The idea of ‘rape culture’ is one that has slowly seeped into conversation around college campuses regarding sexual assault. Many colleges, including Montana State University, teach that a permissive culture of victim blaming and sexism is partially to blame for statistics like one in four women experiencing a sexual assault during her time in college. As recently as this year, when a woman was killed by her ex-boyfriend, local domestic violence victims’ advocates, interviewed on local AM radio station KMMS, were again warning people of the harm of sexist jokes in contributing to a culture that leads women to be murdered by their partners.
In seeking to help diminish the occurrence of sexual assault, magazine media outlets such as Salon, Jezebel and even a doctor in Psychology Today have published pieces with titles like “Teaching our Sons Not to Rape.” However, the problem with these well-meaning pieces is that not only are these condescending and prejudiced against half of all human beings, but they aren’t supported by the data.
We can all agree that sexual assault is something no one should experience. However, how we choose to educate ourselves on the topic and work to prevent it should be informed by the best data available. In this instance, the science shows that it is not a culture of rape or patriarchal permissiveness that is causing sexual assault to be so prevalent, but the actions of a small number of men who are able to commit the crime again and again without being prosecuted.
In April 2015, respected author Jon Krakauer published “Missoula,” an account of the trials of several University of Montana students and football players during a time when the city’s police force was found to have actively ignored the sexual assaults of over 350 women in the city and college campus. Krakauer did extensive research that employed the work of David Lisak, a retired professor of psychology who’s spent his entire life studying and educating people about the crime of sexual assault.
One of Lisak’s most famous articles, “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists,” followed a sample of almost 2,000 college-aged men in Massachusetts. Of the sample, he identified approximately four percent as being “repeat rapists,” who committed an average of six rapes each. In addition to the rapes, the repeat rapists also committed sexual assaults that were not considered rape, physical abuse against children and battery against intimate partners, leaving approximately 14 victims each in their wake. Another study of Navy recruits in 2009 also found a small percentage of men who were classified as “repeat rapists,” who committed an average of six rapes each.
In “Missoula,” Krakauer documents the case of convicted rapist and Grizzly football alumnus Beau Donaldson. After Donaldon’s arrest became public, other women came forward to testify in the media and at his trial that they too, had also been sexual assault victims of Donaldson. Were it not for the courage and testimony of these prior victims, Donaldson would likely not have been convicted and sent to prison. However, it should not take several victims before a rapist has a chance of facing a trial.
One barrier against effective pursuit and prosecution of these repeat offenders is misinformation by the public. One contention in past scientific literature is a handful of studies from the 1980s that assert as many as 45 percent of all claims of rape by women are made up. While the studies in question have been discredited, Lisak still spends part of his career educating law enforcement and the public at large against this claim. Better research now shows only two to 10 percent of all rape claims by women to be false. However, cultural attitudes toward women and male-female relationships have helped keep these myths of large numbers of false rape claims pervasively in the public consciousness.
In the future, we should work to find the best ways to identify the people who are most likely to commit the crime of sexual assault, provide adequate resources for victims of the crime and ensure our justice system works to put repeat rapists behind bars. However, continuing to spread myths about an entire gender or the influence of jokes in causing rape won’t help us stop sexual assault. Continuing ineffective paths like these only helps to continue soft bigotry and prejudice towards all men and stifle free speech in a society that enshrines it as one of its core values. We can do better, and using real science to identify how should be a prime focus if we are serious about stopping sexual assault.