I’ve been hearing a lot lately, not least in the wake of the UVA fraternity gang-rape allegations and the passing of California’s Yes Means Yes law, about a 2002 study by David Lisak and Paul H. Miller, ‘Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists’.
The authors of the study set up distribution tables at major pedestrian thoroughfares at “a mid-sized, urban commuter university”, and told students that they were conducting a study on “childhood experiences and adult functioning”. Study participants were promised anonymity and allowed to complete the survey in private.
The survey asked a number of questions, including questions about sexual advances made towards children and prior violent conduct. There were also four questions which, while not mentioning rape by name, if answered in the affirmative, triggered a follow-up interview:
- Have you ever been in a situation where you tried, but for various reasons did not succeed, in having sexual intercourse with an adult by using or threatening to use physical force (twisting their arm, holding them down, etc.) if they did not cooperate?
- Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they no want to [sic], because they were too intoxicated (on alcohol or drugs) to resist your sexual advances (e.g. removing their clothes)?
- Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?
- Have you ever had oral sex with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?
The authors gathered 1882 responses from men ranging in age from 18 to 71. Of those 1882 men, a whopping 120 (or 6.4%) “met criteria for rape or attempted rape”, which means that they answered ‘Yes’ to at least one of those questions, and confirmed their assent in a follow-up interview. Of those 120 men, 76 (or 63.3%) admitted to committing multiple rapes. In total, the 120 admitted rapists, none of whom had been convicted or incarcerated, had committed an average of 4 rapes apiece.
There are many important and disturbing implications of this study, but my overwhelming impression was one of methodological confusion: who on earth answers ‘Yes’ to those questions?
When the authors of the study said that their questions would “never use words such as “rape”, “assault”, “abuse”, or “battery”’, I thought that the questions would be…subtler, craftier. I’m not sure what I expected, but “Have you ever forced anyone to have sex with you?” is pretty blunt.
Here’s my question: let’s say you were a rapist (not a fun mental exercise, I know, but bear with me…). You’re walking around, minding your own rapist-business, at school, and some stranger at a table offers you a few bucks to participate in a study about childhood and adulthood and stuff. The study is apparently anonymous, but there are a couple of questions which bear directly on your rapey-er activities, and you don’t know the people administering it. Now, do you, as an ambitious, as-yet-uncaught rapist-about-town, answer ‘Yes’ to those questions, to those strangers, and then, in the follow-up interviews, confirm that, yeah, you force people to have sex with you all the time?
Who does that? Well, 6.4% of men on that college campus is who, but come on! I suppose it’s a small mercy for the data-gatherers that they are so willing, but it does make one wonder: how many men read those questions and thought, “There is no way I’m going to admit that to a stranger”. And that ambiguity is important, because it suggests that it is possible, maybe even probable, that Lisak and Miller’s study didn’t gather affirmative responses from all rapists in their sample populations, or even most of them: maybe it only gathered affirmative responses from the stupid ones.