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Responses to the Barnett Letter
I have received several cogent responses to Math Professor Alex Barnett’s open letter regarding sexual assault. They point to the difficult fact that thoughtful people do not agree on the nature of the problem itself. The first comment comes from Jeffrey Sunshine, the father of a Northwestern student who died of alcohol poisoning in 2008:
Please let me take this opportunity to comment on some aspects of Professor Barnett’s letter to President Hanlon which was recently referenced in your blog.
I am concerned that Professor Barnett considers alcohol consumption (usually illegal) to be merely a “tool of rape” and thus, “alcohol abuse reduction is not a useful lever to reduce rape”. I believe this is wrong.
Professor Barnett appears to confuse rape, attempted rape and physical sexual abuse. For example, he mischaracterized the well known statistic that by the end of college about one in four female students will be the victim of physical sexual abuse by stating the statistic apples to “rape or attempted rape.” Although all rapes and all attempted rapes that include physical assaults are physical sexual assaults, the term physical sexual assaults includes many acts that are not rapes or attempted rapes, for example unwanted or un-consented-to kissing.
Moreover, Professor Barnett points to studies concerning serial rapists (known as the predator theory) to apparently support a hypothesis that the removal of a relatively few students from campus would go a long way to solving the sexual assault problem. I believe that those studies only addressed rapes and only where the perpetrator acknowledged they knew the victim was unwilling. They do not address the common sexual assault circumstance where, I am informed by college presidents, the wants of the victim are not known, often due to diminished capacity.
The simple fact is that most sexual assaults on college campuses involve alcohol use and diminished capacity by the perpetrator, the victim or both. The alcohol is not merely incidental. Even in Professor Barnett’s world of rape, the alcohol, not physical force, is the weapon of choice. The rapes occur because there is a lot of alcohol around. (Professor Barnett’s argument is similar to the anti-gun control argument that people kill people, guns do not kill people.) In addition, recent research has shown that female college students usually are not actively encouraged to drink excessive amounts of alcohol, but do so because it is part of the college culture. They do it because it is how they fit in; it is what is expected of them.
I know that Dr. Kim may not have been a popular figure on the Dartmouth campus. But here he is correct. To address the problem of rape and sexual assaults on its campus, Dartmouth will have to address the culture of alcohol on its campus. As a public health physician, Dr. Kim was well aware that a multi-faceted approach is necessary to address the college culture of alcohol, as was necessary to address the problems of drinking and driving, and smoking.
A devoted alumnus writes in with further thoughts:
I read the Barnett letter on sexual assault. I agree that sexual assault is a problem on college campuses, including ones that I’m familiar with through personal experience as a student and staff member.
However, I don’t accept Barnett’s basic premise: “As you know, the national statistics are that by the end of college, one in four female students will have been victims of rape or attempted rape [Fisher 2000].”
Here is a link to an article by Heather MacDonald in City Journal that does a good job of refuting some of the widely accepted, but untrue, “facts” about sexual assault on college campuses: The Campus Rape Myth. The reality: bogus statistics, feminist victimology, and university-approved sex toys.
…The campus rape industry’s central tenet is that one-quarter of all college girls will be raped or be the targets of attempted rape by the end of their college years (completed rapes outnumbering attempted rapes by a ratio of about three to two). The girls’ assailants are not terrifying strangers grabbing them in dark alleys but the guys sitting next to them in class or at the cafeteria.
This claim, first published in Ms. magazine in 1987, took the universities by storm. By the early 1990s, campus rape centers and 24-hour hotlines were opening across the country, aided by tens of millions of dollars of federal funding. Victimhood rituals sprang up: first the Take Back the Night rallies, in which alleged rape victims reveal their stories to gathered crowds of candle-holding supporters; then the Clothesline Project, in which T-shirts made by self-proclaimed rape survivors are strung on campus, while recorded sounds of gongs and drums mark minute-by-minute casualties of the “rape culture.” A special rhetoric emerged: victims’ family and friends were “co-survivors”; “survivors” existed in a larger “community of survivors.”
…If the one-in-four statistic is correct—it is sometimes modified to “one-in-five to one-in-four”—campus rape represents a crime wave of unprecedented proportions. No crime, much less one as serious as rape, has a victimization rate remotely approaching 20 or 25 percent, even over many years. The 2006 violent crime rate in Detroit, one of the most violent cities in America, was 2,400 murders, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults per 100,000 inhabitants—a rate of 2.4 percent. The one-in-four statistic would mean that every year, millions of young women graduate who have suffered the most terrifying assault, short of murder, that a woman can experience. Such a crime wave would require nothing less than a state of emergency—Take Back the Night rallies and 24-hour hotlines would hardly be adequate to counter this tsunami of sexual violence. Admissions policies letting in tens of thousands of vicious criminals would require a complete revision, perhaps banning boys entirely. The nation’s nearly 10 million female undergrads would need to take the most stringent safety precautions. Certainly, they would have to alter their sexual behavior radically to avoid falling prey to the rape epidemic…
I think the “one in four” statistic is more than just “debatable.” It’s a myth.
See also a 1998 article that described in detail the methodology behind Ms. Magazine’s infamous statistic: “Realities and Mythologies of Rape” by Cal Berkley sociologist Neil Gilbert appeared in the well-respected academic journal Society. Also, former Clark University philosophy professor and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute Christina Hoff Sommers has reviewed the literature in this area in her article Researching the “Rape Culture” of America.
Addendum: A post on the Feministe blog summarizes and critiques an NPR report on the profiles of people committing sexual assault.
Addendum: Slate’s Emily Joffe summarizes the scholarship on binge drinking and sexual assault, and she offers some wisdom of her own. Her piece is entitled, “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk, It’s closely associated with sexual assault. And yet we’re reluctant to tell women to stop doing it.”
She has also responded to the wave of angry criticism that she received in response to her above-mentioned piece.
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