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Predators Again: NPR Cites Lisak

March 4, 2010

I’ve done my damnedest to give the work of David Lisak as much traction as possible. Zuzu tipped me this morning that he’s now been cited extensively by NPR. The NPR report says:

There’s a common assumption about men who commit sexual assault on a college campus: That they made a one-time, bad decision. But psychologist David Lisak says this assumption is wrong —-and dangerously so.

* * *

It might seem like it would be hard for a researcher to get these men to admit to something that fits the definition of rape. But Lisak says it’s not. “They are very forthcoming,” he says. “In fact, they are eager to talk about their experiences. They’re quite narcissistic as a group — the offenders — and they view this as an opportunity, essentially, to brag.”

What Lisak found was that students who commit rape on a college campus are pretty much like those rapists in prison. In both groups, many are serial rapists. On college campuses, repeat predators account for 9 out of every 10 rapes.

In the Predator Redux post, relying heavily on Lisak, I talked extensively about how the predators choose their victims and methods. Lisak reiterated that to NPR — and I’ll note here that both Lisak’s work and the article narrowly construct the problem and really deal with interactions among cissexual, binary- and het-identified people, which is certainly not the universe of all rape, or even all rape on college campuses. So we’re talking here about studies and theories specific to a subcategory that gets all the attention. The NPR article said:

And these offenders on campuses — just like men in prison for rape — look for the most vulnerable women. Lisak says that on a college campus, the women most likely to be sexually assaulted are freshmen.

“It’s quite well-known amongst college administrators that first-year students, freshman women, are particularly at risk for sexual assault,” Lisak says. “The predators on campus know that women who are new to campus, they are younger, they’re less experienced. They probably have less experience with alcohol, they want to be accepted. They will probably take more risks because they want to be accepted. So for all these reasons, the predators will look particularly for those women.”

Still, Lisak says these men don’t think of themselves as rapists. Usually they know the other student. And they don’t use guns or knives.

“The basic weapon is alcohol,” the psychologist says. “If you can get a victim intoxicated to the point where she’s coming in and out of consciousness, or she’s unconscious — and that is a very, very common scenario — then why would you need a weapon? Why would you need a knife or a gun?”

[Emphasis supplied.]

I would hypothesize, but I don’t know, that predator tactics are fairly stable even outside the college environment and outside the cis-het paradigm, though I don’t know that with any confidence. I’ve said before that the avoidance of overt force and weapons is a tactic to avoid prosecution, and I would expect that the more marginalized the target, the more frequent is the use of overt force by rapists, because some people often can’t get effective redress from the criminal justice system no matter what is done to them.

NPR even provided an example of exactly the kind of behavior Lisak studies: Elton Yarbrough, formerly of Texas A&M, and now of a Texas correctional facility. What happened? Exactly what Lisak’s work predicts, every time:

By the time it was over, there would be a total of five women, all testifying they were assaulted by Yarbrough in the same circumstances: After drinking heavily, each said she passed out or fell asleep and woke to find Yarbrough having sex with her or touching her sexually.

“He would pick the most intoxicated female, whether he’d be at a bar or at a party,” recalled Lt. Brandy Norris, the lead investigator on the case for College Station police. “He’s a serial rapist. He was smart enough to know he didn’t have to hide in the bushes and grab them as they were walking by.”

[Emphasis supplied.]

Since the victim-blaming social structures are so strong, my thought reading this was, “how did any of these women ever get a prosecutor to take it to trial, let alone convince a jury?” Call me cynical. Here’s a partial answer:

A European foreign exchange student, the first woman to accuse Yarbrough by name, had been a friend of a friend of his. The two had chatted on what police would call “The Facebook” and played pool together at a local nightspot. During the 2004 Thanksgiving break at her off-campus apartment, she and her roommate couldn’t get Yarbrough to take the hint to go home after a night of drinking and they all lay down to sleep in the same bed.

The exchange student testified she woke up to find him on top of her, having sex with her. She screamed and demanded he leave, and he did. Her roommate called 911, and at the prompting of police, she called Yarbrough two days later and confronted her assailant on the phone — while police recorded the conversation.

Some excerpts from the tape that were read to the jury:

Victim: “I was passed out, Elton, and you knew it. I don’t care if you were drunk. I was out cold. Why would you do that? Had you planned it, or was it just something that came to you spontaneously? What?”

Yarbrough: “No, I didn’t plan it. I don’t know. I don’t know what happened.”

Victim: “Why did you do it?”

Yarbrough: “I don’t know why … Look, I’m sorry.”

Victim: “You made me feel so sick, so violated, so helpless …”

Yarbrough: “I don’t really — I don’t even know what to say. It was my fault. It’s no excuse but I was drunk. Sorry for making you feel that way.”

The tape became a key piece of evidence that helped put Yarbrough in prison. And news of his arrest would lead three other women to testify that Yarbrough had assaulted them prior to the foreign exchange student.

An admission on tape is pretty good evidence, and evidence that most survivors will not have.

Yarbrough’s victims were his friends. Women he knew very well, women who were comfortable being alone and drunk with him. And some men wonder why a lot of people — women, but not only — view men generally as potential rapists. Well, that’s why. The predators may not be a large portion of the population, but to their targets they are a danger that is not easily identified.

Earlier survivors had come forward, and he could have been stopped. But the first got pointed questions from the health center about being drunk, felt blamed and didn’t want to put herself through the hell of seeking accountability. In acquaintance rapes, it’s only the most recognized and conventional victim narratives that are recognized, and often even those are not.

Journalism being what it is, NPR trotted out someone to disagree with Lisak — not a social scientist, but a lawyer who has worked on campus disciplinary issues:

Stetson University law professor Peter Lake agrees there are plenty of predators on campus, and that it’s important to spot them and get them out of school.

But Lake says there’s a problem the predator theory underestimates: the amount of drinking and sex that’s become common with many — although certainly not all — college students.
“It’s very common for them to go out Wednesday through Saturday at a minimum, drink fairly heavily and hook up sexually with people that they may not know particularly well, may have met for the first time that night, or had been introduced through friends, or MySpace or Facebook,” he says. “So you have a lot of sexual activity, you have alcohol, you have a population that’s sort of an at-risk age, and it’s in some ways, it’s a perfect storm for sex assault issues.”

[Emphasis supplied.]

Here we go. Can I stop him if I’ve heard this one before?

Lake, author of the 2009 book Beyond Discipline: Managing the Modern Higher Education Environment, says schools address sexual assault mainly as a violation of conduct codes. And he says these codes have evolved to better handle sexual assault cases.

Can They Learn From Mistakes?

Part of Lake’s belief in second chances for students comes from personal experience as a law professor. He’s a consultant to universities about discipline procedures, and he was the honor-code investigator for his own law school’s discipline committee for a decade.
But he’s also worked as an attorney in criminal courts where he’d see criminals who were “incorrigible” and who made him “kind of grateful that we have jails and we’re still building them.”

Those men were different than the ones he’d routinely see being disciplined on college campuses. “What surprised me was how many people have made terrible mistakes and can actually learn to be better people from that,” Lake says, “that there still is a chance for teachable moments.”

But Lisak, the psychologist, says schools put too much faith in teachable moments, when they ought to treat sexual assault as a criminal matter. “These are clearly not individuals who are simply in need of a little extra education about proper communication with the opposite sex,” he says. “These are predators.”

I’m going to go ahead and say that Lisak is right. The predators don’t think they did anything wrong. They plan the assault, look for the target with the least access to boundaries and the least chance of support; they victimize, they get away with it, and they repeat several times. When asked about it they will describe their conduct and even, in Lisak’s words, “brag,” but they don’t label it rape. Everyone knows that “rape” is wrong, and really, these rapists are fine with that as long as rape is the act committed by a stranger assailant with a knife. To these serial rapists, getting a target passed-out drunk and committing nonconsensual invasion on an unconscious body is fun … for them.

But hey, maybe Elton Yarbrough learned from his teachable moment. What do you say, Elton?

“I was pretty promiscuous in college. I don’t know too many people who weren’t. I guess when you combine a lot of drinking and partying in college you’re going to have a lot of” sex going on, he said.

And when people drink, their inhibitions are lowered — and, he said, sometimes they have sex with people with whom they wouldn’t normally. “It’s college. You walk around Northgate,” he said, speaking of one of College Station’s most popular bar areas, “you’re going see a lot of drunk men and women. And then, at the end of the night, you’re going to see a lot of drunk men and women going home together.”

But he says he never forced anyone to have sex, and says the four women with whom he admits to having sex were willing participants. He recalled one having participated in foreplay before intercourse, and another came into his bedroom and initiated sex with him, he said. His childhood friend testifying he’d raped her was “a big shock,” in particular, he said.

“Pretty much all of them said they were too drunk to remember the details of that night, but the only details they could remember were the details that were incriminating against me,” he observed. “They didn’t remember any of that other stuff that happened.”

[Emphasis supplied.]

So much for teachable moments.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. epanalepsis permalink
    March 4, 2010 3:07 pm

    And the system, he said, is just more inclined to believe the girl, and not the guy.


    You know, I even believe that it came as “a big shock” to him. But that shock didn’t seem to have any effect.

  2. Marissa permalink
    March 5, 2010 2:10 pm

    I am just so excited that this material is getting more recognition. I teach college courses on the Psychology of Women and Gender as well as Human Sexuality. The lectures on Rape and Sexual Coercion are always difficult particularly when trying to find the “right” words. This blog and Lisak’s work have taken such a prominent position in these discussion and my college students have been VERY responsive to it. Thank you!

    • March 5, 2010 4:02 pm

      Excellent! Are you using the blog in your curriculum, or are some of the students readers?

      • Marissa permalink
        March 8, 2010 5:32 pm

        I make a point to mention the blog as part of the lessons and I hope that students take on readership – I’ve had a few students mention particular posts in their discussions of the material as well so yay!

  3. Esme permalink
    March 6, 2010 9:15 am

    I attended Stetson University as an undergrad. The (very progressive) Sociology department was aware of Stetson’s history with sexual assault, and showed us the 20/20 piece that was done on Stetson’s attitude towards rape victims in the early 90s. A student was gang-raped at a frat party (at a frat where she was well known and well liked), and the school did next to nothing, and prevented the student from reporting the assault while physical evidence was still available. The victim dropped out. Her assailants graduated.

    During my time there, several students were assaulted (that I was aware of). One was raped outside an academic building where public safety was supposed to patrol. Stetson not only compelled the student to not report her assault to the police (by slut-shaming her when she came forward. Their first question to her was “what were you wearing”), but failed to properly report the crime in their statistics. My roommate was raped on two separate occasions, both on campus, and neither incident was reported as it should have been by the administration. The school also failed to report a number of hate crimes (a noose hanging in a student’s room, a gay bashing one block from campus, followed by a number of harassment incidents of gay students, a student attempting to run over African American students, anti-Semitic graffiti all over several men’s rooms and students’ doors).

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