For the Safety of Students: Five Questions for Mary Koss

Mary P. Koss, Ph.D.

With close to 300 peer-reviewed publications and a number of academic awards to her name, it’s hard to believe that University of Arizona Regents’ Professor Mary P. Koss once had to fight her way into the doctoral program in psychology at the University of Minnesota. Her test scores put her head and shoulders above other applicants, but it took a tense meeting with the department head — in which she let a bit of profanity slip out — to finally get accepted into their graduate school. Clinical psychology was a very male-dominated field in the early 1980s, when she was starting her career, and that was all too clear when a colleague shared his idea for a study that would explore male undergraduates’ attitudes toward rape — by having models pose in varying sizes of padded bras and be rated for their desirability and culpability if raped.

The term date rape was first used in the news media 35 years ago this month.

From that conversation, though, came the seed of an idea that would soon set Dr. Koss apart from her peers. At that time, Dr. Koss was at Kent State in Ohio, still years before she joined the University of Arizona. She made a name for herself studying campus sexual assault by developing a survey that revolutionized efforts to gauge respondents’ experiences of sexual aggression and victimization, revealing a higher prevalence than previously thought. Her initial study was publicized 35 years ago this month, in Ms. Magazine’s September 1982 issue, in an article that also marked the first time a national news publication used the term date rape. Both Dr. Koss’ research and the introduction of that term to the national conversation were game-changers in many ways.

At the time the article was published, most rape-prevention programs on college campuses were relatively new and narrowly focused on the danger posed by strangers — the assailants waiting in alleyways, rather than the familiar faces in classrooms or dorms. Dr. Koss’ research, as well as the stories writer Karen Barrett reported from Stanford University and the University of Connecticut for the Ms. article, revealed that many cases of rape, especially those committed by the victims’ peers and acquaintances, were often ignored, denied, or misunderstood as something other than rape. The concept of date rape helped many people recognize rape — their own or others’ — that had been perpetrated by people known to the victims.

Greater awareness and understanding of the problem of campus sexual assault soon followed, but the 35 years since then have seen both progress and setbacks. In fact, as the anniversary of that historic Ms. article approached, news began coming from the Department of Education that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos vowed to revisit Obama-era policies that addressed campus sexual assault. A series of information-gathering meetings included a group that, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, seeks “to roll back services for victims of domestic abuse and penalties for their tormentors.”

Dr. Koss was already uniquely positioned to comment on campus sexual assault, and the timeliness of her perspective was building when we reached out to her for an interview. Dr. Koss generously took the time to share her comments and insights with Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona on August 14, 2017.

While you were a professor at Kent State in the 1980s, you conducted a student survey on sexual assault. Before yours, surveys had simply asked if people had ever been sexually assaulted, but you asked about specific behaviors and experiences and put aside the label (rape or sexual assault) to avoid problems of definition. What did the survey reveal?

I did this survey based on Susan Brownmiller’s classic 1981 book Against Our Wills. She wrote about a social control theory of rape. Her analysis was that rape happens because men can do it and can get away with it. Men significantly influence the social policies and laws that exist to make it very difficult to hold perpetrators responsible. On a sad note, we see all of this going on today: hung juries in rape trials, politicians who are elected despite admitting having sexually assaulted women, and public comments about women who “deserve” to be raped.

Brownmiller speculated that there would be much more rape in the community than police statistics suggest. I ended up studying college students because that was all I could afford to do with the grant money available. I can’t claim credit for predicting that college students would prove to be a particularly high-risk group for sexual assault victimization and how common it was. I was just as surprised by the results as everyone else.

Your Kent State survey was referenced in 1982 in a Ms. Magazine cover story, “Date Rape: A Campus Epidemic?” The article marked the first time the term date rape was used in a major news publication. What did it mean to finally give a name to this problem?

Names mean people can give a name to their experiences and can talk about them. No one thinks of date rape as a term that was created; today it is in common language and labels something that is accepted as something that happens.

The September 1982 and October 1985 issues of Ms. publicized Dr. Koss’ groundbreaking research on campus sexual assault.

Your Kent study led to a larger research project, covering 32 campuses and 6,000 students. What were some of the most important outcomes, in terms of policy or public awareness, that you saw from this larger study?

This survey was the only national data outside of reported crimes that was available in 1991, when then Sen. [Joseph] Biden began hearings on the proposed Violence Against Women Act. VAWA became law in 1994. Also, it is the subject of the book I Never Called It Rape: The Ms. Guide to Recognizing, Fighting and Surviving Date and Acquaintance Rape. This book has been in print continuously since 1991 and is being reissued in 2018 as a “historical document.” I wasn’t ready for my work to be considered history.

In the early 2010s, it became painfully clear that there was still much work to be done around campus sexual assault, as cases at Missoula, the University of North Carolina, and other campuses brought the problem to the fore and spawned organizations like End Rape on Campus (EROC). What are some of the challenges that still face victim activists and their allies? 

The top three are: First, resources — students deliver a health promotion service but don’t get the resources to do it that are allocated to other behavioral issues such as drinking. Second, there are few proven effective prevention programs, so students default to those that make sense to them but are known by public health specialists to be ineffective. Third, university leadership is so variable. Where it is strong, students get input to structuring their efforts, envisioning their goals, and resources to carry them out. Generally, these are also schools that have a strong professional student life commitment to sexual assault prevention and innovative responses to sexual misconduct.

Bringing things to the present, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has recently set her sights on Obama-era policies that address campus sexual assault, meeting with groups that take an adversarial stance toward prevention and victim support efforts. What are your foremost concerns under DeVos’ Department of Education?

I am not concerned about student energy. It is high and hasn’t diminished since the election. I am not concerned that Betsy DeVos and Candice Jackson met with the families of men accused of rape. Their stories need to be heard.

It is worrisome, though, that the leadership appeared to be unaware of data on the low rate of false rape reports. It led to an incorrect equation of concern about the harm of victimization and the pain of false accusation. No one, not even rapists in prison, sees what they did as rape. I discredit denials of responsibility, but investigations have to be fair and ensure due process for all.

The awareness and mobilization that resulted from the White House Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault was terrific, but it was never backed up with significant resources to innovate services and scientifically evaluate them. There were many incidences where hundreds of proposals were submitted when funds were sufficient to award two or three. I am encouraged that the branch of the CDC that houses the rape prevention activities is not recommended for cuts, but this means that we will continue along with two or three projects at a time, testing the effectiveness of rape prevention programs, and these have to cover middle schools, high schools, and colleges.

The Department of Education may back off on enforcement or even modify guidelines, but that isn’t going to change student pressure on educational institutions to foster rape-free environments and maintain fair and humane responses to incidents.

Dr. Mary P. Koss, a professor of public health and psychology at the University of Arizona, was the recent recipient of the Award for Distinguished Contributions to the International Advancement of Psychology from the American Psychological Association (APA). Dr. Koss received the award in recognition of her leadership in research and consultation on sexual violence against women and girls, as well as her achievements in advocacy and the development of justice responses to sexual violence. Her work has involved initiatives in Denmark, Jerusalem, New Zealand, South Africa, the United States, and several Native American nations.

The APA has honored Dr. Koss previously, in 2000, with their Award for Distinguished Contributions to Research in Public Policy. Additionally, her work has been recognized by End Violence Against Women International (in 2010) and One in Four USA (in 2013), an organization dedicated to rape prevention.