The ‘Rape Culture’ Moral Panic is a Threat to Liberty

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Fri, Dec 19 - 9:00 am EST | 4 years ago by
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Free Radical - Rape Culture

Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Erdely’s sensational tale of a gang rape at a University of Virginia frat house has been unraveling practically since the day it was published. From the beginning, the article’s parade of sociopathetic characters – both the alleged perpetrators and the friends of Jackie, the pseudonymous accuser – were hard for many to believe. Other claims, such as the idea that Jackie was rolled around on broken glass for three hours without sustaining serious injuries requiring hospitalization, were simply nonsensical. It took only minimal scrutiny and the kind of basic fact-checking that should have preceded publication to poke major holes in the story, eventually forcing Rolling Stone to repeatedly backtrack and apologize.

Perhaps the final blow to the sordid tale came in the form of a Washington Post story featuring interviews with Jackie’s friends, who despite never being contacted by Erdely were portrayed as more concerned with their social status and popularity than getting Jackie help or justice. Not only do they refute that account, but they also claim that Jackie identified her alleged attacker to them, only to have it turn out that no such person attended the university or met the description provided.

Even more interesting than how Erdely botched the facts is why it happened.

Simply put, Jackie’s tale was too good to verify. It fit neatly the “rape culture” narrative that contends not only that the nation is suffering an epidemic of sexual assaults, but that the public is grossly indifferent to the plight of female victims, particularly on college campuses.

The rape culture narrative has become so ubiquitous that it has reached the level of a moral panic, with ideologues seeing signs of its influence everywhere. And like the moral panics that have come before, it is becoming a major threat to individual liberty.

Moral panics come in many shapes and sizes, but often begin with concern over legitimate issues. The current sexual assault panic is of this type, as was the satanic ritual child abuse panic of the 1980s. Sometimes moral panics result only in pointless rules that do little harm, like the age appropriate ratings that emerged after the panic over violence in video games. But sometimes they can have more sinister repercussions.

Back when the public consensus was that every adult wanted nothing more than to molest any child within reach, prosecutors responded predictably by charging anyone that came in contact with children with imagined crimes. Only later after the panic subsided was it determined that children often lied, were coerced by adults with agendas, or were simply too impressionable to tell the difference between reality and the fever dreams of panicked caretakers, resulting in a wave of false convictions.

These are factors that a sober, mature approach would have considered from the outset. The need to prevent crime, or find justice for victims after the fact, ought to be balanced against the right of the accused and the preservation of due process. But in the midst of a moral panic and the mob mentality it evinces, nothing matters except eradicating the great evil.

The inability to balance competing interests is a telltale sign that a moral panic is under way. Current demands from prominent feminists to always believe the victim, reiterated by a number of commentators even in the wake of Rolling Stone‘s debunked reporting, fit this description. No woman should have her story of abuse questioned, the current narrative goes, because to do so is to traumatize her again.

So pervasive is the rape culture narrative that the UVA President, after having initially responded to the Rolling Stone story by immediately suspending all Greek organizations, has so far refused to undo the order despite the new facts that have led to the story’s retraction. Supposedly, we are now told, the punishment for being an organization to which belonged the alleged perpetrators of a debunked crime will be lifted in January. Apparently that is the requisite amount of time that one must bow at the alter of rape culture and beg repentance before being allowed to return to the sordid existence of being a male on campus.

None of this is to say that nothing untoward happened to Jackie (though we may simply never know), nor that rape is not a serious crime. But exaggerating the severity of the problem has real world consequences far beyond ideologically driven journalistic malpractice.

A popular myth is that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted while in college. By any measure that’s an astonishing figure. Even President Obama has cited it. It’s also total bunk.

A new survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that between 1995 and 2013 there was an average of 6.1 sexual assaults per 1,000 female students each year, or 2.44 percent over a standard four-year period. That means the 1 in 5 figure is exaggerated almost 10 times over. Another interesting finding, contra the moral panic, is that the rate of sexual assault for women has been declining since 1997.

So where did the 1 in 5 figure come from? It’s based on a 2007 campus sexual assault study by the National Institute of Justice that has been repeatedly criticized as plagued by obvious methodological problems. For one, the study consisted of students from just two universities and had a low response rate, making it a very small and likely unrepresentative sample to base such sweeping claims upon. It also used highly misleading questions open to subjective interpretation, and so broadly defined sexual assault that “attempted forced kissing” met the criteria, meaning the survey equally counted violent gang rape alongside the fairly standard but awkward misreading of signals that might led one person to try to kiss another when they don’t want it.

The recent BJS study, on the other hand, surveyed a much larger population with more straight forward questions and more reasonable definitions. But don’t expect the 1 in 5 figure to go away any time soon.

The BJS study also found that college women are less likely to be assaulted than non-students of a similar age, yet the moral panic is especially focused on universities. Why might that be? One possibility is that college men are a particularly easy demographic to scapegoat given the excessive party atmosphere. Another is that it provides an opportunity to skirt due process protections and codify the feminist ideal to “believe victims en masse,” as desired by Jessica Valenti, a vocal proponent of the rape culture narrative.

Responding to the cries of rape culture and the ongoing college sexual assault panic, the federal government through use of Title IX has pressured public universities to dramatically reduce the burden of proof for sexual assault accusations and erode due process rights for accused individuals.

Last month, the Department of Education ended an investigation into the sexual harassment and assault policies of Princeton University, one of the last holdouts to lowering the standard of proof required before punishing students accused of sexual misconduct. The government forced Princeton to adopt “a preponderance of the evidence standard,” which in layman’s terms means there need only be a 50.1 percent belief that the accuser is telling the truth before punishing the accused, instead of their more traditional requirement that there be “clear and convincing” evidence of guilt before conviction. Shockingly, the government even faulted the university for allowing accused students, but not accusers, to appeal decisions. The right for defendants to appeal is a strong American legal tradition that ensures every opportunity for the innocent to clear their names, while also protecting against the need to repeatedly defend oneself against the same accusation.

We are already witnessing the disturbing consequences of this frenzied push to institute a presumption of guilt. Not only have colleges adopted unfair systems resulting in numerous lawsuits over wrongful punishments, but officials in several states are now pushing misguided “affirmative consent” standards that would make it all but necessary to consult a lawyer before initiating any sexual encounter.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. One class of individuals is making out quite well in the midst of the panic, as a number of universities have created high paying positions as landing spots for former Department of Education officials to serve as “Title IX Coordinators.” Nevertheless, the longer the sexual assault panic lasts, the harder it will be to pick up the pieces and undo the damage once sanity returns.

Brian Garst is a political scientist, commentator, and advocate for free markets and individual liberty. He also blogs at and you can find him on Twitter @BrianGarst.

Also read: Campus Sex and the Anti-Sexiness of the New Authoritarians.

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  • Kasimir Urbanski

    Why is the focus on universities? I think you missed the most likely reason: it is because Pseudo-Activists are fundamentally narcissistic. Their post-modernist way of thinking demands that everything revolve around them. So you could argue that they don’t actually care about women who aren’t in university, but it isn’t even that: its just that THEY are in university, and so obviously the University must be the Most Important Thing, because they’re in it.

    This situation of “the frat didn’t actually do anything but we’re just going to keep punishing them anyways because we feel its the kind of thing that COULD have been true (or Should have)” is a perfect example of what I was talking about in my article this week:

    Likewise, in the subject of how postmodernism hurts its own side, who is going to ultimately be the most harmed by this situation of someone making up rape stories, no one checking for fact because the Narrative cannot be challenged, and then having the whole thing fall apart? Women. Because every time some post-modernist idiot decides to create or encourage a “narrative” that isn’t true about rape, it makes it harder for the women who actually do suffer from sexual assault to be believed. It makes their whole trauma just a little more horrible. That’s the FAULT of the post-modernist “activists” in all of this.

  • Craig

    Good piece, Brian. It’s amazon how much the inflated “1 in 5″ stat is thrown around as fact.

  • Belle

    This article is sickening. 1 in 5 is more likely really 1 in 3. Rape is rampant on college campuses and pigs like you are writing this?

    • Kenny Johnson

      There is no evidence for your beliefs.

      That would be a higher rate of rape on college campuses than in the Congo.

      If you think that’s true you’re nuts.

    • Belle

      Your not a woman. You don’t know what we go through. Many women live in fear that every time they go to a party or bar near campus that someone will slip something into their drink. Getting girls drunk at frat parties, and “sharing” them is commonplace. The rape problem is real and highly under-reported due to the shame involved.

    • Kenny Johnson

      Sorry but actualy you have nothing to substantiate that opinion. The evidence shows that women in college are raped very infrequently. If you’re scared I cannot solve for that but you are being used by authoritarians.

    • Blanche Starbong

      What evidence? Methinks you sound like a rapist .

    • Kenny Johnson

      That evidence. .03 in 5 college students will be raped. That’s about 6 in 1,000. There isn’t a rape epidemic in the United States. There is an epidemic of authoritarian assholes that want to try to change the country and move it away from liberalism to authoritarianism.

      We can’t have an omelet without breaking some eggs, right?

    • myfairlizzy

      Whether the statistics are wrong,one rape is too many. I myself was raped at a university AND also outside of a university. I dont assume everyone accused is guilty and i think woman that make false allegations are as bad as an actual rapist, because of false allegations actual victims get revictimized by the doubt. I personally wish at times i had been murdered because pain from being raped never ends.

    • Bordeaux Vixen

      Re-victimization is horrible, I’m so sorry you’ve experienced something this painful in so many iterations.

    • Barrett

      You’re confusing an annual rate with an overall prevalence. The BJS finds an annual self-reported rate of 6 in 1,000.

      Further: the BJS systematically under-estimates rape because it simply asks the directly whether a woman has been a victim of a crime. Many women are hesitant to acknowledge they’ve been raped, even though they report experiencing behavior that fits the legal definition. Studies that ask women about behavior find the rate of assault and rape is significantly higher.

    • Kenny Johnson

      The problem with any study is that it will never be perfect. We have other studies that overstate the rate of occurrence and have other biases.

      The United States, especially on college campuses, do not have an epidemic of rape. They especially do not have a 1/5 rate of rape. That is higher than the Congo.

    • Barrett

      Of course not study is ever perfect, but multiple studies have placed the lifetime prevalence of rape/sexual assault at or around 1 in 5.

      The lifetime prevalence of rape by force alone in the DRC is estimated to be around 35% to 40% — so, no, its much much higher there.

      “I don’t believe it because it sounds really bad” is not a very convincing argument.

    • Shawn Smith

      Methinks you sound like a psychotic who enjoys throwing around baseless accusations.

    • Jack Strawb

      One more false rape accuser. Fuck off.

    • Shawn Smith

      Here’s an idea if a college girl is worried about rape: Don’t go to a party and get black-out drunk.

    • Rasa Urbanski

      So…. If someone were to rape YOU, it would be OK, if you were drunk enough?
      You do realize that’s what you’re saying, right?
      Since when does being inebriated equal an open invitation to be violated?
      I’m pretty sure that if you had one too many, and some man penetrated your body, you wouldn’t say, “whoops! I shouldn’t have drunk so much…. My bad!”

    • Shawn Smith

      No, that’s not remotely what I’m saying. Let me try an analogy: Mugging someone is wrong, always and without exception. If a man walks alone through a bad part of town with hundred dollar bills hanging out of his pockets, my sympathy for him when he gets mugged greatly decreases. It is still a crime, and the criminal should be prosecuted, but that man was acting stupidly. There are terrible people in the world, and there always will be. Acknowledging this is not excusing their actions. Acting as if this is not true will not change it.

      Frankly, it is vicious and hateful to make such accusations against me. I wish I could say I were surprised, but that’s pretty much how the Left operates these days.

    • Jack Strawb

      …but that’s pretty much how the Left operates these days.

      Huh. I wonder where they learned it from. WMDs, WMDs, WMDs…

      The idea that this is more typical of the left than the right is lunacy.

    • Shawn Smith

      I know what you’re trying to connect to what I said, but for the life of me, I can’t understand the connection you’re trying to make.

    • Pat_Loudoun

      Belle, despite the fact that you are clearly suffering from mental illness, your proper place is in jail.

      It is quite clear you would have no problem whatsoever destroying someone’s life with a false accusation.

    • R_of_the_H

      You appear to write like one who has had a lot of suffering.
      Have you ever been asked to go to a prom?

  • Blanche Starbong

    Yeah. And Bill Cosby is a certified rape counselor. And the Catholic church punishes pedophiles. And you aren’t a rapist yourself, but a defender of “freedom”. ha

    • Kenny Johnson

      How dare you disagree with the party! If you do, we will silence you! You’re a little authoritarian aren’t you? It’s okay though. The SJ fad will be over in a year.

  • 4th doorman of the apocalypse

    “The BJS study also found that college women are less likely to be assaulted than non-students of a similar age, yet the moral panic is especially focused on universities.”

    Hmmm, the graphs show that it depends on which years you look at. In some years college women were more likely to be “assaulted” and in 2013 it was a wash.

  • Tom Kratman

    Can anyone say, “Salem Witch Trials”?

  • Barrett

    A political scientist ought to be able to read and interpret statistics better than this:

    The BJS study is not really new, its a re-assessment of older data from the National Crime Victimization Survey. Further, The 1 in 5 statistic is an overall incidence. Last the BJS assessment did not find a statistically significant trend.

    The DOJ itself has found that the questions asks on the National Crime Victimization Survey systematically under-reports rape and sexual assault because they ask directly about crimes — and studies have consistently found that women who experience behavior that fit the legal definition of rape are hesitant to call it that. The 1 in 5 statistic is actually supported by decades of research and multiple surveys dating back to the 1970s.

    By “Forced kissing”, CSA’s authors mean kissing that occurs because of “someone holding you down with his or her body weight, pinning your arms, hitting or kicking you, or using or threatening to use a weapon against you.” sure as hell sounds like sexual assault to me. The rate of penetrative rape is 1 in 10.

    • Brian Garst

      The popularly asserted idea that 1-in-5 college women will be sexually assaulted is bunk, and has repeatedly been shown to be bunk. People who insist upon its continued use are being dishonest. The studies’ own authors admit, “We don’t think one in five is a nationally representative statistic.”

    • Barrett

      Who showed it to be bunk?

      The notion that the statistic came from a single study is bunk, and people who insist that it is are either ignorant or dishonest. Multiple studies have found a prevalence rate at or around 20%. The first in 1977 (Koss et. al), another in 1999 (Brenner et. al), another in 2000 (Samuels et. al), and two more in 2007 (Kilpatrick et al and the CSA).

      Further, the 2010 National Intimate Partner Sexual Violence Survey and the National Women’s Study found rates of rape and sexual assault in nationally representative samples of adult women much higher than those reported on the NCVS. The BJS itself itself has acknowledged that the National Crime Victimization Survey probably underestimates the frequency of rape and sexual assault and is currently in the process of examining new methods.

      No study is perfect, but this finding is supported by decades of research, and its patently dishonest to pretend its some kind of outlier.

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