In 2009, Detroit officials found more than 11,000 forgotten rape kits – some dating back to the 1980s – gathering dust in a police storage facility. The city launched an enormous initiative to process them all, and while only a fraction have been analyzed so far, a key trend has emerged: a lot of serial rapists.
So far, 1,600 victims’ rape kits have been processed. Among those, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office identified 100 likely serial rapists, through matches in CODIS, the country’s DNA database.
These numbers underline the miscarriage of justice that this stockpile of abandoned rape kits represents, a tiny slice of the estimated 400,000 unprocessed rape kits across the country. For example, there are the two young women who were violently raped by the same man five months apart in 2003. Their rape kits were shelved for 10 years. DeShawn Starks was finally charged after he raped two more young women last November. He pleaded no contest, and this week was sentenced to 45 to 90 years in prison.
The number of serial rapists also underlines a more obvious, but often overlooked, fact: serial rapists are responsible for an enormous percentage of the rapes that happen.
Getting a number
The 11,000 rape kits is a sample pool of extraordinary size to assess how much rape is committed by serial rapists, but this isn’t a scientific study. Since these victims reported their rapes to the police, the assaults are more likely to have been violent, stranger attacks. In most sexual assaults, however, the victim knows his or her offender.
It’s near impossible to figure out how many rapes – the vast majority of which go unreported – are committed by serial rapists. Such a study would require a controlled sample of rapists and the ability to know how much each of them have raped.
But in 2002, clinical psychologists David Lisak and Paul Miller had a brilliant idea: simply ask men whether they had raped. They were careful not to use the word "rape," but in a survey given to 1,882 male students at a mid-size university, they asked whether the men had done something that met its legal definition.
Six percent of the men admitted to rape, or attempted rape. Of the rapists, 63 percent were serial offenders. In all, the serial rapists accounted for 439 of the 483 rapes.
“The vast majority of sexual assaults on campuses, in fact over 90 percent, are perpetrated by serial offenders,” Lisak told America Tonight in October, when we reported on his pioneering research. “Those serial offenders were prolific. The average number of rapes for each one of those serial offenders was six.”
‘Six in 10 rape again’
Among campus campaigners against sexual violence, it’s widely known that 1 in 4 college women is a victim of rape or attempted rape, according to a 1988 federally funded study. For decades the campaign against sexual violence has focused on figures like that to bring awareness to the sheer scope of a long-hidden epidemic.
This campaign has been hugely successful in bringing to light the pervasiveness of acquaintance rape, particularly on college campuses. “America Tonight” dedicated a week to the subject in November, and female students and alumni have filed federal complaints against a steady stream of major universities, charging them with mishandling sexual assaults to such an extent that it made their campus an unequal place for women. In January, the president even appointed a task force to specifically examine the problem of college sexual assault.
Discussion of campus sex crimes, however, often descends into “grays,” confused consents, mixed messages, he-said, she-saids and heavy shrugs. But things are far more black and white when data shows that most rape is committed by serial rapists.
And then, there's the issue of alcohol. Alcohol is closely associated with rape. There are a lot of studies that prove it, but alcohol is also closely associated with serial rapists. Lisak found that serial rapists on college campuses will often target vulnerable women and use drinking as a calculated weapon against them.
An October column by Slate’s advice columnist Emily Yoffe, which urged college women to stop getting drunk to prevent sexual assault, mentioned that the purveyor of alcohol is “in some cases … a type of serial predator.” She didn’t mention that it was most cases.
According to Lisak’s 12-year-old research, 6 in 10 college rapists rape again. That is a powerful statistic, and one would expect it to play an enormous role in the way we understand and talk about rape. Yet it isn’t plastered on posters in campus women’s centers or printed on sexual violence prevention leaflets. It's hardly mentioned at all.