cause have been proved false or debatable suggests that they’re either wrong about the frequency of false accusations or that the movement itself has had some extraordinarily bad luck.
Calculating the frequency of false rape accusations is even more difficult than studying the frequency of rape. Consequently, the researchers and activists who have tried have put this figure all over the map, from a fraction of a percent to as high as 40 percent. My own hunch is that they’re much more common than “almost never,” which activists claim, but nowhere nearly as common as their apparent occurrence in these high-profile cases. So why do anti-campus rape activists keep shooting themselves in the foot? Something else must be at play.
One possibility is that the nascent anti-campus rape movement isn’t as seasoned as the activist groups to whom we’ve become accustomed. We’re used to groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (or if you’re familiar with it, the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm) who are incredibly meticulous about vetting their poster cases. This is an unfortunate reality of successful activism: You must be very careful when choosing your victims. But there’s a big difference between always picking good cases and this uncanny record of picking bad ones. So this explanation isn’t quite satisfying.
A second explanation could just be that the cases that fell apart are the ones we remember — or, we remember them because they fell apart. There may be some truth to this. Exoneration stories certainly capture the public’s attention. But the Duke lacrosse case and the Rolling Stone story were huge national news well before skeptics began poking holes in the accusers’ stories. In fact, the earliest skeptics in these cases faced quite a bit of scorn and derision. In the case of Sulkowicz, the consensus is still probably in her favor, although the story looks much different now than when it was first reported. In the “Hunting Ground” story, Yoffe just posted her investigation today, so this explanation clearly doesn’t apply.
A third possibility was suggested by the Columbia School of Journalism’s report on the Rolling Stone story.
Last July 8, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, a writer for Rolling Stone, telephoned Emily Renda, a rape survivor working on sexual assault issues as a staff member at the University of Virginia. Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show “what it’s like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture,” according to Erdely’s notes of the conversation.
In other words, there’s a strong desire to find the “emblematic” case, one that checks off all the right boxes — a sympathetic victim, a privileged attacker, an indifferent administration, and so on. Real life doesn’t usually produce such clean-cut cases. So there may be an urge to bend stories to make them more sympathetic, more universal and more likely to generate outrage. Probably more to the point, this desire to seek out the perfect poster case may also make activists and their sympathizers in the press more credulous and less willing to ask questions when a story that appears to fit the bill does come along, as Jackie’s story did. For activists and sympathetic journalists alike, there’s a strong incentive to want to see a promising story (i.e. “promising” in terms of its potential to generate change) in the most favorable light, and with that, a proclivity to overlook the red flags.
Another possibility merges these two points: The alleged victims most eager to generate publicity for their stories may be the those most likely to say what activists or journalists in search of a good story want to hear. This means the stories most likely to be heard are those most in need of skepticism — and those least likely to get it. That’s a conflation of incentives that’s almost guaranteed to produce bad results.
This is obviously a very sensitive topic — but this point in particular is a delicate one, so let me be clear. This isn’t an argument that college students (and anti-rape activists in particular) never get raped. Nor is it an argument that accusations should never be believed. Nor is it an argument that rape victims should be ashamed to come forward. It’s only to say that generally speaking, an alleged victim eager to generate publicity about what happened to her may require more verification than an alleged victim who is reluctant to come forward. All else being equal, reluctant witnesses are more persuasive than eager ones. (Of course, all else is rarely equal.)
Finally, it may be that activists deliberately seek out and champion the ambiguous cases to demonstrate their commitment to the cause. This is pretty common among ideologues. (I see it often among my fellow libertarians.) You show your bona fides by taking a hard line even on those issues, incidents and scenarios that scream out for subtlety. You see this in some of the reform proposals put forth by anti-campus rape activists, such as laws requiring explicit consent before each progression of sexual activity or in staking out absurd positions such as “drunk sex is always rape.” This one seems to have been a contributing factor in the Columbia and “Hunting Ground” stories, which became accepted demonstrations of acquaintance rape despite their ambiguity. (Only recently, a Salon headline referred to Sulkowicz as a “rape survivor,” despite the fact that her alleged assailant had been cleared by a school inquiry, was never criminally charged and denies the accusation.) But it couldn’t have been a factor in the Rolling Stone and Duke lacrosse stories — there was nothing ambiguous about what was alleged in those cases.
As I wrote above, I have some real disagreements with the means with which the anti-campus rape movement wants to achieve its goals. I don’t think colleges are equipped to handle what are at heart criminal trials — nor should we ask them to take on that responsibility. But I certainly share the movement’s goals, as does any decent human being — we all want to minimize the incidence of rape, and we all want rapists to be brought to justice. The good news is that despite what you may have been led to believe, on the first objective, we’re seeing incredible progress.
But the “believe every accuser” approach to this issue is proving to be destructive to both goals. It’s obviously destructive to the men who have been wrongly accused and whose reputations and lives have been ruined. But it’s also destructive to actual victims of sexual assault. Every high-profile story that crumbles under scrutiny reinforces the perception that false accusations are common. And that only makes it more difficult to hold the real assailants accountable.