Q&A with David Lisak, a leading expert on non-stranger rape

Posted Monday, Aug. 20, 2012  comments  Print Reprints
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David Lisak, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Massachusetts, is recognized as one of the nation’s leading experts on nonstranger rape. His study, published a decade ago, was one of the first to document the serial nature of the acquaintance rapist.

This is an excerpt from his recent interview with the Star-Telegram.

Star-Telegram: How did you get onto this topic?

Lisak: My research started in the 1980s when I was a graduate student at Duke, researching rape and incest. The vast majority of research consisted of interviews with women who were sexually assaulted. What we were hearing was that all but none were stranger assaults. Every now and then someone described a stranger attack. But this really didn’t conform to what you heard about, especially what you heard about in the news, what people talked about if, they talked at all, about rape.

I started wondering, who are these guys, these men who are doing this acquaintance rape? I went to the library, (in those days we didn’t really have computers,) and started digging into studies published about rapists. Everything was on convicted rapists, incarcerated rapists. A vast majority of those men who were incarcerated were stranger rapists, which were the only ones that got reported in those days, and obviously the only ones prosecuted. So I got interested in studying the guys committing this kind of crime, who weren’t getting caught and very rarely going to prison.

What we were able to do, and people have been doing the same thing all over the world, is apply the same lessons learned in social science about how to assess any kind of sexual or interpersonal violence. [In questionnaires or interviews] you never use words like assault, abuse or rape or anything like that. Instead you very carefully and very graphically describe the behavior you are trying to assess, the victimization, sexual assault. You describe it without ever applying those labels. Many people who do these things do not label them as assault or rape, so we avoid using those labels.

We started with questionnaires, then interviewed men who responded to the questionnaires, we did screening interviews and to verify and confirm that everything they had reported was accurate.

Was there kind of a eureka moment in your research when you realized your findings about serial predators were different that what had been known before?

Yes. The eureka moment was probably in about 2000. I remember vividly to this day. The data came out on the computer screen. I was looking at the numbers and my first reaction was ‘Dammit, I’ve made a mistake somewhere. These numbers can’t be.’ I literally went over every piece of data.

This is the irony of it. On the one hand, there should have been nothing surprising. At that point I had been reading and working in the area of rape and forensic psychology and criminality for many years and I was well aware of a lot of research from all over the world: a vast majority of violent crime is committed by a very small proportion of the community. They are men typically, and they are serially violent men. So I was completely aware of this. What I was having trouble with initially was that the men I was studying were college students. I could not apply the understanding I had about criminal behavior to college students. One doesn’t think of college students as criminals. But this research has been replicated by research done in the Navy.

So what was so surprising?

It was just the sheer number of violent crimes committed by a very small number of serial rapists, 439 rapes or attempted rapes committed by 76 men. Rapes and attempted rapes were just the beginning. There was domestic battery, child abuse. We got this data not only from interviews but from detailed questionnaires.

You have written that often, these guys didn’t consider what they had done was a crime.

And that is largely true today. Again, one of the reasons for that is, How often do you hear about or read in the newspaper someone being prosecuted and convicted for a nonstranger rape? It just happens so rarely that it isn’t in people’s consciousness and it certainly isn’t in the consciousness of guys who are doing this.

You have found similarities between stranger and nonstranger rapists.

In the first study I did. It was clear that the men who were committing these types of rapes were certainly, in some ways, very different from the men who had been studied in prison. These guys never went to prison most of the time. The women they raped did not report these rapes to police. And on the other hand, there were some similarities. [With the acquaintance rapist] there was a lot of discussion about their anger, need for power and dominance, tendencies to be hyper-masculine. I assessed all those things and found them very similar [to rapists studied in prison.]

I did long interviews with these guys, asked them about virtually every aspect of their lives in free-ranging interviews that sometimes went three to four hours long. Over that period of time, someone gets comfortable talking about every aspect of their lives and those sorts of things start to come out. Relationships with women. How they view women. The kind of bad things that happened with women. It’s pretty telling when you hear somebody talk about these things. Everything was their [the woman’s] fault. Very often I heard colorful language, nasty language describing women, generalizations about more than just one incident. You start to hear that kind of anger coming out.

It seems that comparatively few prosecutors and detectives know of your findings.

Well, you know it’s taken some time. [When this study was published in 2002] there was research about incarcerated rapists, documenting the same phenomenon of serial offending, but no other study that looked at serial offending men who committed rape and were not being convicted and sent to prison. It took another seven years, 2009, for a study to be published that directly replicated ours. It was done on Navy recruits at the Great Lakes Recruiting Center in Michigan. That study really confirmed for myself and a lot of other people what we had found.

When you see something replicated like that, it gives you a lot more assurance that your initial study was not some anomaly. We have two studies of populations of men who commit rape and not going to prison, which are completely consistent with data we’ve had for many years about convicted rapists and sex offenders and all this data we have on predatory sexual offenders.

So these guys have essentially operated with impunity. It seems like these cases are almost impossible to prosecute.

Yes, impunity. That’s exactly right. But there are two things about what you just said. There is no question that these cases are extremely difficult cases to prosecute. What I absolutely disagree with is that they are impossible to prosecute. They can be prosecuted and there are prosecutors across the country that have been very successful in taking these cases. It does take a whole new kind of training for prosecutors and investigators who understand these cases and the underlying issues that come up and are able to apply this understanding and knowledge and handle these cases in a completely different way.

I do a lot of training. I just came back from Michigan where I did a presentation to all of the elected DAs in the state of Michigan. I’ve done it in Michigan. Wisconsin. New Mexico. There is also another guy working with the Army, Russell Strand, who has done very similar training with the Army CID. So it is happening but, there are an awful lot of prosecutors in this country and there is an awful lot of turnover.

So what specifically should authorities do differently in these cases?

It’s challenging. But if you just take the data we have on serial offending, one of the clearest implications of this is that whenever you receive a report of a nonstranger sexual assault, that is a window of opportunity. When a case initially comes to your attention, there may be complications or difficulties, maybe no good leads. But one of the investigative avenues needs to be a comprehensive investigation of the alleged offender, and not just putting blinders on looking solely on the alleged 45-minute interaction between these two people.

If someone comes to law enforcement and alleges someone is pushing drugs, you do not just walk up to the drug dealer and ask him, Are you selling drugs? And if he says no, then just throw up your arms. What we do is investigate that guy, to find out if he’s dealing drugs, find out where he hangs out, where he lives, who knows him, who he talks to, who doesn’t like him, all of those things. This is what detectives do every day. We don’t expect to solve a drug case like that by doing a couple of interviews and walking out with a slam dunk. But we don’t apply that sort of basic investigative procedure to these sexual assault cases.

The starkest data from my study and the Navy study is that in both, over 90 percent of all sex assaults are perpetrated by serial offenders. Every report should trigger an investigation of that alleged offender. Who is this guy? What is his background? Talk to people who know him. Find out where he hangs out. When investigators do that, you’d be amazed by how many leads emerge. Very often, what starts out as an investigation of a single incident turns into an investigation of multiple victims and multiple incidents.

So that’s one aspect of this. Another aspect, even in the incidents that are often referred to as ‘he said, she said,’ there are all kinds of avenues to investigate. A couple of examples. Very often the investigators and prosecutors think that all the evidence that can be collected may be a medical exam, statements from the victim and alleged offender, and other witnesses, like those witnesses in the bar, who might have seen them.

What they completely neglect is all of the post-assault evidence in these cases. Almost without exception, the defense is going to be, ‘Yes, we had sex but it was consensual.’ But if it was consensual, what has happened to this victim in the weeks and months after this alleged assault? If you find her life has fallen apart, she’s dropped out of the university, started having trouble at her job, gained weight or lost weight, or is suffering from post traumatic stress ... all that is completely pertinent information if the question is, Was it consensual? That can brought to bear. Just as the defense in these cases invariably attacks the credibility of the victim, so can prosecutors bring in evidence like this, and the jury gets to weigh it. This is one of the areas that always needs to be part of these kinds of prosecutions, but very often is left out.

Is there a common place in the criminal justice where these cases tend to get hung up?

I travel all over country doing this work. I see in some jurisdictions where there is a cadre of police investigators who are very gung ho and understand these cases and are really frustrated with prosecuting attorneys who they view as being the road block. I’ve seen jurisdictions [where it’s the reverse.] Clearly there is a real need for training in law enforcement. There are very few jurisdictions where there are well-trained prosecutors that understand the issues and well-trained [detectives] and they’re working well together.

That’s the other thing that’s crucial here. These cases are far too difficult and far too complicated to have stovepipe criminal investigations where the investigation happens in one silo and the prosecution happens in another, in isolation. Prosecutors should be looking at a case early on, identifying the issues in the case coming up, and working with law enforcement. When you have well-trained law enforcement and a well-trained prosecutor working together, that’s where you get much better results.

Tim Madigan, (817) 390-7544; Twitter: @tsmadigan


About the series

Part 1: In Tarrant County, more than half of all acquaintance rape cases since 2008 have died behind the closed doors of a grand jury. National experts are shocked, victims outraged. Many wonder why justice isn’t being done.

Part 2: Meet the typical perpetrator of acquaintance rape. He’s not who you think he is.

Part 3: For the rape victims who report, a teddy bear and a lot of support.

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