Guest Column: Do sexual assaults on college campuses require a federal response?


President Barack Obama this week signed an executive memorandum setting up a special task force focused on sexual assault on U.S. college campuses. The president’s order followed the release of a new report from the White House Council on Women and Girls, “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action.” According to the study, one in five college students is sexually assaulted.

The new task force will have three months to recommend how colleges and universities can reduce that figure. But does the problem of sexual assault on campus really rise to the federal level? Or is the Obama administration overreaching? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.

BEN BOYCHUK: Be wary of the claim that one in five students have been sexually assaulted or raped at some point in their college careers. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports a sharp drop in total rapes and sexual assaults nationwide — down 38.7 percent between 2008 and 2009, which are the most recent years for which data are readily available. Yet the White House stubbornly repeats the one-in-five claim.

As my Manhattan Institute colleague Heather MacDonald noted, in 2011 there were just 36.8 rapes per 100,000 residents of Detroit, a city with one of the worst violent crime rates in America. That’s a rate of 0.037 percent. “If 18-year-old girls were in fact walking into such a grotesque maelstrom of sexual violence when they first picked up their dormitory room key,” Mac Donald observed, “parents and students alike would have demanded a radical restructuring of college life years ago.”

Look askance, too, at the Obama administration’s claim that school officials are ignoring widespread instances of sexual assault. Federal law for decades has required schools to maintain detailed records of rape and assault. Activists claim the crimes are simply under-reported, despite the fact that governments have poured tens of millions of dollars annually into campus rape prevention and awareness campaigns, such as Take Back the Night.

What’s really happening here? The latest White House report offers a hint, noting how sexual assaults are “fueled by drinking and drug use.” The supposed epidemic of sexual violence on college and university campuses is really an epidemic of partying. Changing the “rape culture” requires cracking down on the party culture. Expect more demands for greater funding, and endless cries to “take back the night.”

JOEL MATHIS: Be wary of conservative dismissals of campus rape. A large swath of the conservative movement is convinced that the “problem” is overblown at best. Conservative contempt for liberals has led them to deny that there’s any problem. “The crisis doesn’t exist,” Heather MacDonald, a leading debunker of campus sex assault, wrote in 2008.

Admittedly It’s true the 1-in-5 statistic does cover a somewhat ambiguous set of situations. It was based on a 1985 survey that asked women this question: “Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn’t want to because a man gave you alcohol or drugs?” Men and women who are parties to such incidents may not recognize them as “rape” per se — but that point of view suggests that “no means no” only until someone can induce legal compliance via drugs, alcohol or simple unwillingness to take “no” for an answer.

If it is difficult for us to call such incidents “rape,” it is also difficult to suggest that true consent has been granted. Less ambiguous was a 1997 survey that questioned women in graphic language that covered the elements of a criminal rape charge. That incident found that 1.7 percent of college women had experienced a “complete” rape; an additional 1.1 percent had experienced “attempted rape.”

Does the cumulative number of 2.8 percent sound small? Consider this: In 2006, Detroit (Mac Donald’s favorite reference point) experienced a violent crime rate of 2.4 percent — 2,400 violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants. It’s possible women are safer in Detroit than they are at a fraternity party.

So campus rape is a real problem. Who should deal with it? Everybody. The federal government certainly has an interest. Culture warriors should take a deep breath, then see what recommendations Obama’s task force comes up with and whether they make sense.