A friend of mine told me about his going to couples therapy. Both he and his wife assumed the therapist would listen to their respective stories, decide which one was right, and name a winner in the marriage game. The winner would do a happy dance while the loser would acknowledge defeat. It didn’t turn out that way.
Instead, the therapist explained how both he and his wife were entitled to their feelings, offered some ideas for how to disagree more productively and awarded no points to either side. After a few sessions, they begged off. They finally had one point of complete agreement, that couples therapy was a waste of money.
Psychology is about feelings, and can accommodate contradictory feelings. Law cannot. My friend wanted a verdict, and instead got a tummy rub. It resolved nothing, when their purpose in going was resolution. The New York Times offers an editorial on campus rape that does the same.
Both campus activists who believe there’s an epidemic of sexual assault and skeptics who doubt there’s a widespread problem can at least agree that a clearer picture would be useful.
Sure, except a clearer picture depends on who is doing the looking. There are methodology problems that exist in any survey, but there are problems that are unique to this issue based on the definitions of what constitutes an offense.
A significant amount of ink has been expended here on the problem with definitions: if rape and sexual assault are defined by the secret feelings of the person who decides she’s a victim, whether at the time, the next day or months later, it will be reflected in the outcome.
The exact size of the campus sexual assault problem remains unclear. The commonly cited statistic that one in five women who attend college is assaulted before she graduates — repeated by the White House — comes from a flawed 2007 study based on undergraduates at just two unnamed public universities. That figure often shocks, yet there is no reliable alternative estimate.
Of course there is a reliable alternative estimate. Did nobody tell the Times’ editorial board? They may dispute the National Crime Victimization Survey, but they can’t ignore its existence while persisting in noting “the commonly cited statistic” that no one outside of die-hard feminist advocates cling to. More to the point, if it’s flawed as even the Times admits, why mention it? If it’s flawed, why mention it while not mentioning any other alternative? Yet, they do.
The Times then goes to a new study, by Kansas Lawprof Corey Rayburn Yung which he raised in the comments here, giving me a leg up on the Times in understanding the significance of the study which they promote.
A new study in the journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law gives credence to the activists’ suspicions, underscores that confusion is the rule and points to the need for better information. The researcher, a professor at the University of Kansas, found an unsettling trend: When the Department of Education audits universities for possible Clery Act violations, reports of sexual assault rise dramatically, by approximately 44 percent; when the period of scrutiny ends, reporting rates fall right back to pre-audit levels.
While calling for a “clearer picture,” the Times does everything a paper can do to obfuscate and confuse. I don’t blame Corey, who is somewhat forthcoming about the problems (yes, Corey writes very long comments) with trying to bootstrap his study to “give credence to the activists’ suspicions”:
And I will agree with your view that the DoE definition is overly broad in one sense. They include 4 categories of sexual assault. The first 3 are entirely comparable to rape in jurisdictions without force requirements. The last category, forcible fondling, includes various forms of assault and battery that would not likely be deemed “sexual” in any criminal court. I wish the DoE would break the data down by category because that is how the schools submit it. Knowing how many incidents are in the first 3 categories would be very helpful in differentiating rape, sexual assault, and other assaults on campuses. The fourth category likely includes mostly criminal conduct, but to such a different degree that grouping it with the other 3 is extremely problematic.
There is nothing surprising about the Department of Education’s findings, as it has come out as one of the most radical players in this drama, staking out its position in its “Dear Colleague” letters to universities. To the DoE, every allegation is true, every accused guilty. In contrast to colleges, which may try despite the DoE’s push, to provide some modicum of fairness to the accused, the only thing shocking about Corey’s study is that the differential wasn’t greater.
But while ignoring the Department of Justice’s NCVS, the Times embraces Corey’s study.
What’s really happening here is not certain, but the study indicates, if nothing else, that the information coming from universities leaves something to be desired.
Or the information coming from the DoE leaves something to be desired. It’s disingenuous to say “we don’t know what’s accurate, so we’ve picked the side that conforms to our bias.”
Notably, Corey’s study appears in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, where he concludes from the 44% differential:
As a result, policymakers, school administrators, campus police, municipal police, and the public are underestimating the actual severity of campus sexual assault. Further, depending on the stage in the investigation that the sexual assault is dismissed from official counts, universities might actually be short-circuiting investigations of sexual assaults, allowing serial offenders to prey on more victims.
The moral implications and utilitarian effects of undercounting sexual assault at colleges and universities are substantial and warrant immediate policy changes.
In psychology, this may fly, as all feelings are entitled to be given credence, regardless of truth or falsity. In law, feelings about whether one has been raped or sexually assaulted isn’t the measure. Unlike psychology, everyone’s feelings cannot be accommodated, and somebody has to be right and somebody has to be wrong. This is why we use definitions, elements of offenses, evidence and the burdens of going forward and proof.
So sure, we would all like a clearer picture of what is really happening on campus. But no, we will never get a clearer picture until the studies stop politicizing their definitions and covertly reflecting the prejudice of their authors. This isn’t couples therapy where every feeling is worthy of respect. This is law, where the accuser must prove the accused engaged in defined wrongful conduct.
And by emphasizing concededly flawed studies, while ignoring concededly more neutral studies that fail to confirm its bias, the New York Times has staked out its own position in this morass of promoting the epidemic perspective.