David Lisak had been a bulwark of the rape culture movement. It was his research, cited more often than anyone else’s, that provided the foundation for the existence of a rape epidemic, that false rape accusations were below 10%, that serial rapists were responsible for 90% of college rapes. This guy was the mother lode, and everybody took for granted that he was, if not necessarily correct, legitimate.
It turns out that Lisak’s study was just as much crap as anybody else’s.
What’s remarkable about these surveys is that they don’t actually have anything to do with campus sexual assault (aside from the location where they were conducted).
Researchers set up tables at different areas of campus and handed out questionnaire packets to men who passed by them; participants who returned the questionnaires received a few dollars. The surveys made no attempt to prevent non-students from participating. The researchers had no reason to do so, since their questions weren’t aimed at on-campus attacks and did not specifically ask about violence committed by or against students. And the average respondent was 26.5 years old—several years older than the typical college student—reflecting the fact that UMass-Boston is a commuter school with a significant number of older, non-traditional students.
We love empirical research. It gives the comfort of believing that someone with mad skillz grinded its input through some magical scholarly process and spewed out legitimate conclusions on the end. Few of us, of course, have the interest or competency to vet the methodology, but if we can’t trust scholars, who can we trust?
But scholars like Lisak live a life of relative obscurity. Sure, their students may think they’re pretty important, at least until they get their grades, but aside from that, no one knows they exist. Until they hit the big time and their names and studies come out of the lips and pens of important people. How cool it must have been for him to hear, “well, Lisak said so” coming from, say, the president of the United States?
Hell, lawprofs will give a kidney to be cited by the Supreme Court. Lisak knew where his bread was buttered, and went along for the ride. You see, this wasn’t the first time someone asked him questions about his study. Emily Yoffe, in her foundational critique of phony rape empiricism, went to Lisak as well.
Lisak retired not long ago after more than two decades of teaching psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He remains a consultant to universities, the military, and other institutions on sexual assault. His 2002 paper, “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists,” is a foundational study in the movement to curb campus sexual assault. It’s cited endlessly, by everyone from President Obama, to college faculty members, to student activists. It’s even cited by critics of the new campus sexual assault policies.
Lisak told me that he meets understandable resistance when delivering his message to college administrators. “It’s hard to think of any of your students as a sex offender,” he said. “But the data are pretty clear. They’re not a large group. It’s a fairly small percentage, but their behavior is really consistent with everything we know about sex offenders.”
He certainly sounds like an expert on the subject, explaining how “the data are pretty clear.” Except the data weren’t clear at all.
Lisak admitted as much during his conversation with LeFauve, agreeing with her contention that the surveys weren’t designed primarily to study campus sexual assault and admitting that “a number of these cases were domestic violence situations.” During a presentation at Emory University in 2013, he also said that UMass-Boston was “demographically different than a traditional four-year college.”
In an interview with Reason, Hopper described the survey respondents as “working-class, first-generation college students” who didn’t live on campus.
“This is not a typical college sample,” he said.
And when challenged as to how this paragon of rape statistics arrived at his special insight into the minds of college rapists, he wasn’t exactly forthcoming.
Several other interviews and news articles about Lisak imply that he extensively interrogated the subjects of his 2002 study. He also told LeFauve during his conversation with her that he had interviewed “most of them.” And yet when LeFauve asked him to explain how this was possible—given that most of the surveys he relied on were anonymous—he hung up the phone.
None of this, of course, proves Lisak’s conclusions false. What it does not do is prove their reliability. Or Lisak’s. And yet, Lisak was the man, the source upon which so much of the narrative relied.
Does this mean the whole rape epidemic, with its cries to end the crisis at the expense of due process and the futures of males, will shrivel up and disappear as another example of hysteria? Get real.
— Mary Anne Franks (@ma_franks) July 28, 2015
One guy. A group of women whose stories will never be tested in a court of law. A brilliant photograph. This will not only help people understand that there is a rape epidemic (mind you, not on campus, but everywhere), but will show that it’s “not a false rape epidemic,” even though no one called false rape accusations an “epidemic.”
Lisak was useful to the cause when his work served to support the claims. Should he now fade into the black hole of things to pretend never happened, it won’t change anything. After all, empirical research is great as long as it bolsters the religion, but it remains a religion either way.
And we’re watching a subconstitutional legal system grow based upon it right before our eyes.