Leading expert on campus rape, sexual assault speaks at Clark

David Lisak spoke at Tilton Hall in the Higgins University Center, Nov. 16.

David Lisak spoke at Tilton Hall in the Higgins University Center, Nov. 16.

The Clark Anti-Violence Education (CAVE) program brought David Lisak, the pre-eminent expert on rape and sexual assault on college campuses, to Clark University on November 16. “Let’s stop using the term date rape,” Lisak urged an audience in Tilton Hall, pointing out how connotations “hint at acquiescence.”

Fifteen percent of American women have been raped sometime in their lifetime and the vast majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by non-strangers, Lisak said. He stressed that this alarming statistic is not arguable and has remained about the same over decades of research. “Every institution has this problem,” and colleges are the number one location where non-stranger rapes occur. “It is a grim subject, not pleasant at all and there is no way to make it so,” he warned. “It’s much better to confront this problem and wrong to hide from it.”

 “We can predict the number of women in an incoming class who will be victims of sexual assault by their senior year.  How can we inoculate this population? We must raise community awareness and education.”

Lisak is a clinical psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. His research focuses on the motives and behaviors of rapists and murderers, the impact of childhood abuse on adult men, and relationships between child abuse and later violence.  He consults nationally with law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, and the U.S. military, and he was the founding editor of the journal, Psychology of Men and Masculinity.

Lisak presented myths and realities of campus sexual assault, regarding both predators and victims: The “guy in the ski mask” is not in any way typical, and most rape cases involve no physical violence. The reality is that most offenders use alcohol as their weapon in rapes – they intentionally intoxicate or intensify the intoxication of the person they are intending to rape.  So-called false reports of rape, although they often get the most media attention, are exceedingly rare statistically, he said. A longstanding truth is that the vast majority of victims do not report assaults. “There is nothing more intimately devastating as a sexual assault,” he said, noting that studies show most victims will turn only to one close friend, even years after the assault. “This low reporting rate to officials is an indictment on our community,” Lisak said. “The victims don’t trust us.”  

Lisak went on to present research and cases that illuminated the issues of campus rape, including a video of a male student’s actual, disturbingly casual recounting  of  how he carefully targeted, groomed and later raped a first-year student at a fraternity party.  According to Lisak, the student’s account revealed a common pattern of the strategy of serial rapists on college campuses and elsewhere: It begins with stalking (he targeted a girl who he felt was “easy prey”); he groomed his victim (making her aware early on of the “privilege” of being invited to the upcoming party); increasing vulnerability (at the party, he greeted his guest with a warm smile and a large cup of heavily spiked, very sweet punch, which she drank “really fast because she was so nervous”); then, isolating the victim (in this case, the frat house kept “designated rooms”) in order to force her to have sex. The young man frankly answered inquiries about his “target’s” subsequent struggle and shrugged, describing some “pushing back” before the girl “probably passed out.”  Lisak assured the audience that the young woman’s probable testimony about this rape revealed “abject terror,” intense struggle and deep shame and self-blame.

 “We can predict the number of women in an incoming class who will be victims of sexual assault by their senior year,” Lisak said. “How can we inoculate this population? We must raise community awareness and education.”

Clark senior Emily Corbett, Prof. Denise Hines, speaker David Lisak, and Prof. Kathleen Palm

Clark senior Emily Corbett, Prof. Denise Hines, speaker David Lisak, and Prof. Kathleen Palm

Rapists represent a tiny fraction of the population, he said, adding that sex offenders are rarely ever cured, even after years of intense treatment. The majority of rapists are serial offenders, and fewer than two percent are prosecuted. The solution lies with the many others who, Lisak said, are part of the problem: facilitators and bystanders. Facilitators are those who promote or aid in the behaviors of a rapist, knowingly setting the stage or “going along” with what often leads to an assault. Bystanders are the many who, although they’d never participate in or abet a rape, are witness to an assault or the events that suggest an assault in progress and do not act to intervene.

The best hope in preventing and stopping rape is to “educate and train the whole community,” Lisak said. “These guys [rapists] exist, but they are few in number. In a community where everyone is educated, trained and mobilized, these guys stand out more. We have the tools. We need the commitment and the will to take those tools and work with them.”

Denise Hines, research assistant professor in the Psychology Department, introduced Lisak’s talk. Hines co-directs the CAVE program at Clark, which is supported by generous grants from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice. Clinical coordinator and research assistant professor of psychology Kathleen Palm Reed also co-directs the program.  Lisak commended Clark for being at the vanguard of such programs and for the University administration’s top-down support of addressing this important issue. While at Clark, Lisak also presented his research in morning and afternoon workshops with campus administrators, Resident Advisors, Residence Life staff, Judicial Board members, University Police, and others.

CAVE’s “Bringing in the Bystander” program at Clark is a 120-minute presentation to incoming students during orientation, where students are divided into same-sex groups of about 30 to discuss what dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking are and how to properly and safely intervene before, during, or after an incident of dating violence or sexual assault that they may witness.  These are exactly the types of programs, Lisak argued, that promote community action and foster a culture where sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking are not tolerated, victims feel more comfortable coming forward, and perpetrators are held accountable for their behavior.

An archive of News & Media Relations posts can be found at https://news.clarku.edu/news.

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