Open thread on ‘The College Rape Overcorrection’

We’ve been asked in the comments to put up a thread for discussion of Emily Yoffe’s essay ‘The College Rape Overcorrection’, which has been generating a lot of attention in the post-UVA fallout. Up until now, I haven’t really had the stomach to talk over a known rape apologist‘s (and general holder of awful view’s) musings on campus rape. But there are some things worth saying about the article, and hopefully our readers can say them in the comments.

ThinkProgress has a helpful explanation of the disparity between the statistics used by Yoffe in her article and the statistics used by many anti-rape activists, as well as by the Obama administration. They also point out that:

There’s another way forward in this area that campus activists are pushing for: Online surveys that ask all outgoing college students about their experiences with sexual assault during their time in school. That way, colleges wouldn’t have to rely on the artificially low number of official reports that come through their disciplinary offices. And students may be able to provide a clearer picture of their experiences than federal researchers are able to capture.

The highest-profile school that has so far publicly released the results from this type of survey, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reported that 17 percent of female students and 5 percent of male students said they’ve been sexually assaulted.

Other schools may soon fall in line. Rutgers University was chosen by the White House to pilot a climate survey to gauge students’ experience with sexual violence, and Ivy League institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth, have already indicated that they’re planning to begin conducting similar surveys soon.

While there may not be definitive data points in this area yet, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence. Over the past several years, students at colleges across the country have come forward to say they were raped and accuse their schools of mishandling their cases. Groups like Know Your IX have united students at dozens of different schools who identify as survivors of assault, helping to spark a national movement and a renewed focus on these issues.

There are also, of course, quite a lot of smaller studies documenting the problem of rape on campus – a body of literature which Yoffe largely overlooks. Some representative examples are here here here here here and here.

It’s sobering to think that Yoffe’s article, which is focused on one-sided accounts from the perspective of the men involved in allegedly false accusations – accounts which are strongly contested by both the universities and the women involved – will probably not be subject to anything like the skepticism that is typically leveled at rape accusations. False accusations matter, of course – and they have the potential to do a great deal of harm. But I also think it’s really important not to frame this as an issue of believing women vs. protecting men – if only because men are more likely to be sexually assaulted than they are to be falsely accused of sexual assault.

20 thoughts on “Open thread on ‘The College Rape Overcorrection’

  1. I am not exaggerating when I say that it’s articles like Yoffe’s that make me despair for our collective fate. The analysis of the Lisak study was so preposterously bad–and the article was so widely shared–that I simply don’t know how our culture can ever rely on the spread of reliable social-scientific information. There is no way that we can collectively come to a sane position on the problem of sexual assault if well over half the population is convinced by: “the sample might not be representative” and “the study should be replicated”. When these bare possibilities, generated by the very nature of science itself, can actually create serious doubt in the minds of ordinary people, then we are officially lost.

  2. Hi. Thanks for posting this.

    I wonder whether you could say a little about the main charge of the piece. Yoffe claims that women who, as they themselves agree, were fully consenting to sex at the time, initiated sex, consented all the way through, and only later came to regret their decisions are able and encouraged to subject young men to shadowy quasi-judicial procedures that (according to the article) destroy their lives. For instance, the piece that is discussed at the start of the article.

    Is there any truth to that? I think that’s what’s most worrying in the article, if it’s true. And if it’s not, that’s the impression that many people are taking away from it. Thanks.

  3. Many campus conduct codes treat intoxicated sex as nonconsensual. But if both parties are intoxicated, who rapes who?

  4. Sara May, I obviously don’t know the details of what happened in the particular cases that Yoffe discusses. But I do know that her account of these stories is widely contested, and is based on material provided by the young men in question, both from interviews and from their lawsuits. The University of Michigan, for example, has firmly denied the claims made by the young man at the center of Yoffe’s story, and has filed a motion to have his suit dismissed.

    It’s pretty well-documented that women who are raped often encounter a lot of barriers when reporting these rapes to their administration. And whatever else you might say about the UVA story, it has at least become clear that UVA – a major flagship state institution – imposed harsher penalties on people who cheat on exams than it did on rapists. There’s also a fair bit of evidence suggesting that false accusations of rape are rare. So should we conclude from a few anecdotes like those provided by Yoffe that there is a national crises of ‘rape overcorrection’ leading to lots of men having their ‘lives runied’? I don’t really think so, no.

  5. Anon: the person whose fundamental right to bodily integrity was violated is the one who was raped. If a drunk woman anally penetrates a drunk man with a soda bottle, she is the one who has violated his rights. There’s no real mystery here. Everyone has a basic right not to be penetrated without their consent. Period.

  6. Also, if the worry is that the perpetrator is drunk and thus not responsible, we need only look to drunk driving laws. Suppose a drunk pedestrian is walking on a sidewalk and a drunk driver loses control of his/her car and drives onto the sidewalk, killing the pedestrian. Gosh, who’s responsible? Gee, I don’t know. Moral of the story: if you know you’re likely to drive drunk, either don’t drink, or only drink at home, or hand your keys over to someone else before you drink. Similarly, if you know you’re likely to ignore the matter of sexual consent while you’re drunk, either don’t drink, or only drink alone, or make sure a responsible third party hangs out with you while you drink to make sure you don’t violate anyone’s rights.

  7. No rape without penetration? How convenient for women. I thought rape was sex without consent.

    Anyway, how about sexual assault? Suppose those two intoxicated people don’t have penetrative sex but engage in other sexual acts. Who assaulted who?

  8. Yes, of course there are lots of other ways one person can assault another one. I’m just saying that usually we take the “envelope” of the body to be a particularly important boundary. I mean, I have to sign a ridiculously long consent form before my doctor can even jab a needle into my arm.

  9. Is the point about penetration supposed to be a moral point, or a legal one?
    I would like to see some kind of reference or citation for the claim that when two men get drunk and have sex the one who did the penetrating is the rapist. I find that hard to believe — but if someone provides a citation, of course, I’ll believe it.

  10. I think the point about penetration is a red-herring. Most campus assault policies I know of place the burden for obtaining on the initiator of the the sexual encounter (whatever the nature of that encounter.) See, for example:

    Also, it’s a pretty big myth that many campus sexual assault policies define all drunk sex as rape. Most policies I know of are much more nuanced than that.

  11. I don’t really understand how this discussion got into these nuances.

    Can we agree on three things?

    First, if A slips drugs into B’s drink in order to have sex with a non-consenting B, that’s clearly sexual assault.

    Second, if A and B are sober and openly plan to have sex, and A propositions B and ends up having sex with B without withdrawing consent at any point, then B has clearly not sexually assaulted A.

    Third, if A and B both get equally intoxicated, and after doing so they both agree to have sex, and agree to it all the way through, then neither sexually assaulted the other at the time, even if one or both of them regrets it later on.

    The disturbing thing in the article that’s getting many people upset is that it says that things in the latter two cases are being counted as sexual assault. Now, none of us know for sure whether the people described in the article are telling the truth or not about those specific cases. Let’s not get into that.

    But we don’t need to know which of them, if anyone, is telling the truth to know that if people are being found by university tribunals to have committed sexual assault when the circumstances are like the second or the third case, that is definitely wrong. Do we at least agree on that? I was hoping the answer would be a clear yes from the start.

  12. I have a somewhat more sympathetic take on the statistical analysis in Yoffe’s article, so I was tempted to join this discussion.

    On reflection, though, I think that would be unwise. The framing of her artlcle in the OP describes Yoffe as “a known rape apologist” on the basis (judging by the linked article) of her piece last year on binge drinking and sexual abuse.

    Here’s an extended quote from that piece:

    “Let’s be totally clear: Perpetrators are the ones responsible for committing their crimes, and they should be brought to justice. But we are failing to let women know that when they render themselves defenseless, terrible things can be done to them. Young women are getting a distorted message that their right to match men drink for drink is a feminist issue. The real feminist message should be that when you lose the ability to be responsible for yourself, you drastically increase the chances that you will attract the kinds of people who, shall we say, don’t have your best interest at heart. That’s not blaming the victim; that’s trying to prevent more victims.”

    Yoffe is crystal clear that this is about the prudential unwisdom of binge drinking in an environment that contains predators, and has nothing to do with the issue of moral blameworthiness. (And the distinction is perfectly clear in other contexts; if I go hiking in ISIS-controlled parts of Iraq and am kidnapped and murdered, moral responsibility lies entirely with my killers; they should be brought to justice; more generally if at all possible steps should be taken to ensure that peaceful travellers in Iraq need not fear kidnap and murder. For all that, in the present circumstances it is *prudentially* unwise for me to take that hiking trip.)

    Perhaps she’s wrong, either in substance or in her judgement that the article was worth writing. (I can construct a counterargument without too much trouble, though on balance I’m with Yoffe.) But I find the idea that the article is not merely *wrong* but so far beyond the pale as to brand its author *an apologist for rape* to be frankly shocking.

    (Here’s the next paragraph from the article:

    “Experts I spoke to who wanted young women to get this information said they were aware of how loaded it has become to give warnings to women about their behavior. “I’m always feeling defensive that my main advice is: ‘Protect yourself. Don’t make yourself vulnerable to the point of losing your cognitive faculties,’ ” says Anne Coughlin, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, who has written on rape and teaches feminist jurisprudence. She adds that by not telling them the truth—that they are responsible for keeping their wits about them—she worries that we are “infantilizing women.” ”

    Is Coughlin (who doubled down on her point in the wake of the backlash against Yoffe’s 2013 article) also an apologist for rape?)

    In any case, *I* don’t want to get called an apologist for rape, so I’ll leave the discussion of the current article well alone.

  13. David, you might want to read a little more of the backstory. It’s not just that one article. She has a long history of saying victim-blaming things. So yes, I stand by the claim – as do many other feminists – that she’s a rape apologist.

    I see the passage you quoted from Yoffe as nothing more than a failed canceling of implicature. You can’t engage in victim blaming and then take it all away with “but I’m not blaming the victims!”

  14. Sara May, I can’t speak for anyone else, but *I* certainly agree that “if people are being found by university tribunals to have committed sexual assault when the circumstances are like the. . .third case, that is definitely wrong.” I’m a little iffy on the second case, though, since I think continued consent for different stages of a sexual encounter is important – which is something that affirmative consent advocates have done a good job of emphasizing.

    I guess I just think that the evidence that colleges are actually finding people guilty of sexual assault in cases that are actually like your third case – or at least are doing this on any sort of large scale – is extremely thin, and definitely not supported by the Yoffe article.

  15. I’ve read Yoffe for some years and don’t find the backstory surprising (but your link was to discussion of one specific, and very widely publicised, article, so I think I stand by the reasonableness of my interpretation). I disagree fairly strongly with your (and “many other feminists”) interpretation of Yoffe (who, to be clear. I don’t know and have never met) but beyond that I think I’m going to stick by my original intention to leave well alone.

  16. Thanks, Magicalersatz. I’m glad to see that we’re on the same page regarding 3. I expected no less of you. Who wouldn’t be?

    Now it seems that your objection to Yoffe – on this point at least – is that you contest that this is actually happening at any university.

    I’m very new to all this so I don’t have any evidence either way. But if someone were to present good evidence to you that some students of either sex (though almost certainly male by the sounds of it) were facing serious academic and other penalties for getting equally drunk with a partner and engaging in equally consenting sexual activity, am I reading you correctly that you’d speak out loudly against that injustice?

    I think your agreeing to do that would be a strong, positive gesture and would refute some accusations flying around that Feminist Philosophers is only looking out for women.

  17. Yes, absolutely Sara May. Criminalizing or punishing consensual sex is both an awful thing to do, and an incredibly counter-productive way of combating rape. I also think there’s a real worry of gender stereotypes in the area that view women as the gate keepers of sex – always the ones who have to be persuaded or talked into it, always the ones who don’t initiate. Those stereotypes are harmful, and they need to be rejected.

    But surely the easiest way to demonstrate Feminist Philosophers cares about more than just women is our continued attempt to point out that *men suffer sexual assault too*, and that the emphasis on false accusation as *the* male problem when it comes to sexual assault on campus does as much damage to men as it does to women – maybe even more.

  18. With respect, Philodaria, those numbers are based on some very questionable statistics for this purpose.

    The reason isn’t hard to fathom. How could anyone possibly know how many reports crimes of any kind are false reports? It’s one thing if there’s a clear objective way of testing the truth or falsity of them, like if people claim to have never gone into a room and there’s a video camera that shows whether they went into it. But sexual assault, like so many crimes, takes place without any record beyond the testimony of the participants. So how are these numbers arrived at?

    Typically, the false report numbers in these studies are the cases where there is clear or at least very compelling evidence that they are false. If a story turns out to contradict objectively determined facts, or if a story is plagued with massive internal contradictions, then it’s counted as a false report. But otherwise, there’s no basis for putting it into that category.

    There’s no problem with figuring those numbers out, because they’re useful for some things. But as a measure of the ratio of actual reports that are in fact false (not just false and proven false, but also false without anyone being able to prove it either way), they’re not the right numbers to look at. And there’s lots of reasonable controversy about the right numbers in the literature. Anywhere from 2% to 80%, take your pick.

    So yes, it’s important that men are raped by women and that men are raped by other men, and it’s good to point that out. But at the same time, it’s also important that many men are falsely accused.

    And in this discussion, the issue isn’t even that they’re falsely accused. If you read Yoffe’s article, the big issues are that the men were involved in activities that just don’t seem to be sexual assault but are facing devastating consequences. The women who accuse them are not lying. They’re honestly admitting that they were actively in favor of having sex at the time, and that they didn’t change their minds until afterward about it. The issue is not whether the women are being honest, but whether the things they describe should count as sexual assault. It seems from the article that many of them didn’t even see it that way but were pushed into making an accusation anyway. That’s a big part of what’s so disturbing in the article, assuming the facts are correct, and I haven’t yet seen reason to doubt that this is going on. Perhaps you could allay my worries.

  19. So by this point I think we’ve all got pretty good reason to suspect that “Sara May” is not as neutral or new to the issue on this issue and they’ve been claiming to be. (Shocking, I know. Internet commenters nearly always portray themselves entirely accurately, especially when anonymous.)

    It’s nice to have salient confirmation, though, that when people come forward with stories of sexual assault they are treated with open skepticism and victim-blaming, whereas when a reporter with a clear axe to grind presents *only two* (highly contested!) stories of colleges *allegedly* over-reaching on sexual assault, we’re meant to think there’s somehow an epidemic of men being falsely accused of rape after having had consensual sex that women later regretted. Call me a die-hard skeptic, but I’m not yet seeing any reason to worry that these cases are the new norm, or that there is an epidemic of innocent men being kicked out of college. I have, however, seen plenty of evidence that lots of people get raped at college, and that universities often do sweet fuck all about it.

    Do universities perhaps sometimes make the wrong finding in cases of sexual assault? I’m sure they do. Do men sometimes wrongly get kicked out of school as a result? Yes, I’m sure that has happened. And when it happens it’s really bad. But I also think that universities sometimes kick out the wrong people in cases of cheating, fraud, plagiarism, vandalism – or anything else that can get you kicked out of college. Whenever you have a policy, it will probably get wrongly or unjustly implemented at some point at some time. But it’s a *massive* leap from that to the idea that there’s an epidemic of people getting kicked out of college for rape when they in fact did nothing wrong. The fact that people are obsessed with the idea that there is such an epidemic says a lot more, to my mind, about how we think about rape and gender that it does about the merits (or otherwise) of any university sexual assault policy.

    And with that, I’m closing this thread. Because I am sick of this shit.

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