How many college men are willing to commit sexual assault?

From HuffPo:

Close to 1-in-3 collegiate males admitted in a recent study they would force a woman to sexual intercourse, but many would not consider that rape, Newsweek reports.

The survey found 31.7 percent of men said they would act on “intentions to force a woman to sexual intercourse” if they could get away with it, but just 13.6 percent said they had “intentions to rape a woman” if there weren’t any consequences.

The authors of this study note the difference relies on whether or not they described what constitutes sexual assault, versus whether they simply called it rape. For this study, the researchers defined rape as “intercourse by use of force or threat of force against a victim’s wishes.”

. . . The team surveyed 86 male college students, most of whom were juniors and Caucasian, at one university. In addition to asking them about forced sexual intercourse and rape, the participants were quizzed on various items to determine whether they held hostile attitudes towards females. The researchers concede their sample size was small, and hope to expand on it, but Edwards told Newsweek, “the No. 1 point is there are people that will say they would force a woman to have sex but would deny they would rape a woman.”

Similar to the results of this survey of would-be perpetrators, victims are often found to shy away from identifying their experience of forced intercourse as rape. For example, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 17 percent of female undergraduates said in a survey they experienced unwanted sexual behaviors involving force, threat or incapacitation. But only 10 percent of those MIT women also said yes when asked if they were sexually assaulted, and just 5 percent said yes when asked if they were raped.

The study is here: “Denying Rape but Endorsing Forceful Intercourse: Exploring Differences Among Responders

10 thoughts on “How many college men are willing to commit sexual assault?

  1. The paragraph in the Huffington Post summarizing the questions arguably does not correspond accurately to what’s asked in the study. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell (the precise wording isn’t given in the paper), the real results of the study are even more disturbing than what the HP reports.

    This is the study’s description of the relevant portion: “The survey concluded with part of the attraction to sexual aggression scale …. This scale measures self-reported likelihood to engage in a variety of sexual behaviors ‘if nobody would ever know and there wouldn’t be any consequences’ for the participants.”

    Instead, the HP article (“the survey found 31.7 percent of men said they would act on ‘intentions to force a woman to sexual intercourse’ if they could get away with it”) makes it sound as though each subject was asked (inter alia) whether, if he had an intention to force a woman to engage in sexual intercourse, he would act on that intention if he could get away with it.

    Upon reading that summary, it occurred to me that a perfectly decent person, and a committed feminist, might well have the following line of thought in response to that question. (I’ll phrase it in possible-worlds talk for clarity, although of course few nonphilosopher respondents would think explicitly in these terms, but I think the basic idea is obvious enough to be available to any reasonably reflective person.)

    “I have never had and can’t imagine ever having a desire, much less an intention, to rape anyone; in no nearby world do I have such an intention. The only worlds in which I have such intentions are far-away worlds in which I’m a profoundly evil person. But part of what is involved in being a profoundly evil person is being willing to carry out evil intentions if one can get away with it; so, in the nearest worlds in which I have intentions that horrible, I am indeed willing to act on them if I can get away with it. So the counterfactual is true—although not very relevant to anything.”

    Obviously, not everyone would think through that, but it seems fair to say that such a question would be, at best, very confusingly phrased.

    Unfortunately, it seems that the survey just asks its subjects about the likelihood, in the actual world, that they would do profoundly horrible things if they could get away with them. And the results are deeply disturbing.

  2. Isn’t this Plato’s ring of Gyges? That is, the ethical problem of what most or many people would do if they were invisible. I wonder what percentage of people would commit other serious crimes, for example, murder, if they were sure that they could get away with it. That they refuse to call “forced sexual intercourse” “rape” just says something about how people rationalize their conduct: it’s like the CIA calling “torture”
    “enhanced interrogation techniques”.

  3. “The team surveyed 86 male college students, … at one university.”
    One college? Statistical relevance = zero. But apparently it got the answer the authors were looking for, so why do any actual science.

  4. John, I think it’s disturbing that even this many of the 86 students surveyed responded as they did–but as far as statistical relevance goes, yes the study is small (many are), and limited (again, many studies are), but that does not mean that the study is not scientifically done, or that we ought to assume what the scientists are motivated by, or what their professional competence is like.

    In fact, I think the results are rather unsurprising. I would venture that what is going on conceptually is a relatively common phenomena. Think, for example, of what Charles Mills writes about how Jefferson was able to move from talking of “all men” as inherently equal to talk of the “merciless Indian savage” in the same document without any awareness of contradiction–it seems that the concept of “man” that Jefferson was working with excluded a whole bunch of people, Native Americans among them, from actually being considered as “men.”

    Though, again, I agree the study is limited, just as the authors themselves acknowledge that this is only preliminary, and that they have further work to do.

  5. I’d want to see the exact wording of the question, but one more optimistic spin I wonder about has to do with just what the subjects had in mind about ‘force’ and ‘sexual intercourse’. Might some of these men who said yes have been thinking about consensually violent sexual activity in which one uses bodily force in the act of penetration?

  6. Jonathan, that would be comforting, but it doesn’t seem that it’s what happened. Here’s a bit from the introduction:

    “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). Little research has examined what dispositional factors might prompt an individual to admit to rape when asked through behaviorally worded questions as opposed to labeling themselves a rapist. Given that rape is defined as intercourse by use of force or threat of force against a victim’s wishes, this discrepancy suggests that at least some men who rape do not seem to classify their behaviors as such. Hence, we would like to explore the dispositional motivations and reasons that some individuals endorse behaviorally descriptive intentions to use force to engage in sexual aggression, but deny intentions to rape, and other individuals endorse intentions to rape. The present study is an exploratory attempt to distinguish between these different types of rapists via the dispositional constructs of hostility toward women, and callous sexual attitudes.”

    And then the relevant bit from the section on methods:

    “The survey concluded with part of the attraction to sexual aggression scale (Malamuth 1989a,b). This scale measures self-reported likelihood to engage in a variety of sexual behaviors ‘‘if nobody would ever know and there wouldn’t be any consequences’’ for the participants. The behaviors that were included were heterosexual intercourse, forcing a female to do something sexual she does not want to, and rape. We chose to use a hypothetical scale like this because we believed that it would lead to less social desirability bias in this research, as well as lessen any concerns participants might have about divulging information about past crimes. In addition, for the purpose of this study, the key points of having labels (rape) versus behavioral descriptions of sexual aggression is completely addressed with this scale.”

  7. It is perhaps optimism, but I also wonder about what these people are thinking. Paprticularly when it says there wouldn’t be any consequences for the participants. Some of the men may, after all, consider it a bad consequence of rape that the woman would be hurt, possibly traumatized, and perhaps hate him for it. If they are imagining that those consequences wouldn’t happen when they’re imagining no consequences, then it would seem that they’re imagining rough sex, as Jonathan suggests, rather than imagining rape that they get away with. But I have no idea if any of them are actually thinking that. I just think “there wouldn’t be any consequences” sounds awfully strong to me, and the stronger the assumptions required, the more suspicious I am of how informative the answers are likely to be..

  8. Does anyone know whether previous studies have turned up similar results? I’ve seen the claim “one in three college age men would commit rape if they knew they wouldn’t be caught” bandied about before (the first time over ten years ago), but never in contexts in which I felt I could treat the report as authoritative and this is the first time I’ve seen a particular study that supports it cited.

  9. Having now read the paper, I’m concerned that it may be being misinterpreted.

    The paper’s stated goal is to investigate the extent to which men who rape don’t self-identify as rapists, and its statistical analyses, discussion, and conclusions are all focussed around that goal. It makes a fairly persuasive case (on the basis of a self-confessedly small sample) that a large fraction of men who would be willing in principle to rape do not identify their own supposed behaviour as rape.

    Nowhere in the paper’s discussion or conclusion is there any observation about the absolute fraction of men who would be willing to commit sexual assault. That’s entirely proper: their research methodology would be completely unsuited to answering that question. They don’t say anything about how their sample group was obtained, nor do they particularly need to for the question they’re in fact answering (though they note quite properly that their group is demographically non-random). In general, I think surveys like this normally recruit from the student population by asking for people with such-and-such background/interests/whatever. It’s at any rate fairly clear from the paper that this was not a random sample: all 86 participants were sexually active, which (in my naivete) sounds kind of implausible.

    So far as I can see, Newsweek (and, following Newsweek, the Huffington Post) has simply taken the raw data reported in the paper and interpreted that as a reasonable estimate of the fraction of men willing to commit sexual assault: that is, they’re doing their own interpretation of the experimenters’ data, and using it to draw a conclusion not drawn by the authors of the paper and not justified by their research methodology. That strikes me as very regrettable, both substantively (because that conclusion doesn’t look sustainable) and procedurally (because combing through the raw data in a paper and reaching a research conclusion from it not reached in the paper is effectively doing original amateur research and passing it off as part of the peer-reviewed literature).

    Contra John Frederick, the paper’s authors are not to blame, but Newsweek does seem to be. The first-named author of the paper, indeed, is quoted in Newsweek’s article as saying “the No. 1 point is there are people that will say they would force a woman to have sex but would deny they would rape a woman,” not – conspicuously – “the No. 1 point is that 1 in 3 men are willing to rape”.

  10. Thanks for that David–I was hoping that phrasing the title of this post as a question, and quoting the Huffington Post which says the percentage of the men surveyed, includes that quote from the lead author which you mention at the end of your comment, as well as states the low number of study participants would make clear that the study does not show that 1 in 3 of all college men would answer likewise.

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