President Obama this week signed an executive memorandum setting up a special task force focused on sexual assault on U.S. college campuses. The president’s order followed the release of a new report from the White House Council on Women and Girls, “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action.”
According to the study, one in five college students is sexually assaulted. The new task force will have three months to recommend how colleges and universities can reduce that figure.
But does the problem of sexual assault on campus really rise to the federal level? Or is the Obama administration overreaching? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the Red-Blue America columnists, weigh in.
Be wary of the claim that one in five students have been sexually assaulted or raped at some point in their college careers. In an era of declining violent crime rates, the statistic is remarkably resilient.
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports a sharp drop in total rapes and sexual assaults nationwide – down 38.7 percent between 2008 and 2009, which are the most recent years for which data are readily available. Yet the White House stubbornly repeats the one-in-five claim, a number that has circulated since at least 2000.
As my Manhattan Institute colleague Heather Mac Donald noted in 2011 – the last time the White House touted the campus rape issue – there were just 36.8 rapes per 100,000 residents of Detroit, a city with one of the worst violent crime rates in America. That’s a rate of 0.037 percent.
“If 18-year-old girls were in fact walking into such a grotesque maelstrom of sexual violence when they first picked up their dormitory room key,” Mac Donald observed, “parents and students alike would have demanded a radical restructuring of college life years ago.” Obviously, that hasn’t happened.
Look askance, too, at the Obama administration’s claim that school officials are somehow ignoring widespread instances of sexual assault. In fact, they’re obsessed with it. Federal law for decades has required schools to maintain detailed records of rape and assault – they number in the dozens annually, as opposed to thousands.
Activists claim the crimes are simply underreported, despite the fact that governments have poured tens of millions of dollars annually into campus rape prevention and awareness campaigns, such as Take Back the Night.
What’s really happening here? The latest White House report offers a hint, noting how sexual assaults are “fueled by drinking and drug use.” The supposed epidemic of sexual violence on college and university campuses is really an epidemic of binge drinking, drug abuse and pervasive hookups.
Changing the “rape culture” really requires cracking down on the party culture that permeates too many colleges today. But don’t expect administrators to re-impose the old “in loco parentis” system that went out 40 years ago. Instead expect more demands for greater funding, and endless cries to “take back the night.”
Be wary of conservative dismissals of campus rape. A large swath of the conservative movement is convinced that the “problem” is overblown at best, manufactured by man-hating feminists to knock the purveyors of traditional morality on their heels. Conservative contempt for liberals has led them to deny that there’s any problem worth addressing.
“The crisis doesn’t exist,” Heather Mac Donald, a leading debunker of campus sex assault, wrote in 2008.
Admittedly: It’s true the 1-in-5 statistic does cover a somewhat ambiguous set of situations: It was based on a 1985 survey that asked women this question: “Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn’t want to because a man gave you alcohol or drugs?”
Men and women who are parties to such incidents may not recognize them as “rape” per se – but that point of view suggests that “no means no” only until someone can induce legal compliance via drugs, alcohol or simple unwillingness to take “no” for an answer. If it is difficult for us to call such incidents “rape,” it is also difficult to suggest that true consent has been granted.
Less ambiguous was a 1997 survey that questioned women in graphic language that covered the elements of a criminal rape charge. That incident found that 1.7 percent of college women had experienced a “complete” rape; an additional 1.1 percent had experienced “attempted rape.”
Does the cumulative number of 2.8 percent sound small? Consider this: In 2006, Detroit (Mac Donald’s favorite reference point) experienced a violent crime rate of 2.4 percent – 2,400 murders, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults per 100,000 inhabitants. It’s possible women are safer in Detroit than they are at a fraternity party.
So campus rape is a real problem. Who should deal with it? Everybody. The federal government certainly has an interest – it spends $100 billion on higher education every year. Culture warriors should take a deep breath, then see what recommendations Obama’s task for comes up with, and whether they make sense. Everything else is just posturing.
Ben Boychuk (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis (email@example.com) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Website: www.facebook.com/benandjoel.