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Dr. David Lisak visits campus; discusses sexual violence on college campuses

Published: October 23, 2014
Section: Front Page, News

On Tuesday, Oct. 21, Rapaporte Treasure Hall was fully packed, as members of the Brandeis community gathered to listen to the nationally recognized forensic consultant and lecturer, Dr. David Lisak. He delivered his keynote address, “Sexual Violence on College Campuses: Confronting the Reality.” The talk was sponsored by the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program and the Department of Queer Studies, as part of the 11th annual Eleanor Roosevelt Lecture Series.

Lisak was introduced by Professor Deirdre Hunter (WMGS), who spoke about his success in applying forensic work on non-stranger rapists. She stated that he has helped guide rape prevention and response policies at many major institutions, including the U.S. Armed Services and colleges and universities across the country. Lisak is also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and he has been profiled as one of three men in the documentary, “Boys and Men Healing.” He has conducted workshops and trainings in all 50 states, as well as overseas, and is a founding board member of 1in6, a non-profit dedicated to helping men who survived childhood sexual abuse.

The first part of Lisak’s lecture informed the audience about common trends in sexual violence on college campuses today. He identified the issue as a universal problem at institutions, but stated that how each university acknowledges and treats the problem sets them apart in being future leaders.

“It’s important to recognize that the problem isn’t Brandeis’ problem. Every institution has its problem. This is a planetary problem,” Lisak explained. “The focus here is the situation at Brandeis and what needs to change and how can we engineer that kind of change.”

Lisak stressed that even though in the last few years, institutions have come under intense scrutiny regarding the issue, it is important to recognize that openness in this discussion was previously nonexistent for a long time. He spoke about the important role that student activists and survivors have played in the issue and stated that they have been the leading force in pushing forward conversation on campuses today.

“This is a universal problem in our society, but in the U.S., we are actually leading the way in a lot of ways in terms of our openness to this problem, to discussing it publicly and to confronting it,” said Lisak.

The one type of institution that has not come under enough scrutiny, according to Lisak, is the civilian criminal justice system. He says that is the problem that needs to be confronted, because it underlies much of what’s happening in higher education—making it harder for students to trust authoritative figures. Lisak cited a study conducted by the Department of Justice that estimates that “fewer than five percent of completed and attempted rapes of college women are reported to law enforcement officials.”

“The lack of justice and the miscarriage of justice are profound, and they are extraordinarily harmful,” Lisak explained. He spoke about many serial rapists who are getting away under the system, crossing state lines and going from city to city, stating, “it is simply a product of the criminal justice system.”

The lecture then shifted to a discussion about sex offenders, specifically how group differences are unable to yield or lead to a profile of the offenders themselves. Lisak identified this as a core problem of the system, one that allows offenders to roam campuses while authoritative figures are unaware of these circumstances.

“What it means is that all these institutions, universities and services are inadvertently recruiting a small number of sex offenders,” Lisak said. “These are men who have committed sex offenses prior to coming to these institutions.”

But Lisak explained that if there is no profile of an offender, “nobody can sit in a room, listen to a guy and say ‘you know what, this guy doesn’t sound like or feel like a rapist.’” Lisak described the profound psychological implications that occur from this type of situation and referred to the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. He explained that none of the bomber’s friends could believe that their friend had committed such a crime, but that this is also a common form of disbelief seen among friends and family of rapists.

The last part of Lisak’s lecture focused on defining terms of sexual assault and rape. He explained that rape is usually portrayed as a “guy in a ski mask dragging you into a street corner.” He explained that when victims acknowledge that this is not their exact situation, they only view it as a bad experience and do not understand that the experience could be defined as a form of assault.

“The majority of people who have been sexually assaulted don’t label it as a sexual assault,” said Lisak. “The same thing is true about perpetration … We ask behaviorally explicit questions that don’t use words like ‘rape’ or ‘assault’ but they describe circumstances that meet the legal definitions of various kinds of rape or sexual assault.”

Lisak’s presence on the Brandeis campus was not only shared in this community forum, as he spent time with a smaller group of students earlier in the day. This group of students is working toward reforming policies to combat sexual violence on the Brandeis campus. Lisak was first introduced by Dr. Susan Lanser (COML/ENG/ROM/WMGS), who spoke about the Lecture Series creation in 2004 as a way to honor the former First Lady’s commitment to social justice, as well as her role in women’s history. Roosevelt, a U.N. ambassador, also served as a member of Brandeis University’s Board of Trustees from 1949 until she died in 1962. She was a visiting lecturer of international relations and received the honor of giving the university’s first commencement address in 1952. Past Roosevelt lecturers include prominent figures such as activist Jennifer Finney Boylan, author Alison Bechdel and Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun.