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June 17 2015

Hyping the "Rape Culture" by the Washington Post?

Charlotte Hays

The Washington Post on June 12 published a package of three separate articles, two (here and here) on the front page and one inside that included information from a Post-Kaiser Foundation survey on sexual assault on campus. The striking headline on the lead page-one article: “1 in Five Women Say They Were Violated.” The newspaper also hosts today "a provocative conversation about sexual assault on college campuses."

I feel certain that many participants in the conversation will cite the one-in-five statistic, which has been widely promoted by the Obama administration, which uses this startling figure to establish new guidelines for handling allegations of sexual assault on campus. If this figure is true, then there certainly is--as the administration maintains--a “rape culture’ on campus. But the figure has been widely debunked, though it has taken on a life of its own. 

Stuart Taylor of the Brookings Institution and author KC Johnson, who were early challengers of the Duke Lacrosse team rape charges, which turned out to have been unfounded, argue in an article in the Weekly Standard that the Post package is so misleadingly reported that with it the newspaper “has joined a race to the bottom among the legacy media.”

Taylor and Johnson write:

But like many other advocacy polls on sexual assault, the Post-Kaiser poll misleads readers—most of whom surely will assume that “sexual assault” means criminal sexual assault—by using that criminally charged phrase for shock value in the articles while deliberately avoiding it in the survey questions. As detailed below, those questions are so broad as to invite survey respondents to complain about virtually any encounter that they later regretted, including many that were not sexual assault or rape as defined by law.

According to the Post’s accompanying articles, the “survivors” of these sexual encounters experienced enormous pain and suffering. But it’s not entirely clear how the Post determined that the students with whom the paper spoke are in fact “survivors” of sexual assault, although some clearly were. Virtually none of these students went to the police, nor did most report any incident to their colleges, whose adjudication procedures are all but designed to find the accused student guilty. Instead, the Post reporters simply assumed the truth of most of their sources’ claims and thus the guilt of the accused.

Details from the few subjects who did report matters to police reflect badly on the Post’s credibility. Take, for instance, the student with whom one of the Post’s front-pagers leads, Rachel Sienkowski. Reporters Emma Brown, Nick Anderson, Susan Svrluga, and Steve Hendrix say in their second paragraph that a few weeks after arriving on the Michigan State campus, Sienkowski “had become a survivor” after an afternoon of tailgating ended with a man she didn’t know in her bed. She went to the police, the Post reported, because she awoke not only having been violated, but with her head bloodied.

But the end of the article lets slip that in fact this, the paper’s lead example of a campus sexual assault, seems instead to have been a regretful, but not atypical, drunken hookup that neither party remembers well. The scary bleeding was apparently self-inflicted when Sienkowski fell out of her loft bed onto the floor, while the male was asleep. The person she brought back to her room wasn’t a Michigan State student (and might not have been a college student at all). And, the Post disclosed in the last 120 words of a 2,870-word article, even Sienkowski conceded that “she doesn’t know for sure whether she had wanted sex in the moment.” She said this after seeing the police report, including photographs of the hickeys that the accused said her lips had branded on his neck as evidence that she “was very into everything that was happening.”  

If she hadn’t been drinking, Sienkowski tells the Post, the hookup was “not something I would do.” There’s no reason to doubt this. But there’s also every reason to doubt that any serious prosecutor in the country would see what Sienkowski experienced as sexual assault—although, unfortunately for civil liberties, many colleges would see it as just that.

Taylor and Johnson also point out that some of the rape stories, while harrowing, have nothing to do with campus rape. The story also manifests a strange notion of what constitutes coercion: some survivors quoted in the story “say they were coerced into sex through verbal . . . promises.” But this isn’t coercion. The newspaper, according to Johnson and Taylor, also provided highly dubious analysis of the poll results:

For example, the Post asserts that “[t]wenty percent of young women who attended college during the past four years say they were sexually assaulted.” But the survey questions (the specifics of which are buried in the coverage) ask respondents whether they had experienced a much broader category of sexual behaviors. Indeed, a researcher whose views are consistent with the poll’s questions is quoted deep in the Post package explicitly stating that those questions are designed to get “‘dramatically’” higher positive answers than would “‘terms like sexual assault and rape.’” This is, effectively, a journalistic bait and switch.

Such alarmism, Johnson and Taylor say, is having an impact on attitudes about civil liberties. Such misleading stories and statistics are being used to deprive the accused—who, just by the way, are sometimes not guilty—of the ability to defend  himself (and it is generally a he) against the charges.

The Post package appears not to show serious information on campus sexual assaults but rather how the once-venerable newspaper has joined Rolling Stone magazine, whose “report” on an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia turned out to be false, as journalistic outlet that is blinded by ideology. I urge you to read the entire Johnson-Taylor report in the Weekly Standard.



Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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