What We Can Really Learn from the “One Third of College Men Would Rape” Study

In a recent study at the University of North Dakota, nearly one third of the men surveyed said they would force a woman to have sex, so long as they wouldn’t face any consequences. While there are a whole lot of truly disturbing findings in that study, there are also several misconceptions that need to be cleared up. Also, the researchers’ actual recommendations have been largely overlooked, yet they’re much more important for anti-rape education than the mere statistics are.

Before we go any further, let’s address some of the most common criticisms of the study. Yes, the results are based on the responses of only 73 men (86 men participated in the study, but some responses were incomplete or otherwise unusable; more on that later). The researchers admit that this is a small number, but the study in question wasn’t about men’s willingness to rape, it was about how attitudes toward rape/the use of force correlate with the participants’ attitudes toward women and sex. The one-in-three number makes for an easy headline, so the coverage has focused on that rather than the conclusions. In fact, the UND researchers got the idea from studies going back to the 1990s:

Specifically, when survey items describe behaviors (i.e., “Have you ever coerced somebody to intercourse by holding them down?”) instead of simply label them (i.e., “Have you ever raped somebody?”), more men will admit to sexually coercive behaviors in the past and more women will self-report past victimization (Koss 1998).

While not all of those data are easily available online, about 25% of the 2,972 men surveyed by Mary Koss in that study admitted that they had committed some form of sexual aggression.  In another study from 2009, about 6% of 1882 college men admitted to actual or attempted rape when the word “rape” wasn’t used. (It’s likely in both studies that others had done so and didn’t want to admit it). Without larger studies — which I bet other researchers are already scrambling to put together — it’s hard to know if the one-third number from UND will hold up. Of course it’s possible that that number is too high, but it’s also possible that it could prove to be too low. It’s also important to remember that not everyone who says they would rape will ever actually do so and it’s also possible that some past/future rapists denied both actions.

From a mathematical standpoint, it’s also inaccurate to state that one third of college students don’t know what rape is or that one third would rape if it was called something else. Actually, 13.6% flat-out said they’d rape even when that word was used; an additional 18.1% of respondents were murky on the concept that forcing sex on someone is rape. Those numbers are disturbing enough without misrepresenting them; hell, in some ways it’s more horrifying that more than one in eight men didn’t even bother denying that they’d rape someone.

I’ve also seen a few particularly dimwitted individuals on Facebook argue that we shouldn’t be upset about these numbers because the men only said they’d rape or force someone to have sex if they knew there would be no consequences. Except, only the rapists would escape the consequences. Much as one particular dude (who I really wish I’d thought to screencap at the time) tried to make an analogy that it wouldn’t be wrong to steal $1,000 from a bank if the bank magically wouldn’t lose $1,000, rape isn’t a victimless crime and there are always consequences for the victims.  I’m sure that some of the men studied would have answered differently without that caveat, but that isn’t the point of this study. And the fact is, most rapists do get away without any punishment; by some estimates, 97% don’t spend even a single day in prison and many of those will never even be named publicly by their victims. Fear of consequences may stop some would-be rapists, but there are still plenty who are confident that they’ll get away with it — and they probably will.

Rape also isn’t limited to men assaulting women, but since this was the first study to look at what what leads people to endorse the use of force in sexual encounters, it makes sense that the researchers would start with the most common and most widely discussed aggressor/victim dynamic. Hopefully this study will be expanded upon, not only to test its conclusions, but also to see if the same attitudes are present in other dynamics. The researchers also explained that they chose to study college men because many other rape studies have done so and because so many assaults occur between college students. Again, future studies should look beyond this to see if attitudes differ in other populations, but it’s a reasonable starting point.

Now that we’ve covered those issues, let’s take a look at what the study was really looking at, namely the differences between men who will outright admit that they’d rape someone if they could get away with it versus those who denied that they’d rape, but would still force someone to have sex with them. The 86 participants were asked questions from four different pre-existing scales: the hostility toward women scale (Check 1985), the callous sexual attitudes subsection of the  hypermasculinity scale (Mosher and Sirkin 1984), parts of the sexual aggression scale (Malamuth 1989a,b), and the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale (Crowne and Marlow 1960), which was used to see if the participants were likely to be just telling the researchers what they thought they wanted to hear. Twelve respondents gave incomplete answers and could not be analyzed, while another was excluded because he said he would rape but wouldn’t use force; the researchers couldn’t determine if he was filling in answers at random or just particularly stupid and therefore couldn’t categorize his response.

This left us 73 cases for analysis, which all fell into one of these groups: endorsing no intentions of sexual assault (n = 49), endorsing intentions to use force but denying intentions to rape a woman (n = 13), and endorsing both (n = 10).

The researchers then compared these groups by how they’d fared on the sections that tested their hostility toward women and callous attitudes about sex. Unsurprisingly, the men who wouldn’t rape no matter how it was described were less hostile toward women and less callous about sex than both of the other groups. Where it gets interesting is in the difference between the men who would force sex but might or might not call it rape. The men who admitted that they would rape someone if they could get away with it scored the highest on hostility, while those who rejected the rape label but would still force sex if they wouldn’t suffer any consequences weren’t hostile, but rather held a more callous attitude toward sex.

From these data, the researchers were able to draw several conclusions. If we want to reduce the number of sexual assaults, we need to take into account that women are getting raped by two kinds of men with wildly different attitudes toward their attacks. Therefore, we need to do a better job of targeting anti-rape campaigns.

It’s easy for men with callous attitudes toward sex to brush off discussions of “rape” because they don’t understand that forcing or coercing someone to have sex is rape. After all, they think they like women. They aren’t rapists, they’re sex gods! Educating people in this sort of “bro culture” about what actually constitutes unwanted sexual behavior may help them see their actions (and the actions of others) in a different light. They could also benefit from looking beyond their own sexual gratification and understanding that, unlike in a hypothetical study question, forcing someone to have sex against their will does have consequences for the other person.

For the hostile group (to which many MRAs likely belong), a different approach is needed. Focusing on consent won’t help because they see rape as a way to punish or get revenge on people they hate, and while the bros may come to understand and regret the consequences of their actions, these men are acting with the desire to cause those same consequences. The researchers recommend a more individualized approach to help them process their anger and work through their hostility.

These conclusions can also help other people understand different attitudes about rape. Knowing that many men don’t see forcing sex as rape might also help with the shocking number of people who still think that “legitimate rape” only happens when a stranger attacks a woman in a dark alley and that most victims really just regret having sex and are “crying rape” for attention. Also, understanding the innate hatred behind other men’s rhetoric might help more reasonable people steer clear of sympathizing with their supposed plights.

As with any study where findings go viral, it’s important to look beyond the sensationalist headlines to see what the actual conclusions were. The raw numbers are scary, but they’re useful in telling us how to proceed. With targeted education, hopefully we can change these attitudes going forward.

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[E] Hillary

Hillary is a giant nerd and former Mathlete. She once read large swaths of "Why Evolution is True" and a geology book aloud to her infant daughter, in the hopes of a) instilling a love of science in her from a very young age and b) boring her to sleep. After escaping the wilds of Waco, Texas and spending the next decade in NYC, she currently lives in upstate New York, where she misses being able to get decent pizza and Chinese takeout delivered to her house. She lost on Jeopardy.

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