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California’s colleges and universities will be required by Senate Bill 967, just signed by Governor Brown, “to adopt policies concerning sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking … including an affirmative consent standard,” often referred to as “yes means yes”:

Yes Means Yes

“Affirmative consent” means affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. It is the responsibility of each person involved in the sexual activity to ensure that he or she has the affirmative consent of the other or others to engage in the sexual activity. Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time. The existence of a dating relationship between the persons involved, or the fact of past sexual relations between them, should never by itself be assumed to be an indicator of consent."

The 2009 survey of 5,000 college women most often cited in campus rape discourse finds 19 percent of women experienced a form of sexual assault, ranging from a drunkenly attempted forced kiss to violent rape, during college years. Half involved intoxication rather than force, making it ambiguous who would be the rapist when both parties are wasted.

Still – even though spanning a wide range of ill-defined behaviors and reflecting generational revolution (how many classical Hollywood movies feature a forceful kiss?) — it’s refreshing to see the rising status of women translating into higher standards for what traditionally have been male-defined sexual interactions.

But, if “yes means yes” is the right parameter for the revolution (a debate for another forum), why focus only on campuses? Both the 2009 paper and the CDC summary on sexual violence find much more rape and sexual assault occur outside college than in.

But, if “yes means yes” is the right parameter for the revolution (a debate for another forum), why focus only on campuses? Both the 2009 paper and the CDC summaryon sexual violence find much more rape and sexual assault occur outside college than in.

This is where the new anti-rape movement stops looking revolutionary and starts looking like the same old American tradition of blaming and scapegoating — this time targeting easily-stigmatized, powerless students who don’t sport big campaign contributors, lobbyists, and public relations firms.

President Obama led the scapegoating by declaring that “young people” must “realize that sexual assault is unacceptable” and that “every young man in America” should “feel some strong peer pressure” against sexual violence. Why just “young people”? These ugly “us-them” remarks conveniently omit sexual violence committed by the president’s own aging peers.

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President Obama frequently self-identifies “as a parent,” but he has never publicly campaigned against the 60,000 rapes and sexual assaults his own agencies substantiate as victimizing children and teenagers in domestic violence every year, overwhelmingly inflicted by parents and parents’ partners. The president has not used his office to focus “peer pressure” against child sexual abuse, the foundation of later sexual violence.

Scapegoating is the first warning signal that current anti-rape campaigns amount to politician and interest-group grandstanding, not serious advocacy. The second warning is that campaigners persistently ignore valuable lessons from the massive, four-decade decline in rape and sexual violence among young people, also detailed in victimizations reports in the last 20 years (see Figure).

Genuine campaigns incorporate crucial facts even (especially!) when they’re startling and inconvenient. In 1980, 2,420 Californians under age 25 were arrested for rape; in 2013 (despite large population increases and expanded legal definitions of rape), 550. Meanwhile, rapes by Californians ages 40 and older rose from 340 in 1980 to 450 in 2013.

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Forty years ago, two-thirds of rapes were committed by people under age 30; in 2013, the large majority were by those 30 and older, and twice as many by those over age 40 than under age 20. While rape remains underreported in all venues, the population committing these offenses has aged dramatically.

Crime victimization surveys and intimate partner violence surveys likewise confirm sharply downward trends in rape, other sexual, and other domestic assaults involving young people in recent decades. What underlies these declines that long predate modern crusades?

Official anti-rape campaigns seem threatened both by efforts to expand their focus beyond narrow fixation on students (and, occasionally, the military or sports teams) to the family, church, workplace and other mainstream venues for sexual violence, and by any information suggesting young people’s behaviors have vastly improved over the last couple of generations. Instead, the campaigners assume the mantle of righteousness, point fingers at powerless groups, and seek to create the image of rising crisis.

Today’s campaign against campus rape has more in common with 1880s official crusades against Chinese opium dens than the modern, inclusive, scientifically-founded initiatives the president promised. Narrowly-focused crusades aimed at popularizing politicians and interests weaken true initiatives to further reduce serious rape and sexual violence throughout society.

Mike A Males

Mike Males
Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice