Myths That Make It Hard To Stop Campus Rape

One reason colleges have a hard time stopping sexual assault is a misconception about who is committing these crimes. The assumption is that rapes are often committed by young men whose judgment is impaired by drinking. But one researcher says many rapists are serial predators and intentionally look for vulnerable women.

There's a common assumption about men who commit sexual assault on a college campus: That they made a one-time, bad decision. But psychologist David Lisak says this assumption is wrong —-and dangerously so.

Lisak started with a simple observation. Most of what we know about men who commit rape comes from studying the ones who are in prison. But most rapes are never reported or prosecuted. So Lisak, at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, set out to find and interview men he calls "undetected rapists." Those are men who've committed sexual assault, but have never been charged or convicted.

He found them by, over a 20-year period, asking some 2,000 men in college questions like this: "Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated [on alcohol or drugs] to resist your sexual advances?"

Or: "Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn't want to because you used physical force [twisting their arm, holding them down, etc.] if they didn't cooperate?"

About 1 in 16 men answered "yes" to these or similar questions.

Profile Of A Rapist

It might seem like it would be hard for a researcher to get these men to admit to something that fits the definition of rape. But Lisak says it's not. "They are very forthcoming," he says. "In fact, they are eager to talk about their experiences. They're quite narcissistic as a group — the offenders — and they view this as an opportunity, essentially, to brag."

What Lisak found was that students who commit rape on a college campus are pretty much like those rapists in prison. In both groups, many are serial rapists. On college campuses, repeat predators account for 9 out of every 10 rapes.

And these offenders on campuses — just like men in prison for rape — look for the most vulnerable women. Lisak says that on a college campus, the women most likely to be sexually assaulted are freshmen.

"It's quite well-known amongst college administrators that first-year students, freshman women, are particularly at risk for sexual assault," Lisak says. "The predators on campus know that women who are new to campus, they are younger, they're less experienced. They probably have less experience with alcohol, they want to be accepted. They will probably take more risks because they want to be accepted. So for all these reasons, the predators will look particularly for those women."

Still, Lisak says these men don't think of themselves as rapists. Usually they know the other student. And they don't use guns or knives.

"The basic weapon is alcohol," the psychologist says. "If you can get a victim intoxicated to the point where she's coming in and out of consciousness, or she's unconscious — and that is a very, very common scenario — then why would you need a weapon? Why would you need a knife or a gun?"

Complicated By Alcohol

Stetson University law professor Peter Lake agrees there are plenty of predators on campus, and that it's important to spot them and get them out of school.

But Lake says there's a problem the predator theory underestimates: the amount of drinking and sex that's become common with many — although certainly not all — college students.

"It's very common for them to go out Wednesday through Saturday at a minimum, drink fairly heavily and hook up sexually with people that they may not know particularly well, may have met for the first time that night, or had been introduced through friends, or MySpace or Facebook," he says. "So you have a lot of sexual activity, you have alcohol, you have a population that's sort of an at-risk age, and it's in some ways, it's a perfect storm for sex assault issues."

Lake, author of the 2009 book Beyond Discipline: Managing the Modern Higher Education Environment, says schools address sexual assault mainly as a violation of conduct codes. And he says these codes have evolved to better handle sexual assault cases.

Can They Learn From Mistakes?

Part of Lake's belief in second chances for students comes from personal experience as a law professor. He's a consultant to universities about discipline procedures, and he was the honor-code investigator for his own law school's discipline committee for a decade.

But he's also worked as an attorney in criminal courts where he'd see criminals who were "incorrigible" and who made him "kind of grateful that we have jails and we're still building them."

Those men were different than the ones he'd routinely see being disciplined on college campuses. "What surprised me was how many people have made terrible mistakes and can actually learn to be better people from that," Lake says, "that there still is a chance for teachable moments."

But Lisak, the psychologist, says schools put too much faith in teachable moments, when they ought to treat sexual assault as a criminal matter. "These are clearly not individuals who are simply in need of a little extra education about proper communication with the opposite sex," he says. "These are predators."

A Jury Decides

At Texas A&M, Elton Yarbrough was a promising student. Then he was linked to five rapes.

The first woman went to the student health center. She says that as staffers did a rape examination, one asked, "Well, were you drunk?" The woman felt she was being blamed. Because of that — and because she'd considered herself a friend of Yarbrough's — she didn't report the assault to campus police. A year later, when the fourth woman called, the student health center was closed for a holiday. The answering machine said to call 911 in an emergency. She did, and got city police.

"And College Station police were there within a few minutes," says Jennifer Peebles, a journalist who reported the case for the Center for Public Integrity. "They seemed to have absolutely taken the case very seriously and investigated it."

On a recent morning, Peebles — who works for Texas Watchdog, an online investigative newspaper in Houston — went to visit Yarbrough at a Texas prison. He spoke freely about the women. He recounted the sex and how, he claims, they'd come on to him.

"He feels strongly that he didn't do anything against the law," Peebles says. "He says he feels like he made a bad decision and that the young woman made, or the young women, made a bad decision with him to have sex with him."

In the one rape case that went to trial, a Texas jury ruled this was the bad decision of a predator. Yarbrough was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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