A college professor’s research on campus sexual assault that was used by the Obama administration to justify sweeping action on college sexual assault has been called into question in a pair of articles published by Reason magazine.
David Lisak, a retired psychology professor who taught at the University of Massachusetts Boston, has for years been regarded as one of the top academic experts on the matter of sexual assault on campus. In particular, Lisak’s paper “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists” is responsible for promoting the theory that the vast majority of college rapes (about 90 percent) are committed by serial offenders, who systematically prey on victims and commit an average of six rapes apiece. Lisak’s paper, based on a survey taken by 1,882 men, identified 120 men as admitting to committing rape based on their description of their past sexual behavior. Lisak classified 76 of these men as repeat rapists; it was from this sample of 76 men that Lisak extrapolated his key findings about campus sexual assault.
The paper’s conclusion that most rape is committed by serial predators isn’t an idle academic point. It’s been used, by Lisak and others, to argue the colleges must use a far tougher approach in finding and expelling suspected sexual predators. Lisak’s work went against widespread beliefs that college rape was more mild, as far as rapes go, involving intoxicated individuals crossing lines that were blurry in the first place. If that were the cause, then the way to prevent campus sexual assault would mostly rely on education and encouraging healthier behaviors. (RELATED: Are 20 Percent Of Women Really Assaulted In College?)
Lisak, however, has said that every allegation of rape on campus should be “viewed and treated as an opportunity to identify a serial rapist.” In another article, he said that campus predators were basically sociopathic monsters who “cannot be educated” and instead must be “identified and removed from our communities.” Preventing campus assault, in this view, is not an educational issue but rather one that focuses on identifying and severely punishing offenders.
Lisak’s work has been cited repeatedly by the Obama administration and media outlets as diverse as FiveThirtyEight and NPR, which credited him with debunking “myths” about sexual assault. He also received significant screen time in the The Hunting Ground, a recent documentary calling for major action to counter an alleged epidemic of campus rape. (RELATED: CNN’s New Rape Documentary Relies On Myths, Not Facts)
But according to Linda LeFauve, an employee of Davidson College writing for Reason, Lisak’s much-cited research is actually highly questionable for a host of reasons.
The biggest problem with Lisak’s work? While it’s a landmark study in the understanding of campus sexual assault, the data wasn’t actually about campus sexual assault at all. Lisak didn’t gather the data himself, but instead used data collected during four other studies conducted by masters and doctoral students at the school who passed out surveys to male passerby on the campus. The surveys themselves weren’t focused on the matter of sexual assault, and on top of that nothing was done to ensure those taking the survey were college students.
Not only that, but UMass-Boston, where these surveys were handed out, is a commuter school with no on-campus housing and a high proportion of non-traditional and part-time students. The average age of respondents to the surveys Lisak relied upon was 26 years old (one-fifth were over 30), with ages ranging from 18 to 71. According to one former student who helped collect the data, a high proportion of respondents were from working-class backgrounds and many were first-generation college students. The survey asked them about their general behavior, not how they acted on-campus or around other students.
In other words, Lisak’s supposedly systematic research into rape on campus was simply based a series of surveys given to men who happened to be passing around a single atypical college during a certain span of time.
“There is not a single statement in the paper about assaults taking place on or near a campus; there is not a single reference to the campus environment,” LeFauve writes.
LeFauve’s own research raised even more questions about Lisak’s methodology. Lisak claimed he conducted follow-up interviews with most of those he classified as serial predators, a claim LeFauve found suspicious because, when Lisak conducted his work in 2002, the data was several years old and much of it had been collected anonymously. When asked how he’d managed to interview these people, Lisak hung up on LeFauve without giving an answer. If Lisak is being at all deceitful about how he conducted his study, it would throw the reliability of the entire paper into doubt.
Also attracting scrutiny is Lisak’s claim that serial predators were targeting multiple different women in planned rape attempts. In fact, LeFauve found, Lisak did nothing to separate predators who victimized different people and those who victimized a single person multiple times (as in a case of ongoing domestic violence). The difference is important, because several on-campus efforts have been based on the idea that predatory rapists are sequentially targeting different women.
Reason’s detailed criticism of Lisak adds to observations made by Emily Yoffe in Slate late last year, which also found his work to be significantly flawed. But despite this, Lisak remains a premier expert in sexual assault, repeatedly being interviewed to tout his “myth-busting” take on sexual assault and becoming a favorite of the Obama administration. In the past he has been considered authoritative enough to be cited by Politifact. Lisak’s prominence has in turn encouraged others to accept his findings and proposed solutions to the problem of sexual assault. As Reason’s Robby Soave points out in a companion article to LeFauve’s, confidence in Lisak’s research may partly explain the widespread willingness to believe spectacular, debunked rape accounts like the one published last fall in Rolling Stone.
The Daily Caller News Foundation reached out to Lisak to see if he has a response to Reason’s criticism, and has not received a reply.
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