A recent Wendy McElroy column cited this IWF critique of rape prevalence research by Mary Koss. (For those of you who don’t know it, the IWF – or Independent Women’s Forum – is a right-wing anti-feminist think tank.)
Here’s what the IWF has to say:
Fact: This mother of all factoids is based on a fallacious feminist study commissioned by Ms. magazine. The researcher, Mary Koss, hand-picked by hard-line feminist Gloria Steinem, acknowledges that 73 percent of the young women she counted as rape victims were not aware they had been raped. Forty-three percent of them were dating their “attacker” again.
Rape is a uniquely horrible crime. That is why we need sober and responsible research. Women will not be helped by hyperbole and hysteria. Truth is no enemy of compassion, and falsehood is no friend.
Here’s a bit of fun trivia: Shortly after the IWF released this piece, I had a debate with an IWF flunky about it on one of their discussion boards (they’ve since taken the debate offline). At the time, I wrote this:
Sometime since then, some enterprising IWF person has stuck in a few citations to works by Mary Koss (otherwise the piece is unchanged). How funny.
Anyway, let’s get on with the fisking, shall we? The IWF wrote:
“Commissioned” implies that Ms. thought up the idea for the study, found a researcher to implement it, and funded it. None of that is true. Koss thought of the study in the 1970s and presented a preliminary paper in 1980, years before Ms’s involvment began (Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, v 50 n3 455-457, 1982). Although Ms donated office suffort to help make the 1987 national version of Koss’ study possible, Koss’ approach and design were set in place and published before Ms’ involvement. The study was funded by a grant from the Natinal Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), not by Ms. (The NIMH had more to do with Koss’ study than Ms – they approved of the design and of which tasks Ms was allowed to participate in).
(Curious that the IWF doesn’t mention that Koss was at the time a professor at Kent State, or that her study design was approved by the NIMH, or that it had gone through the peer-review process at the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.)
Again, Koss was doing her research long before Steinem or Ms had heard of Koss.
This is a mis-statement of what the study actually found.
73% answered no to the question, “it was definitely rape”; it’s not safe to conclude from that they’re sure it was not rape!
We have to consider context: we’re talking about young women, most of whom were raped by someone they knew (usually someone they were dating and had already been sexually fooling around with), who were in high school over 20 years ago, when discussions of date rape were extremely rare. It is any surprise that most of them weren’t positive that their experience was “definitely” rape?
We should also look at the implications of deciding, as the IWF in essence does, that “if the victim doesn’t say it was ‘definitely’ rape, it’s not.” 70% of the alleged rape victims in Koss’ study resisted by physically struggling with the man, and 84% tried to reason with him to no avail. The large majority reported having sex when they didn’t want to due to force or threat of force.
The IWF’s argument is essentially that “it doesn’t matter if the woman resisted physically, tried to reason with the man, and felt they had unwanted sex due to force or threat of force; if they didn’t check ‘yes’ next to the words ‘it was definitely rape,’ then it wasn’t rape.” Should anyone be comfortable with that logic?
Really? The article writer must know this because of her strange mental powers, because nothing in Koss’ study supports this statistic.
All we know from the study is that 43% had intercourse with their rapist (or “rapist”) at some later date. We don’t know anything else; we don’t know how many of those later occasions were voluntary and how many were repeat rapes, for example. We do know, however, that the typical rapist is very often a boyfriend – someone the victim is dating before the rape.
So what does this 43% figure really tell us? IMO, it could show that girls who are violently abused (and rape is a form of violent abuse, no less than battery) by boyfriends don’t always immediately break off the relationship. Is that really a shocker, or anything that we should accept as proof that a girl or women can’t really have been raped? (Over 50% of the rape victims in Koss’ study were raped by someone they were dating – and had gone at least as far as “petting above the waist” with them before the rape.) (Also, keep in mind that we’re hardly talking about a group of experienced, sexually confident woman here; over 40% of the rape victims were virgins at the time of the rape.)
This critique of Koss just restates the old “a woman who stays must not really have been abused” myth. It’s bullshit when said regarding battered women, and it’s bullshit when said regarding raped women, too.
Koss’ study (“Scope of rape: Incidence and Prevalence of Sexual Aggression and Victimization in a National Sample of Higher Education Students”) can be found in The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology v 55 (2) p. 162-170, 1987. The research, while not perfect (no study is flawless), is sober and responsible, and certainly not “hysteria.” Don’t take my word for it – or the IWF’s word for it – read it yourself.
I agree. But if the IWF was interested in “truth,” why not give the full information about the study – both that Ms was involved and that it was supervised by the NIMH and peer-reviewed, the stat about later sexual intercourse and the stat about struggling to get away – and let readers judge the truth for themselves? Why didn’t she mention the other studies – including ones by the U.S. Government – which have found results similar to Koss’?
Of course, I have nothing against advocates giving only one side of the story – by and large, that’s what advocates do. But to self-rightiously mouth pieties about “truth” while giving only one side of the story is a bit much. IF you’re seriously going to search for truth, you have to give readers both sides of the story. The IWF critique doesn’t do that.
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Enough with the fisking. Let me just state what I consider the core issues.
The main findings Dr. Koss made about rape (as opposed to about sexual coercion in general) are: One, that many women – somewhere in the general range of 1 in 8 – have been victims of rape at some point in their lifetime. Two, that rape is very rarely reported to police. Third, that rape is usually committed by someone known to the victim, not by a stranger.
All three of these findings were widely suspected when Koss began her study, but had not been verified with social science research.
These three findings have since been upheld by every nationwide survey designed to measure violence against women. That, in social science research, is usually the gold standard – if a finding can be repeated, then it should be taken seriously.
So which are these other studies?
- The NIJ/CDC “National Violence Against Women Study” found that 14.8% of American women experience a completed rape at some time in their lifetime. A typical rape-defining question was worded like this: “Has a man or boy ever made you have sex by using force or threatening to harm you or someone close to you? Just so there is no mistake, by sex we mean putting a penis in your vagina.”
- The Department of Justice’s Sexual Victimization of College Women study included a sub-study in which college women were asked about lifetime incidence of rape (most of the study asked about rape since the beginning of the school year,which isn’t directly comparable to Koss). 10% of the women interviewed reported having been raped at some point in their lifetime. Rape was defined as “unwanted completed penetration by force or the threat of force.”
- There’s also The National Women’s Study (NWS), a large-scale national study which found that 13% of American women have been raped in their lifetime.
At least a dozen other studies have confirmed Koss’ results, but those three are the biggies.