Richard Denton, Professor of Physics and Astronomy

The following letter was first published in The Dartmouth on September 25, 2013.

Denton: Men and Rape

Most sexual assaults are committed by men. Rape is a particularly egregious form of sexual assault, with about half of current college student survivors still suffering from some symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome. The majority of rapes are committed by a small number of predatory men who escape punishment, and we must all work together to prevent these acts of violence.

Two psychologists, David Lisak and Paul Miller, studied the characteristics of men at an urban commuter university. Their survey did not use the word “rape,” and many of the men in the study might not label themselves as rapists. But they did answer “yes” to questions like “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated (on alcohol or drugs) to resist your sexual advances (e.g., removing their clothes)?” or “Have you tried, but not succeeded, in having sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?”

The good news is that 94 percent of the men interviewed did not meet criteria for rape or attempted rape. The majority of men are not rapists. The bad news is that six percent of the men interviewed did rape. Two-thirds of the rapists studied were repeat rapists, and the repeat rapists averaged six rapes each. Taking two percent of men times one rape per single incident rapist plus four percent of men times six rapes per repeat rapist leads to 26 rapes per 100 men, a number roughly consistent with national rates of victimization of college women. Ninety-one percent of college rapes are committed by people who have raped, attempted to rape, will rape or will attempt to rape more than one person.

Most rapes are unreported. But Lisak’s data led him to state the “uncomfortable truths” that rape is ubiquitous on American college campuses and that there is a small group of criminals, serial sexual predators, among us. If only four percent of Dartmouth undergraduate men are repeat rapists, that still comes out to 80 repeat rapists. Unlike incarcerated rapists, these predators escape prosecution because they use the minimum “necessary” amount of physical force, confine their victims to acquaintances and are experts at disguising themselves as “nice guys.”

The repeat rapists not only averaged about six rapes, but about eight other acts of violence such as hitting or kicking people, choking someone, and beating or sexually abusing a child. Lisak says that this group of men “cannot be reached or educated. They must be identified and removed from our communities.” Whether one has sympathy for these men, it is not doing them a favor to let them continue abusing people, and doing so will certainly put other people in peril. In my opinion, one of our first priorities should be to identify, confront and remove serial rapists from our community.

Lisak goes on to say that “our prevention and education efforts must be focused on the vast majority of men who will never themselves cross the line into criminal behavior, but who by their participation in peer groups and activities either actively or passively provide support or camouflage for the sexual predators in their midst”.

Another group of psychologists led by Heather Littleton added that “men also ought to be encouraged to intervene if they see someone taking advantage of a person who is intoxicated.” Note that, under New Hampshire law, a person is not deemed legally capable of giving consent for sexual activity if that person is incapacitated. As described on a University of New Hampshire site, “If someone you are with is having difficulty walking or talking, is throwing up, passed out, or just generally unaware of what’s going on, that person cannot legally give consent.”

Men can use characteristics that are often thought of as masculine strength, single-minded focus and determination to work for a safer Dartmouth. I recently heard an unusual and inspiring story about an unsung Dartmouth student who stopped another man from assaulting a woman but, in the process, was himself injured by the assailant. This man exhibited authentic manhood, being what men can and should be, protective rather than abusive of others, and doing the right thing regardless of the cost.

Richard Denton
Professor of Physics and Astronomy