Who are campus rapists and what should we do with them?

Part 1 of 2.


In the past two weeks, the media has focused a flood of attention on the perpetrators of sexual misconduct on college campuses. Who are these people? Why do they assault? What happens to them if they get caught? A long-held belief is that most sexual assailants are repeat-offenders—that a vast majority of campus rapes are committed by a small number of perpetrators (the White House said 90% of campus rapes are committed by 3% of people). In response to this evidence, studies began to look for ways to identify these individuals.


In surveys of both college men and men in a metropolitan community, 30-40% committed some form of sexual assault and these men could be distinguished from non-offenders by 1) sexually aggressive beliefs and rape myth acceptance, 2) hostility and stereotypic attitudes toward women, 3) positive attitudes about casual sex, 4) antisocial personality traits, 5) drinking problems, and 6) childhood adversity/abuse. Importantly, “men who commit sexual assault make choices about whom they target and under what circumstances” and “they acknowledged that they knew the woman did not want to have sex, yet they made her anyway.” Other studies confirm that not only do these men know they are assaulting someone (although they do not call it “rape”), more than half of behaviorally-admitted rapists also admitted to other acts of interpersonal violence including battery and physical/sexual abuse of children.


The conclusion that many people draw from this evidence is that there are important factors that distinguish and can predict men who will assault/rape from those who will not—it’s not just a drunk accident or “hookup culture.” These views classify perpetrators of sexual violence as “bad individuals” who can be distinguished from “good individuals.” This narrative makes for a simple solution of identifying the few bad seeds and keeping them away from people they could potentially hurt.  But as with everything else surrounding this issue, it may not be that simple.


A study published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association tested this “campus serial rapist assumption,” and found that there may be twice as many men on college campuses who have committed rape than previously thought, and most of these men were not repeat offenders. This study analyzed data from the two largest longitudinal studies of college sexual violence, and only used the FBI definition of completed, penetrative rape. The fact that this study, using a very narrow definition of rape, found more than 10% of surveyed college men (sample size = 1,645) admitted to rape speaks volumes to the prevalence of this issue. This study, along with the ones mentioned above, identified characteristics of repeat offenders, but surprisingly found that 75% of admitted rapists committed one rape or raped only during a single academic year. (Note that the previously mentioned studies found much higher rates of offenders because they surveyed both attempted and completed rape, as well as non-penetrative forms of sexual assault).


But even though some may be “just” one-time offenders, the issue shouldn’t be taken any less seriously—it just makes identifying the vast majority of rapists even more difficult than previously thought, and it suggests that there may be different types of rapists who need different types of programs or punishment to prevent them from raping again. However, some people are interpreting this data to mean that most rapists just made a mistake and if we give them another chance, they won’t do anything bad again.


A recent article5-Things-I-Learned-from-Committing-Campus-Sexual-Assault, attempted to portray a rapist as a shy, remorseful boy who made a mistake and really learned his lesson. They want us to feel sorry for him, to see rapists as people too, to think about the person behind whom we’re calling to be expelled or imprisoned. For the most part, I appreciate this approach—I think to address any of our social problems, we need to first consider the people involved in all sides of these issues as they are: human beings. However, just because someone feels remorse, learned their lesson, or even hurt somebody on accident doesn’t change the fact that they stole another human being’s control over their own body.


It’s easier to believe that most rapists are inherently evil people who deserve to be sodomized in prison for the rest of their lives, and that those rapists who “seem like good kids” and who seem sorry for what they did, probably didn’t really do anything that bad (you know, not REAL rape. But letting anybody who violates another person’s body off the hook without any consequences is only going to propogate this problem. At the same time, throwing people in prison—into a violent, traumatizing environment—isn’t going to help either. And taking away a person’s chance for education and employment isn’t going to stop them from continuing to hurt people. After all, isn’t the goal to protect people from known rapists and to ultimately prevent rape from happening in the first place? I hate to say this, but we have to learn from rapists and find ways to stop them from continuing to hurt people, and we may not be able to do that if we don’t give some of them “second chances.”


But this “second chance” shouldn’t come at the expense of a community’s safety, as a rapist transferring a new college campus would do. And maybe a second chance shouldn’t be offered to someone who is identified as being a high-risk repeat offender.


This week, Buzzfeed profiled Hanna Stotland, a college admissions consultant and lawyer who “gets students accused of rape back into school”.


One of the most misleading aspects of this Buzzfeed article is that it portrays students found responsible of sexual misconduct as receiving a Scarlet Letter on their transcript that makes it impossible for them to ever further their education elsewhere. In reality, the majority of students found responsible for sexual misconduct do not have this included on their transcript, so they are free to attend any other school without consequence. At the very least, a student’s responsibility for sexual misconduct (and any violation of the university’s code of conduct policy) should be noted on their academic record.


Ms. Stotland claims that accused students “rarely win” in court, but the rate of accused persons found responsible in police-investigated campus sex crimes is consistently found to be around 2-10%. The low rate of conviction is due to the fact that most reports of sexual misconduct never reach the point of a trial. Of those that do go to trial, about one-third of accusations result in discipline. One-third of sanctions include expulsion, and less than half include suspension, the rest are allowed to stay in school. I don’t think we can say that accused students “rarely win.” Not to mention that 90-95% of assaults are never reported.


As with the “5-things-I-learned-committing-a-campus-sexual-assault” article, this story tries to disprove the view of college rapists as evil, unredeemable people by claiming that “most of her clients who have been found responsible for sexual misconduct are undergraduate students seeking to transfer elsewhere after being suspended or expelled. None of her clients so far have been accused of using force or drugging their purported victims.” Most (>90%) sexual assaults involve alcohol and involve people who know each other. You don’t need force and drugs to do this, but that doesn’t make it any less serious. Taking advantage of a vulnerable person who trusts you (or being so ignorant to your sexual partner’s lack of consent) may be even more disturbing than violently raping a stranger, so claiming that these students deserve a second chance just because they didn’t use force or drugs is ridiculous.


The only reason these students may deserve a second chance is because they are human beings, and giving people the resources to become more empathetic and learn how to stop hurting other people is the only way to truly protect society from violence and abuse in the long-term. Because the current system will simply suspend or expel a student found responsible for sexual misconduct and that’s it. They can come back to school later or transfer somewhere else. It does absolutely nothing to address and remedy their behavior, and it certainly does nothing to ensure the victims have access to the care they need to recover.


Ms. Stotland prides herself on the fact that all of her clients so far have successfully transferred to “elite private colleges” and “well-regarded public research universities.” She believes that if one of her clients committed rape, “who needs a liberal arts education more than that person?” Now I’m all about education. I think education is the only thing that will really save us here, but I don’t think a “liberal arts education” is going to help in the sexual misconduct cases. Hostility toward women, traditional gender role views, and hypermasculinity are consistently linked to sexual violence perpetration, and I don’t know how a standard liberal arts education is going to address that, unless the punishment for sexual misconduct is majoring in women’s studies (which might not even be the worst idea I’ve come up with). The only strategies that have any strong evidence of a positive effect on sexual violence prevention are those that are completed in middle- and high-school.


Nobody is born a rapist, and I support comprehensive sex and relationship education starting in kindergarten to prevent anyone from becoming one, much like those in Ontario and the Netherlands. Evidence suggests that these programs reduce the prevalence of sexual assault and relationship violence, but education programs generally are ineffective at the college level. So is it too late for college rapists to change? I don’t think so, but we haven’t really tried. We’re so hung up on guilty or not guilty, innocent victim or evil assailant, true or false, that when cases don’t fit these black-and-white narratives (which they almost never do), they are simply dropped and nothing more is done.


The question here isn’t whether the accused individual is actually guilty or not (that’s a whole different issue), but that if they are guilty, what should we do with them? Should we condemn those who have a propensity to sexually assault others to a life of incarceration? Or should we attempt to rehabilitate them to be healthy partners and members of society? What if they are drunk accidents? What if one party isn’t a villain and the other a victim? Can there be two victims? Can two people simultaneously traumatize one another? What if the assailant really didn’t know they didn’t have consent? Should they receive a lesser punishment than those who knew their victim didn’t consent? Should we really just be shuffling around sexual misconduct violators to different schools with no accountability that they aren’t continuing to hurt people?


The more I dug into the research, the more I found that the students found responsible for sexual misconduct who successfully transferred to other schools were those who had the financial ability to do so (affording consultation and lawyers to appeal their case, ability to pack up and move somewhere else, etc.) and who had the sense of entitlement that they deserved to do so—that very sense of entitlement that could have propagated their propensity to violate someone in the first place.


A 19-year-old student who was found responsible for violating his university’s sexual misconduct policy and employed Ms. Stotland’s help to transfer to another school was accepted into a university and expressed “relief and elation that he would not have to go to community college and live at home for the next couple of years, which ‘sounded terrible.’” This kid was more disappointed that he might not be able to have the “college experience” than he was that he violated another human being. This is the problem here. This is the sense of entitlement and single-minded focus on fulfilling one’s own needs that those earlier studies identified in those at-risk for repeatedly perpetrating sexual violence, and Ms. Stotland is helping put these very people back on campuses.

“There’s only one impediment to the success Stotland all but promises her clients: They have to be able to afford her hundreds of dollars per hour fee.


“I don’t think the middle class knows independent college consultants exist,” she said.


Thus, Stotland’s clients, and by extension those students accused of sexual misconduct who get back into school with her help, are those who can afford to buy themselves out of trouble. The socioeconomic implications of that trouble Stotland, she said, because she thinks everyone deserves a chance at an education, even if they have been convicted of a crime.”


Why doesn’t she do some pro-bono work if she really believes in this cause? Profiting off of wealthy, privileged, rapists sounds pretty slimy to me. And maybe everyone does deserve a chance at an education, but should other people be at risk with known-rapists on campus for them to do so? Maybe they should be restricted to online classes? Maybe there should be a public registry for individuals who were found responsible for violating a university’s sexual misconduct policy? Maybe those in violation should be required to participate in a probation program where they aren’t allowed to drink, must attend counseling, must attend class and remain in good standing, and most importantly, must participate in a long-term program to address their views of consent and sexual relationships. One of the most commonly cited reasons for why victims don’t report their assault is because they don’t want their assailant to get in trouble. We can chalk this up to the psychological effects of trauma that include denial and self-blame, but if a “second chance” kind of program was available, would that make victims more willing to come forward if they knew they weren’t giving someone the death sentence (which isn’t really the case, but that’s what many people think it is)? And would increasing reporting by decreasing punishment have a big enough effect to be worth it? If we’re going to try a second chance program, we have to take steps to protect the community.


But I question whether education or counseling will really help these people if they don’t even understand what they did wrong. It’s hard for me to want to give those people a second chance. When students are expelled for plagiarism, people don’t rally around their right to attend college, so why is this happening with sexual assault, which is a public safety issue unlike academic dishonesty? Is it because people believe that the victim is partially at fault and/or isn’t really suffering as a result of what they claimed happened (i.e. no harm, no foul)?


So many people simply don’t understand the toll surviving sexual trauma can take on a victim. Do we need to keep hearing stories of the aftermath of rape to understand why victims are outraged when their assailant receives a punishment of writing a 500-word essay and why it sounds so asinine for an accused student to say that living at home and attending community college “sounds terrible” when the victim may be barely surviving each day?


But what if a victim is fortunate enough to have a healthy family dynamic, supportive friends, access to trauma-informed therapy, and recovers without losing years of their life to depression, PTSD, anxiety, suicide, addiction, eating disorders, and the host of other things associated with trauma? Does that mean the assailant shouldn’t be punished as harshly? Should the act of rape or sexual assault be judged solely on the matter of consent without regard to whether the victim was severely traumatized or not? To be continued…


NOTE: While much of my work focuses on college sexual assault, this issue is just as prevalent outside of colleges. And when sexual violence occurs outside of a self-governing institution, the only place for retribution is the criminal justice system (which has its own problems). Students accused of violating a university’s sexual misconduct policy should also face charges for criminal misconduct, but this often does not happen. Nonetheless, colleges and other institutions (military, church, etc.) have a responsibility to protect their communities, and sexual misconduct that occurs within the context of a trusted institution has unique consequences (e.g. institutional betrayal, see my previous blog post) that warrant a specific discussion for college sexual assault.