To my eyes, one of feminism’s more frustrating traits is a widespread refusal to acknowledge social progress or its own successes. It’s rather odd when you think about it. It is at least 40 years since feminists began to turn serious attention to topics of sexual and domestic violence, with the publication of works like Sexual Politics and Against Our Will. It is 38 years since the world’s first Take Back the Night rally and 39 since the first national US coalition of rape crisis centers was formed. On university and college campuses, feminists and their allies have been lobbying (often successfully) for a wide variety of sexual assault prevention strategies since the 1980s. If you take your information from feminism’s own campaign literature, all these efforts have been completely and utterly worthless. All those women involved, all the millions of hours of campaigning, all the books, posters, and leaflets have made not the slightest jot of difference.
How do I know? Well, back in the early eighties when I first started seriously conversing with feminists, reading their books and leaflets and trying to learn about the world, I was horrified to learn that approximately one in four women would be the victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. I would see variations on it, such as one in four students being victims, or occasionally it would rise or fall to one in five or one in three, but the claim remained fairly constant.
Jump forward three decades, and feminist campaigners continue to use the precise same statistics. For example, here’s The Feminist Wire just a few weeks ago: “One in four college women will experience rape or attempted rape.” Here is a student feminist saying “one in five college women are rape victims.”
As anyone with even a passing awareness of criminological trends should know, something remarkable has happened to violent crime statistics over the past 30 to 40 years. It has happened to an extent in all of the developed world, but especially in the USA. It applies to all violent crime, but especially to sexual assault and rape.
When the National Crime Victimization Survey was created in 1973, it found that 250 women out of every 100,000 had been raped that year. Over the next eight years, the statistics worsened. According to NCVS, around one in every 300 American women over the age of 12 was subject to rape or attempted rape in the single year 1980. By 2010 that had fallen to one in 3,000, a decrease of 90%. At this point I should note that there are statistical problems with victimisation surveys. Their survey populations tend to miss people with more chaotic, less settled lifestyles, who are more likely to be victims of crime. The NCVS in particular is a household survey and (while efforts are made to address this) has real problems picking up domestic and interpersonal violence and abuse. However crucially, these problems have always been there. They were there in 1973, and 1980 and are still there today. So while victim surveys are not a reliable guide to actual extents of crime, they are a very reliable guide to trends. If NCVS says rapes have declined by 90%, there is little reason to doubt that this is broadly true. A variety of alternative research methods have produced similar results, and similar trends can be observed in most other developed democracies. And yet anti-rape activists continue to use statistics drawn from a profoundly different era.
It should also be acknowledged that there are other ways of estimating rape prevalence. Research by Fisher et al, conducted in 1996-7, found an incidence of 2.8% for rape and attempted rape in a period of less than seven months. If one were to scale that up to a 60 month stretch as a college student, admittedly a very crude method, one would indeed reach an incidence of around 20%. (Although we should also note that NCVS figures show a 60% decline in rapes just since 1996)
This week US News magazine ran a deliberately provocative and spiteful attack on campus feminist groups. The author Caroline Kitchens picks up on the “one in five” type statistics I’ve been discussing here and uses it to dismiss the idea that there is a problem with rape and sexual assault on campuses, and to dispute the claim that there is such a thing as “rape culture.”
I have big problems with Kitchens’ article. She dismisses anti-rape activism on the basis of Department of Justice figures, saying that: “Across the nation’s four million female college students, that comes to about one victim [of rape and sexual assault] in forty students.”
I’d agree that compared to rates of one in four, five or six (which are actually quite credible estimates of the situation as it was in the early 80s), one student in 40 being raped or sexually assaulted, if true, would be a magnificent improvement. However it is still one student in 40, which is one student in 40 too many. If one student in 40 was being murdered, would we accept that? I don’t think so, and I’m not prepared to condemn those who strive to reduce that figure to one in 400, one in 4,000 or ideally a big fat zero.
Kitchens also seems to entirely misunderstand and misrepresent what is meant by “rape culture.” I should stress that it is not a term I find especially constructive and I don’t choose to use it myself (not least because it is so easily misunderstood) but if someone is going to criticise a theoretical construct, they should criticise what it actually is, not a straw version. In brief, rape culture does not necessarily assert a “distorted view of masculinity” and nor does it require the actual incidence of rape to be omnipresent or even especially high, instead it refers to a kind of ambient cultural mood which enables rape and which considers any level of rape in society to be tolerable.
Kitchens should have been on stronger grounds with the question of how universities and colleges deal with internal allegations and complaints against students. It certainly appears that an individual such as Caleb Warner, whose case is detailed in the article, has been treated entirely unjustly and I would quite agree that there is legitimate cause for concern as to what safeguards are in place to protect the wrongly accused. However it is a huge leap from there to claiming that sexual assault prevention policies have “certainly made [campuses] treacherous places for falsely accused men” or that “across the country, students accused of sexual assault are regularly tried before inadequate and unjust campus judiciaries.”
I’m prepared to be corrected, but the only research I have been able to find on the practice of sexual assault inquiries on US Campuses is this one, by the Center for Public Integrity, conducted in 2010. In a survey of 130 colleges, it found that around half of all hearings found against the accused. That would suggest to me that the committees are at least being cautious in reaching their judgements. More significantly, only 10% of cases where the complaint was upheld led to the accused student being expelled.
Kitchens, in railing against exaggerated and misleading portrayals of the prevalence of sexual assault, would appear to me to be slipping into the equally dangerous territory of making an exaggerated and misleading portrayal of the extent and consequences of false rape allegations. She concludes her article by saying “advocates for due process, rules of evidence, basic justice and true gender equality need to speak louder than the “f*ckrapeculture” alarmists.”
I really do not disagree with that conclusion. I would only add that those same advocates also need to speak louder than false accusations alarmists, who are no less numerous and in some ways considerably more dangerous.
As I said at the top of this page, feminists can be frustratingly reluctant to acknowledge good news. In an attempt to rebut Kitchens’s article, Jezebel ran a piece by Erin Gloria Ryan which simply added a whole new layer of awful. In her haste to debunk the claim that the incidence of campus rape is now vastly lower than the oft-quoted one in five, Taylor glanced at the title of the study quoted by Kitchens – The Violent Victimization of College Women – and leapt here:
So, from a survey of “violent” victimization, Kitchens extrapolated that the “one-in-five college women will be raped” statistic is false. Check out these statistics that say statistics are crap, guys.
I don’t even know where to begin with this. My eyeballs hurt.
First, Kitchens demonstrates with this column that she doesn’t know what rape is. Like Todd Akin and Whoopi Goldberg, the crime she describes is the eye rollingly cliched image of a woman walking down the street and being violently dragged into an alley by some guy with a dastardly mustache. But that’s not an accurate picture of rape. According to RAINN, more than 2/3 of rapes are perpetrated by an offender known to the victim. Most take place within a mile of the victim’s home. And in many cases of collegiate rape, the victim isn’t overpowered by physical force or violence, but by alcohol. And, legally speaking, having sex with a person who is too intoxicated to consent constitutes “rape.” Hell, of all the women I know who were raped in college, I can’t think of one who has described it to me as “violent.”
In fact, as a couple of mouse clicks would have revealed, the Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of that name does not define rape in any such way. It actually lays out in painful detail the true nature of rape, including circumstances, relationships to the offender and all the rest of it, and says:
“This category includes forced sexual intercourse including psychological coercion as well as physical force… It includes attempted rapes, male as well as female victims and both heterosexual and homosexual rape. Attempted rape includes verbal threats of rape… Sexual assault is also included in this category which includes a wide range of victimizations, separate from rape or attempted rape. These crimes include attacks or attempted attacks generally involving unwanted sexual contact between victim and offender. Sexual assaults may or may not involve force and include such things as grabbing or fondling. Sexual assault also includes verbal threats
Ryan’s reluctance to acknowledge that there may have been some element of truth to Kitchens’s charges, and her kneejerk grab for a reason to hang on to the one in five myth have led her to make an incredibly harmful assertion – that most rapes are not violent. This is astonishingly short-sighted. As has often been said, rape is a violent crime in which the weapon is sex. It is, on its own terms and without any additional aggression or physical harm, an act of the most extreme violence. For a supposedly feminist commentator to slip into this language and logic of rape apologism is sad to see.
It is also, I suspect, what happens when you tie yourself in knots trying to deny inconvenient facts.
Over the past 40 years, society has made huge progress in recognising human rights of sexual autonomy, educating men and women about sexual consent, and challenging and reducing rape culture. It is not a case of mission accomplished, by any means, but it seems to me that the strongest arguments that feminists and anti-rape campaigners have to hand is that people can change, society can change, and we know that, because people and society have already changed massively. All those who have responded to campaigns on sexual violence by shrugging and saying “hey, what can you do, you can’t change human nature” have been proven quite spectacularly wrong.
If we can get this far, there is no reason why we can’t go further.