York professor earns recognition for article analyzing sexual assault surveys

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An article analyzing the history of college campus-based surveys of sexual assault, written by York University Professor Alexandra Rutherford, received an honourable mention in a best article prize competition.

Alexandra Rutherford

At the meeting of the History of Science Society in Utrecht, Netherlands, in July, the Forum for the History of the Human Sciences recognized Rutherford’s article “Surveying rape: Feminist social science and the ontological politics of sexual assault,” published in the Journal History of the Human Sciences.

In the article, Rutherford investigates the history of college campus-based surveys of sexual assault, which have generated one of the most high-profile and contentious figures in the history of social science: the “1 in 5” statistic. Referring to the number of women who have experienced attempted or completed sexual assault since their time in college, “1 in 5” has done significant work in making the prevalence of this experience legible to the public and to policy-makers.

“In this article I examine how sexual assault surveys have participated in structuring the ontology of date/acquaintance rape from the 1980s to today, with particular attention to the methodological practices through which the concept of the ‘hidden’ or ‘unacknowledged’ rape victim emerged,” said Rutherford, who is a professor in the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health. “I then examine a selection of early 21st century sexual assault surveys and the ongoing preoccupation with survey methodology in responses to their results.”

In the paper, Rutherford argues that the survey itself has been a central actor in making the experience of date rape – and its contestation – publicly legible. Only by closely attending to its performativity can we understand the paradoxical persistence of both critical responses to the “1 in 5” statistic and its effective deployment in anti-violence policy, she said.

According to the award committee of the Forum for the History of the Human Sciences, the committee received 30 submissions and unanimously chose to recognize Rutherford’s piece.

“The committee praised the article for its ‘outstanding theoretical contribution that sheds important light on the agency of surveys and their impact as human sciences tools, which produce ontological, social and political realities while also illuminating the political controversies surrounding campus date rape,’” said Professor Laura Stark, Vanderbilt University, Chair of the Forum for the History of the Human Sciences, speaking on behalf of the award committee.

Rutherford’s article was the springboard for two other “popular press” articles: one that appeared in The Atlantic during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and one in Behavioral Scientist.