The National Review and the Politicization of Rape
Perhaps triggered by the Obama administration’s call to action regarding campus rape, the National Review Online has published a series of fact-deficient articles about rape in America. Mona Charen, A.J. Delgado, and Thomas Sowell collectively substantially downplay the seriousness of sexual violence while engaging in extensive victim blaming. All three pieces are marked by overheated rhetoric, including Sowell’s surely record number of uses of the word “lynch” in an article not about race or actual lynching. However, I want to look past the rhetoric to discuss the substantively problematic statements made in the three articles. In particular, these stood out to me:
- “Of course the culture must teach men not to rape. Western culture has been doing so for thousands of years. Next to murder, rape is the most harshly punished crime.” – Charen
This contention, under the most charitable interpretation, is only true if we focus on the small handful of rapists who are prosecuted, convicted, and harshly sentenced. The reality is far different when looking at the entire universe of rape complaints. Even among the number that are reported to the police, prosecution is rare, conviction is rarer, and lengthy incarceration is the outlier event. RAINN estimates that just 3 out of 100 alleged rapists see a day in prison for the rape which they are accused (edited as noted in the comments).
- “Is it not counterproductive to lump victims of violent rape in with victims of ‘sexual assault’?” – Delgado
This rhetorical question illustrates a misunderstanding of modern rape law and the debate on campuses about rape law enforcement. In many jurisdictions, there is no separate crime of rape. Instead, there are just degrees of sexual assault. Delgado could properly argue that there is an important distinction between groping (low-degree sexual assault) and rape (high-degree sexual assault), but she doesn’t identify anyone actually lumping them together.
- “Violent-crime statistics — including sex crimes — have been declining for two decades. Did all the bad guys suddenly decide to enroll in universities? No one can explain it, other than to claim that rapes must have been underreported in the past (a claim that is, conveniently, impossible to disprove).” – Delgado
As my recent study indicates, declining rape rates in America are more indicative of police practices than genuine decreases in sexual assault. In fact, the evidence strongly points to a rise in rape over the last twenty years. However, campus rape specifically is simply understudied and poorly understood. There isn’t good evidence either way about rates of reporting, conviction, rates, or incidents on college and university campuses.
- “After all, for every legitimate, actual rape claim there may be another that was not: a girl who cried rape.” – Delgado
Even with the implied caveat of the words “may be,” this claim is simply wrong. Delgado largely bases this claim on an anecdote about a college friend and some cherry-picked incidents. The plural of anecdote is, of course, not data. In fact, studies of false accusations for rape have generally shown a false reporting rate of 2 to 10%. In the context of other crimes, particularly theft, this rate of false reporting is not unusual and generally indicates, compared to other crimes, false reports of rape are low.
- “The young women who find themselves in a rough world of sexual insensitivity and sometimes even brutality are looking in all the wrong places to lay blame. They should look left; to the cultural left, that is, including the feminists.” – Charen
- “But those who are whipping up the lynch-mob mentality have shown far less interest in stopping rape than in politicizing it. Many of the politically correct crusaders are the same people who have pushed for unisex living arrangements on campus, including unisex bathrooms, and who have put condom machines in dormitories and turned freshman orientation programs into a venue for sexual ‘liberation’ propaganda.” – Sowell
Both Charen and Sowell want to blame some monolithic “left” for rape on campuses. The strangeness of this claim is particularly questionable from Sowell as he is simultaneously decrying the politicization of rape. At the core, both claims seemingly rely on the premises that liberalism teaches promiscuity and promiscuity leads to rape. Ignoring the first premise, the second one is entirely unsubstantiated. There is simply no good evidence that a persons decision to have multiple sex partners over any period of time makes them more likely to be a rape victim. Indeed, the belief of Sowell and Charen is a common rape myth and why every American jurisdiction has a rape shield law.
I respond to the National Review articles not because I believe the authors will change their views. Rather, I think the politicization of rape embodied in the three recent articles is a serious obstacle to successfully decreasing sexual violence in America. Rape is not a political football to be played with. As I always talk about with my Sex Crimes seminar students, there is nothing about rape (with the possible exception of its relevance to debates about abortion) that necessitates it being a Left-Right issue. Generally speaking, the right-wing has been more supportive of hard-on-crime policies and the left-wing has been more considered with gender issues (where rape has historically fit). And so, there should be a natural overlap within which reasonable discussion can occur.
When the President says we need to do more about rape, the proper responses should be, “what should we do?” and “how can I help?” It says much about our ugly politics that blaming the “left” is considered a reasonable response. Rape is a horrible crime and rape victims are real people. Casting them aside to score political points is simply unacceptable.
Sowell’s larger point illustrates the potential upside of non-partisan debate about rape. Sowell points to the dangers of campus adjudication of rape complaints. On this issue, reasonable minds can disagree. Campus tribunals are often poorly designed, susceptible to undue influence, and inconsistent. Further, university penalization of those found guilty through campus proceedings is all over the map in terms of severity. On the other hand, the criminal justice system moves far too slow and often not at all in rape prosecutions. That means on-campus victims are often left dealing with their rapists without some alternative to the criminal justice system. The current system fails everyone and clearly needs improvement. Rather than politicizing the issue, Sowell could have offered any litany of suggestions on how to harmonize, improve, or speed up the criminal and campus justice systems.
Not too long ago, conservative Senator Sam Brownback and liberal Senator Paul Wellstone co-sponsored the first major federal legislation specifically focused on human trafficking, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The natural overlap between the hard-on-crime approach of Brownback and Wellstone’s concern for women’s and children’s issues led to cooperation that seems almost unfathomable in today’s toxic political climate. Hopefully, the recent efforts to turn rape into an issue of partisanship will abate and similar federal and state laws can emerge to address the ongoing and serious problem of sexual violence in America.