Defining Controversy : Professor Raises Furor by Claiming Date Rape Statistics Are Inflated


Neil Gilbert probably should have known better. “Maybe I was naive,” says the UC Berkeley professor. “I did not expect this.”

This is the firestorm of protest that has followed Gilbert’s recent claims that radical feminists have distorted the definition of rape and created a bogus epidemic. His article, published in the spring issue of “The Public Interest” social-policy quarterly, has fueled the debate about date rape across the country and on campus.

News of Gilbert’s allegations did not reach Berkeley until early last month.


By then, the university’s public information office had sent out a belated press release about the 50-year-old professor’s article. And the Bay Area press had begun to write about Gilbert’s controversial claims that many sexual encounters were inaccurately labeled as rape.

The semester had ended and the campus was relatively empty. But in the space of a few days, a hastily formed Students Organized Against Rape organized a candlelight vigil. About 100 people gathered in Sproul Plaza one night in June to protest Gilbert and his article.

Most organizers had been Gilbert’s students in the School of Social Welfare; several also worked off-campus at the Family Welfare Research Group that he runs.

“Several of us had been concerned about comments of his in class,” says Kristen Alexander, one organizer. “We’ll never forget his (statement): ‘Comparing real rape to date rape is like comparing cancer to the common cold.’ We tried to have some dialogue but did not get far. Not until he published his article did we realize we wanted to stand up and do something.”

Gilbert didn’t go to the vigil. But from what he has heard about it, he faults it for offering no serious discussion of the issues. He calls its climate “venomous” and offers as evidence a placard that said “Kill Neil Gilbert” and a chanted slogan: “Cut it out or cut it off.”

Organizers attribute the chant to members of a radical gay activist group. Alexander says the real message behind the vigil was: “All rape is real rape--that was our vigil.”


The stir about Gilbert’s article, though, has spread far beyond the Berkeley campus.

Coming when it did, while date rape is the subject of increased media attention and dinner party debate in the wake of the alleged rape at the Kennedy family’s Palm Beach, Fla., mansion, the article received plenty of attention.

Gilbert has been invited on national talk shows, but thus far has declined, saying he is not an entertainer. Columnists such as the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, whom Gilbert describes as a personal friend, have taken note. And guest editorials and opinion pieces have cropped up, including several by Gilbert himself.

In a column he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, Gilbert took the debate up a rung from academic analysis to political action. He wrote that Congress is considering an $80-million appropriation over the next four years to make campuses safer for women. Most has been earmarked for rape crisis centers, but Gilbert says the money would be better spent examining rape statistics that have been accepted without question.

With that, rape-prevention advocates now label Neil Gilbert as dangerous and harmful.

“It’s taken us years to get to the point where we are now--educating, sensitizing society that these crimes against women are not acceptable,” says Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal-Allard of Los Angeles, who has successfully sponsored rape-law amendments and sponsored a bill requiring campuses to establish protocols for dealing with rape.

“He’s causing a great deal of harm,” says Roybal-Allard. “Many people in our society do not want to believe these crimes exist. It’s wishful thinking, but they’ll latch onto anything that supports this.”

Gilbert says that his being denounced and called dangerous only lends credence to his oft-repeated contention that he has taken on a “politically correct” issue, as defined by “the so-called liberal intellectual community,” and dared to raise questions. Such questioning, he contends, is not allowed.

Neil Gilbert believes that date rape is a serious problem: “Rape is rape. And the fact you are on a date is no justification.”

Sitting in his campus office, discussing the article’s fallout, he calls his use of the phrase “radical feminists” an unfortunate choice, and now instead refers to those behind the “epidemic” figures as “members of the rape-crisis movement.”

It’s a social movement, he says, whose advocates are “a small contingent of radical feminists many of whom were victims or close to victims. They come with great passion and commitment to preventing this thing from happening to anybody else.

“They’ve done a good job to raise consciousness, but they crossed over the line . . . taking normal relations between men and women with all the psychological confusion and misunderstanding and reducing it to rape.”

And, he charges, they use the high numbers to further their cause.

Activist lawyer Sheila James Kuehl, a director of the Southern California Women’s Law Center, doubts that feminists have such vast powers. Referring to the rape law amendments passed in this state, she says, “The California Assembly is not noted for its radical feminism nor has it ever been known to cave in to notions of political correctness. The legislators looked at the large numbers of testimonies and studies and concluded, as have many other states, that date rape is probably the most underreported crime.”

Gilbert’s article, “The Phantom Epidemic of Sexual Assault,” analyzes the research and statements about rape, mathematically projects some statistics and concludes the figures are unbelievably high. Projected in mass media, for example, he says such figures are used to warn that one-fourth of college-age women can expect to be raped.

Conceding that rape is underreported and that Department of Justice figures--which he contrasts with those of so-called epidemic advocates--are unrealistically low, the discrepancy remains so vast, he says, that it indicates a problem of definition.

The problem, Gilbert writes, lies with acquaintance rape or date rape. No one questions the stranger who jumps from the bushes with a knife or gun and assaults his victim while threatening death or physical injury. When the man and woman know each other, or are on a date, is where the confusion--or, to Gilbert, distortion--sets in. He lays much of the blame on radical feminists who, he contends, convince alleged victims that they were raped or report such experiences as “rape” in their surveys and research.

Gilbert’s article comes down especially hard on a 1985 survey of 6,159 college students conducted by sociologist Mary Koss, sponsored by Ms. magazine and funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. He cites Koss’ revelation that 73% of those whom she identified as having been raped did not perceive of themselves as rape victims.

Gilbert’s article accuses “radical feminists” of being out to “alter intimate relations between adults and children, and between men and women,” and give women “complete control of physical intimacy between the sexes.” He laments the direction he thinks this is taking society towards--away from flirtation, seduction, passion, romance and mystery and towards “cool-headed contractual sex: ‘Will you do it, yes or no? Please sign on the line below.’ ”

Sally Fairfax, associate dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, has spent the last 2 1/2 years serving as the university’s Title IX coordinator, investigating allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination. She calls Gilbert a good man with a fine mind and says she values her professional relationship with him.

But she has gone over Gilbert’s article, made notes, pulled it apart and has little good to say, calling it more of an opinion editorial with a provocative title than a scholarly article. As such, she said, he could have anticipated demonstrations rather than scholarly debate.

“This was not a provocative article about lizards. This matters a great deal to a lot of people. He was at best naive, at worst calculating. I know him well enough to think he was naive,” she says.

Fairfax thinks Gilbert needs to spend some time at the rape crisis center on campus. While she sympathizes with some of his feelings, she says, “I do not want to conduct my sex life as if I were buying a vacuum cleaner. But until such time as the ‘mystery’ is shared, I’m against mystery.”

She also rejects Gilbert’s contention that criticism of him is a result of his attacking a politically correct position: “That really frosted me. I’m a Reagan Republican. . . . To nail on this politically correct crap--it’s baloney.”

Gilbert is not without supporters.

Writing in the July 1990 issue of “Reason,” a Libertarian magazine published in Santa Monica, free-lance writer Stephanie Gutmann, who calls his contribution terrific, says of date-rape experts: “Their definition, which goes far beyond both the legal and popular understandings of rape, would encompass a host of ambiguous situations that involve neither the use nor threat of violence.”

But rape victim Susan Estrich, a professor of law at USC and author of “Real Rape,” says a more familiar attitude about date rape is “the guy can do whatever he wants as long as he knows the girl and doesn’t use a gun.”

Says John Briere, assistant professor of psychiatry at USC School of Medicine whose research specialty is in interpersonal violence, particularly that against women and children: “I think if anything the information we have on date rape and marital rape is vastly underreported, probably in part due to the kind of attitudes expressed in Dr. Gilbert’s statements.”

And Gail Abarbanel, founder-director of the Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center--where more than 14,000 rape victims have been treated--says Gilbert’s article is full of distortions, superficial analysis and misunderstandings.

“He says the definition is being changed and what’s counted isn’t rape. I don’t think it’s true. We’re using the legal definition of rape,” she says.

Estrich and others concede that part of the problem is that one word-- rape --is used for a varying degree of brutal encounters, and that many people, Gilbert included, believe that the word should be reserved for the most horrifying examples.

About the victims’ so-called confusion over whether they were raped, Abarbanel says: “A lot of women have had the experience where they’ve done something they don’t feel good about. You don’t go to a rape crisis center because you’re feeling funny and say you were raped. In our experience of acquaintance rape, (the victims) know they’ve been held down, pinned down. They know they’ve been subjected to force and feel victimized, but they think rape has to be with a stranger.”

That is the experience overwhelmingly reported by staff to Cara Vaughn and Catherine Tassan, officials at Berkeley’s University Health Services.

Although Gilbert frequently mentions that only two rapes were reported at Berkeley last year, both women point out that number refers to rapes reported to campus police, not to health services personnel. Nor does it include a rape that might occur off-campus in the jurisdiction of Berkeley city police.

“Health professionals have to help people with recovery. They are less burdened by the legal definition of the problems we see,” Tassan says. Nevertheless, she adds, rape, “unwanted intercourse done under strain and duress,” and not “morning-after” second thoughts, are seen weekly by health services personnel: “It’s a regular occurrence.”

Researchers and rape-treatment workers are unanimous in their findings and conclusions. Gilbert is undaunted by their opposition: “There are probably eight or nine people who’ve done research. They reach the same conclusions,” and quote and support each other.

“They’re stacked,” he says flatly.