This morning I read a long article by Emily Yoffe at Slate about The Hunting Ground, a documentary about rape on college campuses, How The Hunting Ground Blurs the Truth. I haven’t seen the film, but Yoffe says that CNN plans to show it in the future so maybe we’ll all get to see it eventually. Anyway, I thought I’d present Yoffe’s arguments and some of the responses to her previous posts on the subject and see what you think.
In the article, Yoffe focuses one of the cases presented in the film, listing a number of facts and inconsistencies that she says were ignored by the filmmakers. She also demonstrates a great deal of sympathy for the man who allegedly committed the sexual assaults.
The recent documentary The Hunting Ground asserts that young women are in grave danger of sexual assault as soon as they arrive on college campuses. The film has been screened at the White House for staff and legislators. Senate Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, who makes a cameo appearance in the film, cites it as confirmation of the need for the punitive campus sexual assault legislation she has introduced. Gillibrand’s colleague Barbara Boxer, after the film’s premiere said, “Believe me, there will be fallout.” The film has received nearly universal acclaim from critics—the Washington Post called it “lucid,” “infuriating,” and “galvanizing”—and, months after its initial release, its influence continues to grow, as schools across the country host screenings. “If you have a daughter going to any college in America, you need to see The Hunting Ground,” the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough told his viewers in May. This fall, it will get a further boost when CNN, a co-producer, plans to broadcast the film, broadening its audience. The Hunting Ground is helping define the problem of campus sexual assault for policymakers, college administrators, students, and their parents.
The film has two major themes. One, stated by producer Amy Ziering during an appearance on The Daily Show, is that campus sexual assaults are not “just a date gone bad, or a bad hook-up, or, you know, miscommunication.” Instead, the filmmakers argue, campus rape is “a highly calculated, premeditated crime,” one typically committed by serial predators. (They give significant screen time to David Lisak, the retired psychology professor who originated this theory.) The second theme is that even when school administrators are informed of harm done to female students by these repeat offenders, schools typically do nothing in response. Director Kirby Dick has said that “colleges are primarily concerned about their reputation” and that “if a rape happens, they’ll do everything to distance themselves from it.” In the film, a former assistant dean of students at the University of North Carolina, Melinda Manning, says schools “make it difficult for students to report” sexual assault in order to avoid federal reporting requirements and to “artificially keep [their] numbers low.”
One of the four key stories told in the film illustrates both of these points. It is the harrowing account of Kamilah Willingham, who describes what happened during the early morning hours of Jan. 15, 2011, while she was a student at Harvard Law School. She says a male classmate, a man she thought was her friend, drugged the drinks he bought at a bar for her and a female friend, then took the two women back to Willingham’s apartment and sexually assaulted them. When she reported this to Harvard, she says university officials were indifferent and even hostile to her. “He’s dangerous,” she says in the film of her alleged attacker, as she tries to keep her composure. “This is a rapist. This is a guy who’s a sexual predator, who assaulted two girls in one night.” The events continue to haunt her. “It’s still right up here,” she says tearfully, placing a hand on her chest.
You’ll probably have to read the entire article to get a full understanding of this case, but this should give you a sense of where Yoffe is coming from:
I looked into the case of Kamilah Willingham, whose allegations generated a voluminous record. What the evidence (including Willingham’s own testimony) shows is often dramatically at odds with the account presented in the film.
Willingham’s story is not an illustration of a sexual predator allowed to run loose by self-interested administrators. The record shows that what happened that night was precisely the kind of spontaneous, drunken encounter that administrators who deal with campus sexual assault accusations say is typical. (The filmmakers, who favor David Lisak’s poorly substantiated position that our college campuses are rife with serial rapists, reject the suggestion that such encounters are the source of many sexual assault allegations.) Nor is Willingham’s story an example of official indifference. Harvard did not ignore her complaints; the school thoroughly investigated them. And because of her allegations, the law school education of her alleged assailant has been halted for the past four years.
Yoffe has a history of denying the seriousness of the problem of campus rape (even though in this article she twice *says* it’s a serious issue). Her position seems to be that if college women just stopped getting drunk, rape on campus would be a minor or nonexistent problem.
I found it interesting that she refers to David Lisak’s research on campus rapists as a “theory,” and characterizes his work as “poorly substantiated.” The link to her evidence that Lisak’s work is somehow problematic goes to another article written by Yoffe in which she cites Lisak and another researcher explaining that it’s important to be aware that the (pretty large) sample of UMass students that Lisak used may not be typical of all college populations. This is a standard caveat given in most psychology research papers, because studies on human beings can rarely be representative of the population as a whole. The results need to be considered in the light of other studies and studies of varied populations. That doesn’t invalidate the findings.
Here’s the article in which Yoffe finds fault with Lisak’s research: The College Rape Overcorrection. Again, you probably should read the whole thing, because I can’t represent her arguments in a brief excerpt. Still, here’s a bit of it:
In recent years, young activists, many of them women angry about their treatment after reporting an assault, have created new organizations and networks in an effort to reform the way colleges handle sexual violence. They recognized they had a powerful weapon in that fight: Title IX, the federal law that protects against discrimination in education. Schools are legally required by that law to address sexual harassment and violence on campus, and these activists filed complaints with the federal government about what they describe as lax enforcement by schools. The current administration has taken up the cause—the Chronicle of Higher Education describes it as “a marquee issue for the Obama administration”—and praised these young women for spurring political action. “A new generation of student activists is effectively pressing for change,” read a statement this spring announcing new policies to address campus violence. The Department of Education has drafted new rules to address women’s safety, some of which have been enshrined into law by Congress, with more legislation likely on the way.
Unfortunately, under the worthy mandate of protecting victims of sexual assault, procedures are being put in place at colleges that presume the guilt of the accused. Colleges, encouraged by federal officials, are instituting solutions to sexual violence against women that abrogate the civil rights of men. Schools that hold hearings to adjudicate claims of sexual misconduct allow the accuser and the accused to be accompanied by legal counsel. But as Judith Shulevitz noted in the New Republic in October, many schools ban lawyers from speaking to their clients (only notes can be passed). During these proceedings, the two parties are not supposed to question or cross examine each other, a prohibition recommended by the federal government in order to protect the accuser. And by federal requirement, students can be found guilty under the lowest standard of proof: preponderance of the evidence, meaning just a 51 percent certainty is all that’s needed for a finding that can permanently alter the life of the accused.
More than two dozen Harvard Law School professors recently wrote a statement protesting the university’s new rules for handling sexual assault claims. “Harvard has adopted procedures for deciding cases of alleged sexual misconduct which lack the most basic elements of fairness and due process,” they wrote. The professors note that the new rules call for a Title IX compliance officer who will be in charge of “investigation, prosecution, fact-finding, and appellate review.” Under the new system, there will be no hearing for the accused, and thus no opportunity to question witnesses and mount a defense. Harvard University, the professors wrote, is “jettisoning balance and fairness in the rush to appease certain federal administrative officials.” But to push back against Department of Education edicts means potentially putting a school’s federal funding in jeopardy, and no college, not even Harvard, the country’s richest, is willing to do that.
Again, Yoffe focuses sympathetically on one case involving a male student at the University of Michigan, Drew Sterrett. She also cites research by Callie Marie Rennison and Lynn Addington, who found that non-college women are in greater danger of rape than college women. She doesn’t address the issue that universities are entrusted by parents with protecting young people who may be away from home for the first time.
In an article from October 2013, Yoffe really gets to the point: College Women: Stop Getting Drunk. It’s closely associated with sexual assault. And yet we’re reluctant to tell women to stop doing it. Again, just a brief excerpt:
Let’s be totally clear: Perpetrators are the ones responsible for committing their crimes, and they should be brought to justice. But we are failing to let women know that when they render themselves defenseless, terrible things can be done to them. Young women are getting a distorted message that their right to match men drink for drink is a feminist issue. The real feminist message should be that when you lose the ability to be responsible for yourself, you drastically increase the chances that you will attract the kinds of people who, shall we say, don’t have your best interest at heart. That’s not blaming the victim; that’s trying to prevent more victims.
Experts I spoke to who wanted young women to get this information said they were aware of how loaded it has become to give warnings to women about their behavior. “I’m always feeling defensive that my main advice is: ‘Protect yourself. Don’t make yourself vulnerable to the point of losing your cognitive faculties,’ ” says Anne Coughlin, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, who has written on rape and teaches feminist jurisprudence. She adds that by not telling them the truth—that they are responsible for keeping their wits about them—she worries that we are “infantilizing women.”
So perpetrators are “responsible for committing their crimes,” but women are the ones who should change their behavior. Why not keep criminals off college campuses and try to prevent both male and female students from drinking so much? Yoffe explains her reasoning at the end of the article:
I’ve told my daughter that it’s her responsibility to take steps to protect herself. (“I hear you! Stop!”) The biological reality is that women do not metabolize alcohol the same way as men, and that means drink for drink women will get drunker faster. I tell her I know alcohol will be widely available (even though it’s illegal for most college students) but that she’ll have a good chance of knowing what’s going on around her if she limits herself to no more than two drinks, sipped slowly—no shots!—and stays away from notorious punch bowls. If female college students start moderating their drinking as a way of looking out for their own self-interest—and looking out for your own self-interest should be a primary feminist principle—I hope their restraint trickles down to the men.
If I had a son, I would tell him that it’s in his self-interest not to be the drunken frat boy who finds himself accused of raping a drunken classmate.
She is correct that women are affected more quickly by alcohol than men, but is that a reason to focus only on college women’s responsibility for preventing sexual assaults? She actually believes that we should just hope that if women drink less, men will emulate them? Good luck with that.
I’ve found several responses to Yoffe’s previous articles. I’ll watch to see the reactions to the latest one which came out yesterday. Here are some links you can check out if you’re interested.
Emma Gray at Huffington Post: What Slate Gets So Wrong About College Women And Sexual Assault.
Alexander Abad-Santos in The Wire: Slate Forgot That the One Common Factor in Rapes Are [sic] Rapists.
Kate McDonough at Salon: Sorry, Emily Yoffe: Blaming assault on women’s drinking is wrong, dangerous and tired.
Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezabel: How To Write About Rape Prevention Without Sounding Like An Asshole.
Jennifer Baker at Psychology Today (also cited in the main post): Campus Rape Skepticism. How Not to ‘Debunk’ Research.
Josh Beitel at Medium: A Rebuttal to Emily Yoffe’s College Rape Overcorrection.
As always, this is an open thread, so feel free to post your thoughts and links on any topic in the comment thread.
I stayed up late last night reading the stunning Rolling Stone article on the culture of sexual assault and official cover-up at the University of Virginia. After I finished it, I had quite a bit of difficulty getting to sleep. The story was reported and written by investigative journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely. The headline is A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA. Before I begin, I want to warn everyone that the article includes explicit descriptions of sexual assault and a shocking culture of indifference to victims. I’m not going to excerpt explicit descriptions of rapes, but I do want to quote some of the reactions to them by students and administrators.
The article opens with a graphic description of a violent gang rape of 18-year-old incoming freshman “Jackie” that took place at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house during a party. Hours later, beaten and bloody, Jackie called “friends” for help, but instead of taking her to a hospital they talked her out of reporting the assault because it would ruin her “reputation,” and they as her friends would be ostracized and would no longer be invited to frat parties.
So Jackie hid in her room and sank into a deep depression. She received no support from her “friends” and acquaintances. The man who had taken her to the party and set up her rape by 7 men behaved as if nothing abnormal had happened, and asked her why she was ignoring him. Erdely on the friends’ reactions:
She was having an especially difficult time figuring out how to process that awful night, because her small social circle seemed so underwhelmed. For the first month of school, Jackie had latched onto a crew of lighthearted social strivers, and her pals were now impatient for Jackie to rejoin the merriment. “You’re still upset about that?” Andy asked one Friday night when Jackie was crying. Cindy, a self-declared hookup queen, said she didn’t see why Jackie was so bent out of shape. “Why didn’t you have fun with it?” Cindy asked. “A bunch of hot Phi Psi guys?” One of Jackie’s friends told her, unconcerned, “Andy said you had a bad experience at a frat, and you’ve been a baby ever since.”
That type of response to sexual assaults is apparently common at UVA.
That reaction of dismissal, downgrading and doubt is a common theme UVA rape survivors hear, including from women. “Some of my hallmates were skeptical,” recalls recent grad Emily Renda, who says that weeks into her first year she was raped after a party. “They were silent and avoided me afterwards. It made me doubt myself.” Other students encounter more overt hostility, as when a first-year student confided her assault to a friend. “She said she thought I was just looking for attention,” says the undergrad. Shrugging off a rape or pointing fingers at the victim can be a self-protective maneuver for women, a form of wishful thinking to reassure themselves they could never be so vulnerable to violence. For men, skepticism is a form of self-protection too. For much of their lives, they’ve looked forward to the hedonistic fun of college, bearing every expectation of booze and no-strings sex. A rape heralds the uncomfortable idea that all that harmless mayhem may not be so harmless after all. Easier, then, to assume the girl is lying, even though studies indicate that false rape reports account for, at most, eight percent of reports.
And so at UVA, where social status is paramount, outing oneself as a rape victim can be a form of social suicide. “I don’t know many people who are engrossed in the party scene and have spoken out about their sexual assaults,” says third-year student Sara Surface. After all, no one climbs the social ladder only to cast themselves back down. Emily Renda, for one, quickly figured out that few classmates were sympathetic to her plight, and instead channeled her despair into hard partying. “My drinking didn’t stand out,” says Renda, who often ended her nights passed out on a bathroom floor. “It does make you wonder how many others are doing what I did: drinking to self-medicate.”
Erdely talked to a number of survivors, and she found a history of gang rapes at Phi Kappa Psi fraternity stretching back at least 30 years. She describes a culture in which male upperclassmen target freshmen girls and deliberately take advantage of their lack of sophistication about the danger of sexual violence on college campuses.
A year later, Jackie did report the rape to a UVA administrator. She was sent to Dean Nicole Eramo, who heads the “Sexual Misconduct Board.” Eramo subtly discouraged Jackie from reporting the rape.
When Jackie finished talking, Eramo comforted her, then calmly laid out her options. If Jackie wished, she could file a criminal complaint with police. Or, if Jackie preferred to keep the matter within the university, she had two choices. She could file a complaint with the school’s Sexual Misconduct Board, to be decided in a “formal resolution” with a jury of students and faculty, and a dean as judge. Or Jackie could choose an “informal resolution,” in which Jackie could simply face her attackers in Eramo’s presence and tell them how she felt; Eramo could then issue a directive to the men, such as suggesting counseling. Eramo presented each option to Jackie neutrally, giving each equal weight. She assured Jackie there was no pressure – whatever happened next was entirely her choice.
Like many schools, UVA has taken to emphasizing that in matters of sexual assault, it caters to victim choice. “If students feel that we are forcing them into a criminal or disciplinary process that they don’t want to be part of, frankly, we’d be concerned that we would get fewer reports,” says associate VP for student affairs Susan Davis. Which in theory makes sense: Being forced into an unwanted choice is a sensitive point for the victims. But in practice, that utter lack of guidance can be counterproductive to a 19-year-old so traumatized as Jackie was that she was contemplating suicide. Setting aside for a moment the absurdity of a school offering to handle the investigation and adjudication of a felony sex crime – something Title IX requires, but which no university on Earth is equipped to do – the sheer menu of choices, paired with the reassurance that any choice is the right one, often has the end result of coddling the victim into doing nothing.
“This is an alarming trend that I’m seeing on campuses,” says Laura Dunn of the advocacy group SurvJustice. “Schools are assigning people to victims who are pretending, or even thinking, they’re on the victim’s side, when they’re actually discouraging and silencing them.
The culture of cover-up at UVA is shocking to me, but it is probably typical of many colleges and universities, according to Erdely. However UVA is among a select group of 86 schools that is under investigation by the federal Office of Civil Rights because of their failure to deal with the problem. In September UVA held a two-hour trustees meeting to discuss sexual assault on campus.
Those two hours, however, were devoted entirely to upbeat explanations of UVA’s new prevention and response strategies, and to self-congratulations to UVA for being a “model” among schools in this arena. Only once did the room darken with concern, when a trustee in UVA colors – blue sport coat, orange bow tie – interrupted to ask, “Are we under any federal investigation with regard to sexual assault?”
Dean of students Allen Groves, in a blue suit and orange necktie of his own, swooped in with a smooth answer. He affirmed that while like many of its peers UVA was under investigation, it was merely a “standard compliance review.” He mentioned that a student’s complaint from the 2010-11 academic year had been folded into that “routine compliance review.” Having downplayed the significance of a Title IX compliance review – which is neither routine nor standard – he then elaborated upon the lengths to which UVA has cooperated with the Office of Civil Rights’ investigation, his tone and manner so reassuring that the room relaxed.
Told of the meeting, Office of Civil Rights’ Catherine Lhamon calls Groves’ mischaracterization “deliberate and irresponsible.” “Nothing annoys me more than a school not taking seriously their review from the federal government about their civil rights obligations,” she says.
Jackie eventually became involved with a UVA rape survivors group, but even among these women who were trying to deal with their traumatic experiences and reaching out to recent victims, the culture was one of not reporting their rapes to police.
You’ll recall that it was at UVA that 18-year-old Hannah Graham was abducted and murdered, allegedly by 32-year-old Jesse Matthew, who had been previously accused of rape at two different Virginia colleges in 2002 and 2003. He was not charged in either case, and he apparently went on to become a smoothly professional sexual predator. The news reports say that the victims did not want to press charges, but the truth is that colleges and universities regularly discourage young women from reporting rapes in order to protect their institutional reputations. Erdely addresses this issue at length in her article on UVA.
Matthew’s DNA was found under the fingernails of Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington, who disappeared after she was locked out of a Metallica concert on the UVA campus in 2009. Harrington’s body was later found a few miles from where Hannah Graham’s body was recovered. Matthew’s DNA has also been connected to a violent rape and attempted murder that took place in Fairfax in 2005.
In her article, Erdely discusses the research done by psychologist David Lisak on campus rapists. He discovered that a small percentage of college men commit rapes, and they tend to be repeat offenders (PDF). That last link is to a peer-reviewed journal article by Lisak, “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending by Undetected Rapists.” Erdely writes:
Lisak’s 2002 groundbreaking study of more than 1,800 college men found that roughly nine out of 10 rapes are committed by serial offenders, who are responsible for an astonishing average of six rapes each. None of the offenders in Lisak’s study had ever been reported. Lisak’s findings upended general presumptions about campus sexual assault: It implied that most incidents are not bumbling, he-said-she-said miscommunications, but rather deliberate crimes by serial sex offenders.
In his study, Lisak’s subjects described the ways in which they used the camouflage of college as fruitful rape-hunting grounds. They told Lisak they target freshmen for being the most naïve and the least-experienced drinkers. One offender described how his party-hearty friends would help incapacitate his victims: “We always had some kind of punch. . . . We’d make it with a real sweet juice. It was really powerful stuff. The girls wouldn’t know what hit them.” Presumably, the friends mixing the drinks did so without realizing the offender’s plot, just as when they probably high-fived him the next morning, they didn’t realize the behavior they’d just endorsed. That’s because the serial rapist’s behavior can look ordinary at college. “They’re not acting in a vacuum,” observes Lisak of predators. “They’re echoing that message and that culture that’s around them: the objectification and degradation of women.”
I won’t quote any more from the article, but I do recommend reading it if you can handle it.
After the Rolling Stone article came out, UVA’s president suddenly decided maybe she should something about Jackie’s rape. From The Daily Progress, UVa calls for investigation into rape allegation in Rolling Stone article.
UVa President Teresa A. Sullivan released a statement Wednesday night, stating the university’s commitment to preventing sexual assault.
“The University takes seriously the issue of sexual misconduct, a significant problem that colleges and universities are grappling with across the nation,” Sullivan said in the statement. “Our goal is to provide an environment that is as safe as possible for our students and the entire University community.”
Erdely said UVa reinforced one of her major arguments in her article — that UVa administration focuses on prestige and appearance over student safety — with Sullivan’s statement….
“I am writing in response to a Rolling Stone magazine article that negatively depicts the University of Virginia and its handling of sexual misconduct cases,” Sullivan said at the beginning of the statement.
“It goes to show what their priorities are here — the fact that she would go out of her way to say I negatively depicted the university — this is the first thing on their minds,” Erdely said. “They need to be putting student safety first.”
Date: Wed, Nov 19, 2014 at 6:17 PM
Subject: An Important Message from President Sullivan
To the University community:
I am writing in response to a Rolling Stone magazine article that negatively depicts the University of Virginia and its handling of sexual misconduct cases. Because of federal and state privacy laws, and out of respect for sexual assault survivors, we are very limited in what we can say about any of the cases mentioned in this article.
The article describes an alleged sexual assault of a female student at a fraternity house in September 2012, including many details that were previously not disclosed to University officials. I have asked the Charlottesville Police Department to formally investigate this incident, and the University will cooperate fully with the investigation.
The University takes seriously the issue of sexual misconduct, a significant problem that colleges and universities are grappling with across the nation. Our goal is to provide an environment that is as safe as possible for our students and the entire University community.
We have recently adopted several new initiatives and policies aimed at fostering a culture of reporting and raising awareness of the issues.
We want our students to feel comfortable coming forward with information when there are problems in the community and cooperating with local law enforcement and the student disciplinary process. We also want them to feel empowered to take action and to lead efforts to make our Grounds and our community a better place to live and learn.
We have been taking a leadership role on issues regarding sexual misconduct and violence. U.Va. hosted a national conference on this topic in February 2014. “Dialogue at U.Va.: Sexual Misconduct Among College Students” brought together national experts and professionals from approximately 60 colleges and universities to discuss best practices and strategies for prevention and response.
The HoosGotYourBack initiative, part of the Not On Our Grounds awareness campaign, was developed and launched in collaboration with students and with local Corner Merchants to increase active bystander behavior.
A number of other initiatives are also planned for the spring. Among them are the implementation of a new student sexual misconduct policy and a related training program, a campus climate survey, and an in-depth bystander intervention program that will include students, faculty, and staff.
More information about sexual violence education and resources is available on the University’s website at http://www.virginia.edu/sexualviolence/
Finally, I want to underscore our commitment to marshaling all available resources to assist our students who confront issues related to sexual misconduct. Our dedicated Student Affairs staff devote countless hours to educating and counseling our students on issues regarding their health and safety, and they stand ready to assist whenever students need help.
Teresa A. Sullivan
President Sullivan approved distribution of this message.
I’ll let you judge the sincerity of Sullivan’s statement.
I know there is plenty of other news going on, but this was all I could think about this morning. Please post your links on any topic in the comment thread, and feel free to discuss this post or not. I realize this is a very difficult subject, but it is also a vitally important one.