Don't Ask, They Can't Tell

A statewide student survey begs complex questions about date rape and gender

When the results of the 2001 Minnesota Student Survey got released in late November, there were a number of positive trends. The survey, administered to more than 133,000 sixth, ninth and twelfth graders statewide, reported an overall decrease in drinking, sexual activity, and--the no-brainer lead for local media--tobacco use. What's more, since the last time the survey was administered, in 1995, the number of twelfth grade girls who identified themselves as victims of date rape fell three percentage points, to 4.7 percent.

Then there was this puzzler: 3.8 percent of the twelfth grade boys questioned reported that they too were victims of date rape. At face value, the numbers contradict society's stereotypical view of date rape and suggest that it is now nearly as big a problem for boys as it is for girls. But researchers acknowledge that the numbers beg more questions than they answer.

"It's something we need to take a closer look at. It may be a question of understanding what boys mean when they say they've been date raped," says Patricia Harrison, a clinical psychologist who helped develop the survey for the Minnesota Department of Human Services. After reviewing the results, Harrison surmised that a significant percentage of boys reporting date rape might be involved in same-sex relationships, often with older men. "One of the downsides about being in the closet as a gay youth is that you're often not dating other kids your own age in a healthy, out way, because those types of relationships aren't socially sanctioned. Sometimes kids get involved with older men through street contacts, and then they're vulnerable," Harrison observes.

After cross-tabulating the date-rape responses with another question on the survey, the picture gets murkier. When asked to identify the gender of their sexual partners over the past year, two percent of the boys who said they had been date raped responded "only male," 40 percent responded "male and female," and about half said "only female." "It's hard to put the two questions together, other than it does not look like it's a predominantly gay phenomenon," Harrison deduces.

Generally, research about males victimized by rape is sparse and research on male-on-male date rape is nearly nonexistent, says pediatrics professor Gary Remafedi, director of the University of Minnesota's Youth and AIDS Project. A 1998 study found that, of 555 male U.S. soldiers polled, 6.7 percent had been sexually assaulted at some point in their life. Another study questioned 930 sexually active, homosexual men living in England and Wales: 27.6 percent had been sexually assaulted, and of those assaulted, one-third said the perpetrators were men with whom they'd previously had consensual sexual relations.

According to Remafedi, perpetrators in sexual-assault cases are predominantly male. However, questions about the assailant's gender are not included in the Minnesota Survey, so there's no way to know for sure which of the twelfth graders were mistreated by males, and which were victimized by females; additionally, there are no questions concerning the age of the assailants or the definition of date rape. Harrison acknowledges and explains the survey's shortcomings: "Typically, when people do sexual surveys, the questions are very explicit. And, ideally, from a research point of view, we'd like to more specific. But we have to compromise some research principles in order not to antagonize people. Some parents object because they don't want questions about sex or family violence or drugs. Some think that even asking about that stuff will give kids the ideas to do it, even though there is no research to back that up."

While more than 90 percent of the school districts eventually cooperate with the survey, some modify or eliminate certain questions deemed offensive. Others refuse to administer it entirely. Polly Sorcan, a member of the Eveleth-Gilbert school board on the Iron Range, says she opposes the survey on a variety of grounds, including her belief that under federal law students should not be allowed to take the survey without prior, written approval from their parents. In 1998 the only students in Eveleth-Gilbert to take the survey were those with permission slips. This year, Sorcan says, the district decided not to participate at all because of concerns over the "intrusive" nature of the questions and fears that students' answers might compromise their privacy.

In addition to those misgivings, Sorcan wonders whether high school students can be trusted to give reliable answers to personal questions. "It's very questionable if students are answering the questions truthfully, accurately, or maybe even are purposely answering falsely, trying be funny, or thinking the survey is a big joke," she opines.

According to Harrison, researchers make an effort to sift out bogus responses. "The way kids will usually screw around with a survey is to give the most extreme responses--say, 'I do eight different drugs a day.' And we look for inconsistencies and contradictions," she says. As a result, about three percent of the surveys are invalidated and discarded.

Eric Meininger is an adolescent-health researcher at the University of Minnesota's pediatrics department and a volunteer at District 202, a Minneapolis drop-in center for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth. He says large surveys are generally reliable because basic statistical principles tend to dilute the effects of deliberately untruthful responses. What's more, he says, the Minnesota Survey has been taken every three years since 1989, and there is a historical consistency that suggests accuracy.

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