Nov 1 1993

Erasing Rape

Media Hype an Attack on Sexual-Assault Research

According to author Katie Roiphe, acquaintance rape is just a term radical feminists use to describe a night that you regret. She made this argument in a New York Times op-ed in 1991, and made it again in a New York Times Magazine cover story (6/13/93), labeled “Rape Hype.”

The magazine piece was an excerpt from her new book, The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus, which was sympathetically reviewed by the Times‘ Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (9/16/93), who praised Roiphe’s “courage.” It was reviewed again (favorably) on the front page of the New York Times book review section (9/18/93)–perhaps the most coveted piece of newsprint in publishing.

Roiphe’s thesis is that the prevalence of rape is exaggerated by feminists, who are motivated more by fear of sex than by a real threat of sexual violence. In her book and in her “Rape Hype” article, she focuses on a study of sexual assault that found, as she describes it, that “one in four women has been the victim of rape or attempted rape.” Roiphe criticizes this study in an attempt to suggest that rape is not common on campuses, and at the same time to argue that feminists have exaggerated its frequency by using an overly broad definition of rape.

The actual study that Roiphe’s critique focuses on, however, provides convincing evidence that neither of these arguments is true. In her writings, Roiphe gives no indication of having read the study she attacks, citing instead polemical attacks on the study published in right-wing periodicals.

The study in question is a nationwide survey published in 1987 by psychologist Mary Koss, then at Ohio’s Kent State University and now at the University of Arizona’s medical school. The study, financed by the National Institute of Mental Health and published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (Vol. 55 No. 2), surveyed a cross-section of college students about a variety of different types of sexual aggression. The most widely cited finding of this survey is that 28 percent of female respondents had been the victims of rape or attempted rape.

To Roiphe, this “one-in-four” statistic “is measuring something elusive. It is measuring his word against hers in a world where words hardly exist.” She cites the study as her prime evidence that the definition of rape “has stretched beyond bruises and knives, threats of death or violence to include emotional pressure and the influence of alcohol.”

In fact, Koss does not include “emotional pressure” in the definition of rape; she has a separate category, clearly labeled, for women who have experienced non-criminal “sexual coercion.” The definition of rape she used in her survey came not from “campus feminists” but from the Ohio penal code, which (like many other state’s laws) defines rape as sexual intercourse when “the offender purposely compels the other person to submit by force or threat of force [or] for the purpose of preventing resistance the offender substantially impairs the other person’s judgment or control by administering any drug or intoxicant to the other person.”

Under this legal definition of rape, Koss found that 15 percent of women had been raped, with 28 percent experiencing either rape or attempted rape. Eleven percent of women had been raped through force or the threat of harm, with 19 percent indicating either completed or attempted forcible rape.

As Koss points out in her report, these findings match those of other scientific surveys of the issue. A 1989 study at the University of Illinois reported that 16 percent of women students surveyed had been victims of criminal sexual assault, as defined by state statutes. In a federally funded nationwide survey conducted by the National Victims Center in 1992, 14 percent of women reported a completed rape, not counting cases where the victim was unable to consent.

Roiphe ridicules those who would call this “epidemic” or “crisis” by dismissing the numbers as “a matter of opinion, not a matter of mathematical fact.” She makes this dismissal without ever having talked to Koss; when Koss suggested to a New York Times fact-checker that Roiphe ought to have interviewed her, she was promised a call from an editor, which never came. (Efforts by Extra! to reach Roiphe for comment were, at press time, unsuccessful.)

Nor does she ever indicate that she has read Koss’ study, and instead appears to rely on second-hand accounts written by a conservative critic, Berkeley professor Neil Gilbert. When her book cites a question from the survey, it is cited “according to Gilbert”; the footnotes gives no reference to the published study, but instead refer readers to an article Gilbert wrote for the publication Society (5-6/92).

Society is a social science magazine that has moved sharply to the right under editor Irving Louis Horowitz. (In a letter of resignation from the magazine’s board, sociologist Herbert Gans charged that the articles Horowitz published “were for the most part standard ideological assertions of the right and belong in journals devoted to such assertions”–City Pages.)

Though Gilbert has never published anything about rape in a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal, he has written other critiques of Koss’ research for the right-wing press, such as the neo-conservative Public Interest (Spring ’91) and the Wall Street Journal op-ed page (6/27/91, 6/29/93). Gilbert’s widely cited Public Interest article contained grave inaccuracies regarding Koss’ data–inaccurately charging that Koss included “emotional coercion” as part of the definition of rape, for example.

Gilbert’s 1993 Wall Street Journal commentary, his stated goal is to defeat the Violence Against Women Act, which mainly deals with street crime and domestic violence. A 1991 press release issued by the University of California at Berkeley boasted that “partly as a result of Gilbert’s research, Governor Deukmajian last year cancelled all state funding for the school-based [child sex abuse] prevention programs.”

Despite Gilbert’s partisan, non-academic attacks on Koss’ rigorously documented, peer-reviewed research, it is often Gilbert who is considered a scholar in press accounts and Koss who is treated as an ideologue. Even the Chronicle of Higher Education used this frame in a headline on the debate (2/6/92): “A Berkeley Scholar Clashes with Feminists Over Validity of Their Research on Date Rape.”

The point Gilbert makes most frequently against Koss is that 73 percent of the women identified by Koss as having been raped do not label their experience as rape. This critique is taken up by Roiphe: “These are not self-proclaimed victims, then,” she writes in her book, “they are victims according to someone else.” Other writers intent on debunking acquaintance rape “hysteria” have also made the charge; a Washington Post op-ed (5/31/92) complained, “Do these feminists believe women, or do they believe women need expert guidance to know when they’re raped?”

Koss explains that she included these women in her figures because of the prevailing public misconceptions about the legal definition of rape. Particularly in 1985, when the survey was conducted, awareness that an attack by an acquaintance was legally rape was much lower. In a more recent study by Baltimore’s Towson State University, 14 percent of the students surveyed labeled an experience in their past as “rape,” “sexual assault” or “date rape.”

But the implication by Gilbert and others that because women do not use the word “rape,” their experience is therefore trivial, is simply false. According to the Koss study, of all respondents who reported an incidence of legally defined rape (whether or not they used the term), 30 percent considered suicide afterward, 31 percent sought help from a therapist and 82 percent said the experience had changed them. Only 11 percent reported that they “don’t feel victimized.”

Roiphe also follows Gilbert in asserting that the small number of rapes reported to police discredits Koss’ research. In doing so, she overlooks the large body of research about the high rate of unreported rapes and the criminal justice system’s failure to take date rape seriously. The Senate Judiciary Committee reported in May 1993 that an estimated 84 percent of rapes are never reported, with only 2 percent of rapes resulting in convictions. (This report was largely ignored by national media.)

One of Koss’ crucial findings is that the perpetrator in 80 percent of all rapes was someone who knew the victim. Yet Roiphe has her own definition of what constitutes a “real” rape. “It’s hard to watch the silent faces of young Bosnian girls, their words haltingly translated, as they tell of brutal rapes; or to read accounts of a suburban teenager raped and beaten while walking home from a shopping mall.”

While Roiphe accuses feminists of promoting old-fashioned ideas about sex, her presentation of rape as something that only occurs when strangers attack “young” (i.e., virginal) women sets the understanding of sexual assault back decades. It is writers like Roiphe, who reject documented proof of the existence of acquaintance rape without even studying the data, that deserve her own charge of having a “utopian vision of sexual relations.”

Paula Kamen, a Chicago-based writer, is the author of Feminist Fatale.