In the Winter issue of City Journal, I wrote an article contesting universities’ common claim that rape is an epidemic on campus. That claim rests in part on a famous statistic published by University of Arizona health professor Mary Koss in 1987—that fully a quarter of all college girls will be raped, or be the targets of attempted rape, by the time they graduate. Koss has written a response, which the website of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault has just posted, defending the notion of ubiquitous campus rape.
Let me propose a thought experiment. An unapprehended rapist has assaulted two women in a particular area of State University’s campus—.04 percent of the female undergraduate population. Would the State University administrators tell girls to stay away from the area until the rapist is caught? Or would they remain silent about whether girls should continue to frequent that area of the campus, because “rape is never a woman’s fault”? The first, of course, because students’ safety is the administrators’ paramount concern, regardless of whether female students have a “right” to frequent that dangerous area at night.
Campus rape researchers and advocates, modifying Koss’s statistic slightly, say that they believe that a whopping one-fifth to one-quarter of college women are raped by their fellow students. Virtually all of these alleged rapes could be avoided if the girls took certain steps: don’t get into bed with a guy when you are very drunk, don’t take off your clothes, don’t get involved in oral sex, and so on. Such advice is fully consistent with female empowerment. It recognizes that girls have the power to stop “campus rape.” It treats them as moral agents able to control their fates.
But when I suggest to campus sexual assault administrators that they could stop what Koss calls the “rape pandemic” overnight if they persuaded girls to exercise more prudence, I inevitably receive responses like the following (these are my interlocutors’ actual words): “I am uncomfortable with the idea of ‘recommending that female students exercise more modesty and restraint’—this indicates that if they are raped it could be their fault—it is never their fault.” Or: “Yes, modesty would have a certain impact, but who’s responsible?”
There are two possible reasons why the administrators refuse to take the most efficacious, practical action to end campus rape—counseling sexual prudence. Either they know in their heart of hearts that what is happening on campuses is not really rape, but something much more ambiguous and also much less traumatic than real rape. Or—and this possibility is too horrible to contemplate—these self-professed women’s advocates really do believe that a drunken hookup is rape, and yet are withholding from women the simplest, surest way to prevent being raped, simply in order to preserve the principle of male fault. If the latter situation actually prevails, I conclude that the campus rape movement is purely political, interested solely in casting men as the evil perpetrators of the patriarchy rather than in most effectively protecting potential victims of a traumatic crime.
In her response, Koss says that “Men are supposed to know that [it is] wrong to have sex with a woman who is unable to consent due to intoxication.” Some men may know that; others may not. By all means, try to educate as many as you can. But the point is, if you want to protect women right now, the surest way of doing so is persuading them to avoid risky sexual encounters, rather than hoping that the drunken men with whom they have gotten into bed have a solid sense of ethics. What if a man knows that it is wrong to have sex with a very drunk woman but is himself too drunk to act on that knowledge—who’s going to protect the woman then? It is certainly ironic that feminists are relying on men to protect women when the women are perfectly able to determine whether a drunken night ends in intercourse. Moreover, if drunkenness cancels a woman’s responsibility for her actions, why does a drunken man who has sex that he may regret the next day nevertheless remain responsible? Are women less responsible for their actions than men?
Koss also claims that women who do not view “promiscuous sex” as rape suffer “equal emotional distress to women who view their experience as rape.” It is unclear whether the women she characterizes as “viewing their experience as rape” actually have been raped. Even assuming that they have, however, the 2000 Department of Justice study of campus rape found that those women whom the researchers characterized as rape victims “generally did not state that their victimization resulted in physical or emotional injuries.” The researchers did not reveal the actual numbers behind that “generally,” but presumably they were not insignificant. Moreover, 65 percent of those whom the researchers called “completed rape” victims and three-quarters of “attempted rape” victims said that they did not think that their experiences were “serious enough to report”—a judgment inconceivable from a real rape victim.
If it were the case that millions of rape victims graduated from college each year with serious emotional trauma, we’d have heard about it. Their parents would have demanded that colleges prevent this crime “pandemic.” Alternative academic institutions would have sprung up, guaranteeing a safe place for women to study and learn. None of this has happened, because the millions of women whom campus rape researchers designate as victims don’t suffer serious emotional trauma and don’t think of themselves as victims. You would have thought that that would be celebrated as a sign of strong womanhood.