Seminal campus rape study debunked

Yet another shoddy paper falls apart under scrutiny.

David Lisak’s serial predator theory of campus rape has made him a celebrity. Once a virtually unknown associate professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, his work is now cited by White House officials and reporters for major newspapers.

His influence is evident in the recent documentary The Hunting Ground, and the producers continue to promote his work along with their film. In Jon Krakauer’s new book, Missoula, about sexual assault at the University of Montana, Lisak’s name appears more than 100 times.


Lisak told me that he subsequently interviewed most of them. That was a surprising claim, given the conditions of the survey and the fact that he was looking at the data produced long after his students had completed those dissertations; nor were there plausible circumstances under which a faculty member supervising a dissertation would interact directly with subjects. When I asked how he was able to speak with men participating in an anonymous survey for research he was not conducting, he ended the phone call.


The high rate of other forms of violence reported by the men in Lisak’s paper further suggests they are an atypical group. Of the 120 subjects Lisak classified as rapists, 46 further admitted to battery of an adult, 13 to physical abuse of a child, 21 to sexual abuse of a child, and 70—more than half the group—to other forms of criminal violence. By itself, the nearly 20 percent who had sexually abused a child should signal that this is not a group from whom it is reasonable to generalize findings to a college campus.


There is, in fact, no foundation for the connection between Lisak’s paper and higher education. This point cannot be emphasized enough: Nothing about the studies from which he repurposed data depended on survey respondents being students, or acts they reported taking place while in college. Nothing in the research protocol indicates prospective respondents were even asked whether they were students when they agreed to complete very personal surveys in exchange for $3. There is not a single statement in the paper about assaults taking place on or near a campus; there is not a single reference to the campus environment.