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The Myths of Rape
May 22, 2001
by Wendy McElroy, mac@ifeminists.com

The mother of all feminist myths on campuses today is that one in four female students has been the victim of rape or attempted rape. So states the conservative Independent Women's Forum in a recent advertisement in student newspapers across the country. The ad referred to feminism as a "cult" and warned that anyone who believed two or more of the ten listed myths might need "deprogramming." The backlash was swift. Last Friday, women's rights groups at UCLA held a rally specifically to protest the ad.

The source of the myth is a study published in 1987, which was commissioned by Ms. Magazine and conducted by Mary Koss -- a researcher chosen by Gloria Steinem. Since then the "one-quarter" stat has become commonplace in newspapers and commentary. Yet Koss herself admited that, of the 27.5% reported "victims," fully 73% were not "aware" of having been raped. Over 40% continued to date their "rapists." Koss seemed to prefer her interpretation of the data over the words and actions of her research subjects. Feminists agreed: the subjects had been raped because their experiences met the definition of rape, which was "sex without consent."

The validity of Koss' study is crucial. PC feminists rabidly defend the one-quarter stat because laws, campus policies and massive funding have been based upon it. They would rather create an atmosphere of sexual and anti-male paranoia, than endanger their financial support or political agenda. As Kate Kennedy, IWF campus projects manager, stated, "What we see time and again is the lack of truth on college campuses and faulty statistics that we feel creates a certain form of national hysteria on campuses."

Key to this hysteria is the redefinition of "rape" that has been going on for decades. The word "rape" comes from the Latin rapere, which means "to take by force." Although the feminist re-wording of "to take without consent" may seem innocuous, the new definition expands the boundaries of rape beyond all reason. The "presence of force" standard has clear evidence such as bruises, a struggle, cries of protest, a police report. The "absence of consent" standard is so vague that radical feminists such as Catharine MacKinnon have stated, "Politically, I call it rape whenever a woman has sex and feels violated." Liz Kelly, in her book Surviving Sexual Violence, captures how rape is defined on many campuses. She writes, "Sexual violence includes any physical, visual, verbal or sexual act that is experienced by the woman or girl, at the time or later, as a threat, invasion or assault, that has the effect of hurting her or degrading her and/or takes away her ability to control intimate contact." [Emphasis added in both.]

This guideline is rampantly subjective and heavily loaded against men. By its standards, a woman who experienced no threat during sex may accuse the man of rape if she feels "threatened" later upon remembering or regretting the act. Moreover, anything she "experiences" as violence is considered to be de facto violent. A few years ago, a survey by two sociologists at Carleton University, financed by a $236,000 government grant, found that 81 percent of female students at Canadian universities and colleges had suffered sexual abuse. The study caused a maelstrom of controversy. Then it was revealed that the researchers had included insults hurled during lover's quarrels within their definition of "sexual abuse."

This re-definition of sexual violence underlies many anti-male policies on campus -- like the extreme Sexual Misconduct Policy at Columbia University. Columbia's policy defines sexual misconduct as "nonconsensual, intentional physical contact with a person's genitals, buttocks, and/or breasts. Lack of consent may be inferred from the use of force, coercion, physical intimidation, or advantage gained by the victim's mental and/or physical impairment or incapacity, of which the perpetrator was, or should have been, aware." The wording "should have been aware" is dangerously subjective.

Even worse, in the hysteria surrounding sexual violence, Columbia has implemented the policy in a manner that utterly suspends due process for the accused who is almost always male. For example, the process does not allow a "defendant" to face his accuser or cross-examine witnesses. Indeed, it is not clear whether he can even hear the testimony of witnesses: the Policy states, "the student does not necessarily have the right to be present to hear other witnesses." The defendant is not allowed to have an attorney present. With a maximum of ten days notice and with little information as to the specific charges -- which can be brought five years after the fact -- the defendant is expected to prepare a defense. His career might hinge upon the result. If found guilty, he can be denied the degree for which he has worked for years and a file tagged "sexual offender" may follow him forever.

Redefinition also fuels attempts to change how the legal system treats rape. A section of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was recently struck down by the Supreme Court. The section allowed an alleged rape victim to sue her attacker for damages in federal civil court for violating her civil rights. The first case filed concerned a campus rape. In 1995, Christy Brzonkala sued two male students for civil damages in federal court for a rape that allegedly occurred at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. The men had been cleared by both a university judicial committee and a criminal grand jury. But the VAWA would have allowed them to be tried for rape in a civil court, which would have been more favorable to a vague definiton of rape that did not require stringent evidence. In a criminal court, rape must be sustained beyond a "reasonable doubt," often defined as 99 percent certainty. Civil court requires only a preponderance of the evidence, often defined as 51 percent certainty. And the rules of evidence are far more relaxed.

As a woman who has been raped, I will never diminish the importance of preventing sexual violence. Quite the contrary. My concern is about the trivialization of rape that occurs when "abusive" comments are classified as assault. I worry about the danger to male students when their freedom of speech -- albeit, poorly exercised -- is treated as a physical attack. Or when an alleged attack does not require evidence to be sustained. The hysteria will only be ended when parents are as concerned about the well being of their sons as they are about their daughters.

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