Wednesday, April 8, 2009

More erroneous information from the sexual assault cottage industry, uncritically parroted by a college paper

Sexual assault counselors are generally paid to raise awareness about sexual assault, which is a good thing. But I've never heard one of them say "false rape claims are a significant problem." This is not altogether surprising since their livelihoods depend on rape being a prevalent phenomenon, and every false rape claim not only is one less rape but it raises questions as to the credibility of rape claimants in general. Unfortunately, some sexual assault counselors fan the flames of rape hysteria by engaging in Chicken Little scare tactics about the prevalence of rape, and by insisting that false rape claims are a myth.

Sadly, news reporters, especially on college campuses, are often complicit conspirators in spreading untruths by uncritically writing whatever the sexual assault counselors say. Here are excerpts from a recent article in The Daily Cardinal of the University of Wisconsin - Madison, followed by my comments:

Several UW-Madison sexual assault experts work on a daily basis to educate students about the reality of the crime and how to debunk common misconceptions.

“As much as people think-—they want to think—that rape is a rare thing, the reality is it … isn’t even close to being rare,” said Kelly Anderson, director of the Dane County Rape Crisis Center.
. . . .
Confusion over sexual assault laws can compound problems with reporting.

“One of the most common calls we get to our center is people saying, ‘I’m not sure if I am calling the right place, I’m not sure if what happened to me was rape,’ and what they describe is absolutely rape under Wisconsin statute,” she said.

Most people are unaware of the definition of sexual consent, which is why victims are often unsure if what they endured was rape, according to Simons.

“Consent is a freely given ‘yes’ and not the absence of ‘no,’” she said. “A lot of times when you tell people that, they will be like, ‘Wow, I actually have to hear the consent.’”
. . . .
“It’s not that false reports don’t happen,” she said. “It’s that underreports are by far the bigger issue.”


The assertions of the sexual assault counselor quoted in the article are not critically challenged by the reporter despite the fact they contain errors. The following are not my "opinion," they are facts beyond legitimate dispute.

First: The sexual assault counselor alleged that women report incidents to her without knowing if they constitute rape. She declares that what the women describe "is absolutely rape under Wisconsin statute." She proceeds to state: “Consent is a freely given ‘yes’ and not the absence of ‘no,’” she said. 'A lot of times when you tell people that, they will be like, "Wow, I actually have to hear the consent."’”

The only fair reading of the sexual assault counselor's comments is that consent in the sexual assault context must be spoken. This view is consistent with feminist advocacy that insists consent should be orally expressed and, according to some advocates, "enthusiastic."

The sexual assault counselor's statement is legally incorrect and should not have been uncritically published by the newspaper. Under Wisconsin law, "consent" in the context of sexual assault is defined as follows: "'Consent', as used in this section, means words or overt actions by a person who is competent to give informed consent indicating a freely given agreement to have sexual intercourse or sexual contact." Wis. Stat. § 940.225

A male does not have to “hear” consent -- because consent does not require a verbal manifestation of assent. Consent is any overt manifestation of assent to enter into sexual relations. It can be expressed by conduct as well as words. The test is whether a reasonable person in the position of the male would understand that consent has been given. The woman’s secret, undisclosed intentions, desires or whims, and her ex post facto, belated, after-the-fact regrets, are of no import; all that matters are her external, objective manifestations of assent at the time of the act.

The effect of this error is to tell young women that they are being raped with abandon. The fact is, sexual interactions often take place without any words being spoken, but where the woman's "consent" is every bit as loud and clear as a spoken "yes." But according to this sexual assault counselor, all of these young women who consent by overt conduct instead of a verbal "yes" have been raped, and all these young men who correctly interpret the woman's overt conduct as consent without hearing a verbal "yes" are rapists. And she insists that Wisconsin law "absolutely" compels this conclusion.

I pointed out the article's error to the newspaper's author yesterday via a message to the editor, but have not yet received a response. I suspect that the editors and author do want to convey accurate information, and trust that they will not be conflicted to correct this misstatement even if they personally don't agree with the law's definition of "consent."

Second: The article states: “'It’s not that false reports don’t happen,' she said. 'It’s that underreports are by far the bigger issue.'”

This claim is, of course, unsubstantiated. Every serious, unbiased study ever conducted on the subject shows that false rape claims are a significant problem. Every single one. See this summary in my recent article here For example, Professor Eugene Kanin’s landmark study of a mid-size Midwestern city over the course of nine years found that 41 percent of all rape claims were false, not merely unfounded. “Kanin also studied the police records of two unnamed large state universities and found that in three years, 50 percent of the 64 rapes reported to campus police were determined to be false.” In a 1985 study of 556 rape allegations, 27% of the accusers recanted, and an independent evaluation revealed a false accusation rate of 60%. McDowell, Charles P., Ph.D. “False Allegations.” Forensic Science Digest, (publication of the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations), Vol. 11, No. 4 (December 1985), p. 64.

Underreporting, on the other hand, is far less certain -- it is a moving target, and no one has any real idea how serious it is. While there is underreporting of every crime, it is wrong to assert with no authority beyond the claimant’s serene ipse dixit that underreporting is a more serious problem than false rape claims. (The "proof" for this assertion is no better than this: "We know that underreporting is more prevalent because no one is reporting all these rapes that must be occurring, which proves, of course, that underreported rape is more common than false claims." Do you see how useless it is to make unsupported blanket statements in this area?) The fact is that polls conducted to determine underreporting typically have utilized politicized, faulty questions that incorrectly define rape – sound familiar? Even when the pollsters themselves conclude that the incident in question represents a "rape," the majority of women who actually reported the incident disagree. The effect is to count as underreported “rapes” perfectly legal, and very common human sexual interactions.

Is that at all surprising given that sexual assault counselors, like the one quoted in the article, apparently don't understand the law?

In any event, the newspaper owes it to its readers to present accurate information by correcting these misstatements.