Detecting Serial Rapists on College Campuses

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (in addition to a variety of others that get lost in our daily shuffle). So for me it’s a time to critically think about the way we’re raising awareness, and if we’re not undermining our traditional efforts (which are clearly not enough) by ignoring some key research, published just over 10 years ago.

This past week at work, my campus hosted Dr. David Lisak, who is best known for his research in to the predatory nature of most men who commit rape. He was the keynote speaker for our annual summit for sexual assault and violence prevention and facilitated a discussion for allegation investigators. While I had previously seen clips of the documentary based on his research with college men regarding the incidence of sexual predation, there was a substantial amount of information that really challenges the way I think about sexual assault prevention.

Often, the research indicates that bystander intervention programs, which enlist men and women as disrupters of sexual assaults before they occur, are effective programs. Rather than framing the issue as one of men as predators and potential rapists, it instead tries to train potential witnesses to take direct or indirect action to prevent assaults by others.

This approach is intended to bring men in to the conversation, appealing to them as men (who’ve been socialized to believe they are responsible, decisive, action-oriented) to step in. It is founded on the premise that we have to appeal to men through hegemonic masculine norms in order to converse with and bring them to action in gender equity work, something that is problematic but requires its own separate exploration.

Unfortunately, Dr. Lisak’s research presents a problem. He has found, in studies that have been replicated in other environments, that among college aged men, only 5% admit to actions that constitute sexual assault or rape. Of those men, 63% are responsible for 91% of the rape behaviors. His conclusion in the study is that 3% of men are serial rapists, responsible for 91% of rapes, among other violent crimes against women and children. In McWhorter’s study of U.S. Navy recruits, the findings were even more startling, with 13% of men acknowledging behavior that constitutes rape or attempted rape, and among them 71% are serial rapists responsible for 95% of all rapes.

“Great!” we could say, “not all men are rapists.” This is true. However, the 3% who commit the vast majority of rapes and other violent crimes against women/children are doing so because they are “undetected” as Lisak & Miller refer to them.

So for me the vexing issue coming out of this campus summit, in thinking about prevention in a college environment, is how to address the serial rapist issue. Bystander intervention programs I’ve worked with often treat sexual assault as a one-off event that likely results from over-intoxication by the potential victim, and requires people to notice and step in to make sure that person gets home safe and unharmed.

But if the vast majority of men who are likely to commit rape are predatory serial rapists, as Lisak’s and other research suggest, they are actively taking advantage of their victims in ways that may evade bystander intervention techniques taught to college students.

Not only will they continue to use alcohol to ply their potential victims in to isolation, advantageous to the assault, but they may choose environments where bystander interventions are less likely to occur–crowded bars, clubs, and house parties where anonymity is easier and bystander intoxication is more likely to cloud judgment, and thereby prevent successful bystander intervention.

They may also work collaboratively with other predatory men. Among the men interviewed, Lisak found that there were groups–notoriously, but not exclusively fraternities–that intentionally used parties and their social capital as party hosts to prey on new college women, with the tool of choice being cups of highly concentrated alcoholic punch to incapacitate their victims.

The interview transcript was turned in to a documentary with re-enactments of the dialogue. The language used is both disturbing and insightful. The way the man described the women as objects whose sole purpose was his satisfaction is key to understanding the way some men are viewing women on campus, and indifferent to (or worse, proud of) their own predatory behavior.

The Unintentional Risks of Bystander Interventions

Bystander Intervention can be an effective tool, but if we elide or omit the nature of serial rape among non-strangers, we are undermining our own efforts. If a serial rapist is thwarted by a bystander, who assumes it is potentially just a consent or communication issue, they will adjust their tactics to be more successful in the future.

Additionally, the potential rapist is not being held accountable. They do not feel shame for having tried to take advantage of their potential victim. They will feel anger or frustration for being prevented from accomplishing their goal: rape. This will be highly motivating for them to learn from their “mistakes” and find a way to successfully rape in the future, figuring out ways to avoid bystander interventions.

So in many cases, bystander intervention will prevent individual sexual assaults. But it will also teach predators the means to continue to avoid detection as serial rapists. The intrepid among them will attend bystander intervention programs to learn how to continue to be “undetected.”

Serial Rape and Student Conduct

From a student conduct perspective, we’re also challenged on how to hold alleged rapists accountable, if they are serial rapists. Dr. Lisak appeared on CBS a few years ago to talk about the basic synopsis of his research and its implications for investigators, and that can be extended to campus administrators in student conduct.

The reality is that we’re constrained by Title IX and due process. It can be incredibly invasive or resource-intensive to investigate the alleged rapists background to find out if this is a one-off or if they are a serial offender who hasn’t been caught, who has been practicing or enabled, who has other victims.

As I said above, if random bystander X intervenes in a situation, that information may never come to the attention of campus officials as a prior indicator of predatory behavior that can inform an understanding of the alleged student’s motivation and the appropriate sanctions if they’re found responsible.

An investigation could turn it up, but given the scope and scale of the party and bar environment on my campus, it’s just as, if not more, likely that there’s not a snowball’s chance in June that we’re going to hear about it. At least not with some incredibly invasive investigation, which may then draw both press and Federal scrutiny–risks not likely to be palatable to University administrators.

Of course the flip side is a Title IX lawsuit and negative press coverage regarding the campus’s failure to prevent sexual assault. Personally (and professionally) I’d rather deal with the former.

This may require the development of Campus Threat policies and procedures that empower campus officials (and University law enforcement officers) with these investigative responsibilities in order to justify it under legislative, judicial, or media scrutiny. Of course, serial rapists going ignored or unpunished would constitute a campus environment hostile to women so I think it’ll likely stand up, given the research.

But the campus efforts should not be limited only responding to incidents that are reported. We should be working actively to prevent incidents of sexual violence.

Changing Prevention Efforts

One of my responsibilities this year is in developing some efforts for bystander intervention skill development related to high risk alcohol use. As part of that I’m also reflecting on the ways to incorporate sexual assault prevention in to the program. Student leaders, who are the intended participants of this program, need to be educated on the risk of the serial rapist, without sending the message that all men are rapists.

In my mind this proves to be more challenging.

Sharing the statistics that the vast majority of rapes are committed by a tiny fraction of men on campus may be heartening to some–we who who don’t rape can feel good that we’re the “good ones.” It also may feel daunting to know that confronting a potential sexual assault may not prevent one in the future. Without the expectation to both intervene in the moment, and inform someone in a position of authority, the intervention may only delay the attack to some future victim.

This might conflict with the bystander’s assumptions about the potential rapist: Tarnish an innocent man’s reputation or prevent a potential future assault, without knowing for sure one way or the other.

There may also be a failure to see if group behavior is somehow reinforcing individual serial rape behavior. Like the men in Lisak’s study, there are still some out there who conspire together to use the college party environment as a means to commit sexual assaults (where have prosecutions on that atrocity been?!).

Add in the tendency of college students to distrust authority and resist reporting anyway, unless they’re personally impacted in some way, and you can see the numerous wrinkles to this new way of thinking about sexual assault prevention.

Going forward there has to be concerted efforts to prevent, investigate, and hold accountable serial rape behaviors. To ignore this issue continues to put college women at risk. It can (and it’s only a matter of time before it will) put universities at risk, which may be the interest convergence necessary to start making changes in this area.

For whatever reason, because the research findings have been available for over a decade, it is concerning to me that we unintentionally reinforce rape culture through our lack of resources to fully investigate the alleged offender, our failure to proactively discuss sexual assault with college men in as many avenues as possible, or the meaningful steps to identify “bad actors”: those who have anti-social traits and use alcohol as a means to sexually assault.

These are challenging issues, requiring significant collaboration and education efforts on campus, but to do less would give the message to the predators that if at first they don’t succeed, they can try again.

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