Last spring I picked up our student newspaper to read this sentence in a front-page story: “Statistics show that one out of every four UNC females will be sexually assaulted while in college.” Wow. The University of North Carolina has roughly 15,000 undergraduates (leave the graduate students out of it), something over half of them female. So that would mean, oh, 450 or 500 assaults on previously unassaulted undergraduates every academic year, or about 16 or 17 a week. Surely I’d have heard about this. I mean, if it’s that bad, anyone who sends a daughter to Chapel Hill is making a big mistake. Forget UNC: put her in purdah. At least give her a sidearm—she’ll have more use for Smith and Wesson than for Strunk and White.

I suspected that what we had here was a factoid. I figured there’d be a long, long trail a-winding from the Daily Tar Heel to anything that could be considered a reliable source, but I resolved to follow it. For you, dear reader—for you.

In the event, the trail could have been longer. The student reporter told me that she got the figure from a friend, who got it from a book assigned in a women’s studies class. Strictly speaking, she said, it applied to American colleges in general, not UNC in particular, but several sources had told her that UNC was not unusual in this respect. Well, OK, but I still didn’t believe it, so I went to the library and got the book, Feminist Fatale: Voices From the “Twentysomething” Generation Explore the Future of the Women’s Movement, by Paula Kamen. It sent me to another book: I Never Called It Rape: The Ms. Report on Recognizing, Fighting, and Surviving Date and Acquaintance Rape, by Robin Warshaw. That cited several articles reporting a survey of 6,100 undergraduates at 32 colleges, conducted in 1985 by Mary P. Koss, Ph. D., with support from the Center for Antisocial and Violent Behavior of the National Institute of Mental Health. Back to the library one last time, for an article by Dr. Koss and two coauthors, all from Kent State University, called “The Scope of Rape,” published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in 1987, where I finally found something resembling data.

The point of all this bibliographical trivia, by the way, is just to show these things work. A student reporter cites a fellow student who cites a pop feminist tract that cites a journalistic report which finally cites some serious research. To get the obvious questions answered (how was the sample drawn, what was the refusal rate, what were the differences between different kinds of schools, how were rape and attempted rape defined—just for starters) you have to dig.

I’ll tell you what I found in a minute. First, though, some observations.

Once upon a time, back in what my teenager calls the “Dork Ages,” we knew what rape was, and it was serious. As a matter of fact, until the Supreme Court interfered with us, first-degree rape was a capital offense in every Southern state. That may have had something to do with the relative absence in my youth of what has come to be called “date rape.”

I believe it really was rare. Some time ago the columnist Hal Crowther wrote that he not only never heard the term when he and I were in college, he never heard of the phenomenon. This wasn’t entirely because of our male friends’ respect for women (although there was more of that around than you’d suppose, to read most feminist accounts of the period); it also had to do with self-respect. Real men didn’t force themselves on women.

Hal’s recollections squared with my own, although I wondered if he and I just knew unusually well-behaved guys, or if the rapists of our acquaintance simply weren’t talking. But then I read an essay by Florence King on the subject. “Date or acquaintance rape is a phenomenon of the sexual revolution,” she wrote, “and so foreign to my experience that I can’t think of anything to say about it. In my day, when a woman told a man to stop, he stopped.” Thank you. Miss King, for that testimonial to our generation.

So what’s happened since 1965 or so? Well, aside from scrapping the death penalty, we’ve changed the definition of sexual assault. By law, in most states, it now includes not just sex acts accompanied by physical force or threats of violence, but those made possible by the victim’s diminished capacity due to drugs or alcohol. I’m glad that’s illegal-don’t get me wrong. But maybe we ought to call it something else.

Let me tell a story. A while back, at a how hearing in these parts about discrimination against homosexuals, the manager of a gay bar (call him “Jim”) told a remarkable tale. He said that he met another man in a convenience store; they picked each other up (or however these things work) and repaired to a nearby motel where, ah, nature took its course. Then, to Jim’s surprise, his new friend attacked him with a pair of scissors, calling him names that reflected unfavorably on their shared sexual orientation. When Jim escaped and went to the police to report this assault, the policeman he told reminded him that sodomy is illegal in North Carolina and suggested that he might want to think twice about pursuing the matter. Believe it or not, the point of Jim’s story was that both the policeman’s attitude and the epithets his assailant used were evidence of ubiquitous “homophobia,” requiring new civil rights laws to protect its victims.

Spare me. Come on, is it really hardhearted to deny this guy 100 percent USDA Choice victim status? Is it unreasonable to observe that someone who gets naked with strangers in rented rooms is taking his or her chances? I’m awfully glad it’s not my political party that has to pretend to take this kind of thing seriously.

Anyway, consider the question, “Has anyone ever tried to take advantage of you when you were drunk?” If every woman who answers “yes” is now to be counted a victim of sexual assault, inevitably we’re going to devalue the term. Sure, whatever grubby sexual transaction takes place between a couple of commode-hugging drunks is wrong, and if it’s not “consensual” it ought to be criminal, and you can call it rape if you want to. But I’m sorry, it’s not something I’m going to lose a lot of sleep over. Victimhood, like the dollar, isn’t what it used to be.

Now, please, I’m not suggesting that drunk or drugged women “deserve it.” Being drugged is prima facie evidence of illegal activity and so is being drunk for anyone under 21, but even criminals have rights, and just being stupid isn’t a crime at all. We old-fashioned guys believe there’s no excuse for what, yes, we still call taking advantage of a woman, and we don’t object to punishing a man who does it. We also believe, however, that there’s a qualitative difference between that and raping her at knifepoint, and if the law doesn’t recognize that difference it really is an ass.

But Suzanne Fields, writing in Heterodoxy, a feisty new chronicle of campus folly, observes that when a New York Post editorial called for a legal distinction between stranger rape and sex preceded by “consensual activities” like drinking, visiting a man’s hotel room, or walking on a deserted beach at 3:00 A. M., it caught hell. I can believe that. As I write, our local D.A. is being harassed by the thought patrol for a memo to our police pointing out that North Carolina law requires some evidence of resistance for a rape charge to stick. As the law stands, just saying “I don’t think we should be doing this” isn’t enough. In fact our D. A. wants to see the law changed to add the crime of third-degree rape, but that doesn’t satisfy those who want to blur distinctions and conflate all involuntary sexual activity (and possibly, as Suzanne Fields suggests, to portray rape as the paradigm for all heterosexual relations, but that’s another story).

It’s clear where we’re headed. Increasingly the rape theorists are invoking the nebulous and slippery concept of “psychological coercion.” According to Heterodoxy, a pamphlet at Swarthmore already defines “acquaintance rape” as “ranging from crimes legally defined as rape to verbal harassment and inappropriate innuendo,” and Stanford’s Judicial Affairs Office interprets coercion, outlawed by the student code, to include “belittlement” or “verbal pressure.” Just as sexual harassment (a real and serious problem that, incidentally, did exist in my youth) has been trivialized by being stretched to include all sorts of unpleasant behavior and bad manners—and, in some versions, to be defined in the mind of the “victim” (if you feel harassed, you are harassed)—so we seem to be on the way to defining as a rapist some clown whose idea of foreplay is a couple of hours of begging. Fortunately, I’m not the first to observe that this really does demean women, who aren’t all that helpless.

But what about that statistic (I hear you say)? Well, to make a long story short, I never did find the “one in four while in college” number—surely you’d have to ask graduates to get that, or do some tricky extrapolation from undergraduates’ reports—but what I did find makes it plausible, given the study’s definitions. Fifteen percent of the undergraduate women surveyed reported sexual encounters since age 14 that met its definition of rape, and another 12 percent reported encounters that met its definition of attempted rape; 17 percent had had one or the other sort of encounter in the past year. There really is a lot of nastiness out there, and something has indeed gone very wrong since my college days. But not all the nastiness is what most of us think of as “rape.” Not even most of its victims think of it that way. According to Suzanne Fields (who must have seen some data I missed), 73 percent of the women the study said had been raped didn’t think they had been—plainly candidates for reeducation—and 42 percent had intercourse with the “assailant” on a later occasion.

By the way, although the study’s definition of sexual assault sticks to encounters that most states would treat that way, it did ask about sex acts resulting from “continual arguments and pressure,” a wooing strategy rephrased at one place in the text as “coercion,” at another as “menacing verbal pressure.” You get the drift.

It’s a shame that the study muddies the water this way, because the situation it documents is bad enough. By the FBI’s more stringent definition, which doesn’t include the alcohol and drug scenarios, 8 percent of these young women had been sexually assaulted in the past year. If the same ratio holds, 11-12 percent will be assaulted at some point while in college—not “one out of four,” but more than enough to be alarmed about. (And there’s no reason to question the sample. It’s true that students at religious colleges were less than half as likely to have been assaulted, and religious colleges were underrepresented in the sample, but not enough to make a major difference in the estimates.)

It’s interesting that the study also included a similar sample of college men. Five percent of them acknowledged behaviors in the previous year that the FBI would consider rape or attempted rape: 1.8 percent and 3.3 percent, respectively. The difference between that 5 percent and the 8 percent of women who reported having been assaulted is no doubt partly due to underreporting (even most rapists are smart enough not to trust a researcher’s promise of anonymity), but it may also reflect the fact that many of our campuses have become stalking grounds for predators from “the community.” Campus security is a genuine problem, and one that might be easier to address than acquaintance rape—but it doesn’t carry quite the same satisfying ideological freight.

Anyway, to return to my diatribe about blurring distinctions, the real problem, I think, is that treating all this stuff as equivalent makes it less likely that we’ll come down hard on the genuine bad-asses. Even the folks who get most het up about date rape don’t seem ready to do much about it. A couple of years ago, for instance, Donna Shalala, the politically correct chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, was asked by Time magazine what her school was doing about the problem. After some conventional blather about preventing it by education, communication, and counseling. President Shalala said this: “If it occurs, you’ve got to be as tough as possible. In some cases throw someone out of school, force him into some kind of education program.” Right. At my own school, in 1989, rape was made a violation of the Student Code. Big deal.

President Shalala’s idea of how to get tough with rapists illustrates the sort of wooly-mindedness and sentimentality that we encounter all the time on modern college campuses. Why, after all, should a university have a policy about rape? We don’t have one about homicide. If we’re really dealing with rape, not just second thoughts the next morning, we’re talking about crime. “Throw someone out of school”? Naw, let him stay in school—if he can figure out how to do it while pulling, say, ten to twenty years of hard time. And there’s an “education program” for you. From what I hear about our prisons, chances are the swine will acquire a better understanding of rape from the victim’s point of view than he ever imagined was possible.

Incidentally, just a couple of months after the Tar Heel reported that a quarter of our female students will be assaulted, a letter-writer to the weekly Spectator upped the ante. “In a college town such as Chapel Hill,” he wrote, “one-third of the women will face a rape or sexual assault situation during their residency.” If that rate of increase keeps up, we’ll hit 100 percent in a little over a year and a half.