Nearly one in three college men admit they might rape a woman if they knew no one would find out and they wouldn’t face any consequences, according to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of North Dakota.
But, when the researchers actually used the word “rape” in their question, those numbers dropped much lower — suggesting that many college men don’t associate the act of forcing a woman to have sex with them with the crime of committing rape.
According to the survey, which analyzed responses from 73 men in college, 31.7 percent of participants said they would act on “intentions to force a woman to sexual intercourse” if they were confident they could get away with it. When asked whether they would act on “intentions to rape a woman” with the same assurances they wouldn’t face consequences, just 13.6 percent of participants agreed.
Researchers hope to replicate the experiment on a larger scale in the future, since they used a very small sample size this time around. However, they still think their findings could help inform the current conversation about campus sexual assault, which has dominated national headlines over the past several years.
“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,” Sarah R. Edwards, an assistant professor of counseling psychology at the University of North Dakota and the lead researcher for the study, told Newsweek.
Edwards’ team also tried to gauge the college men’s approach to the opposite gender. They found that the men who were comfortable admitting their “intentions to rape” displayed a wide range of outwardly hostile attitudes toward women. The men who rejected the “rape” language, but said they would still use force against a woman, didn’t display that level of outward hostility. But they were still linked with what the researchers defined as “callous sexual attitudes”: a set of cultural stereotypes about women as objects and men as aggressors that feeds into hyper-masculinity.
“Given that callous sexual attitudes permit violence and consider women as passive sexual objects, it follows that for men who endorse these, sexual aggression becomes an appropriate and accepted expression of masculinity,” the researchers write. “In this sense, using force to obtain intercourse does not become an act of rape, but rather an expression of hyper-masculinity, which may be thought of as a desirable disposition in certain subcultures.”
This key point illustrates how the new findings fit into larger theories about rape culture.
The push to address sexual assault on campus has sparked a widespread discussion about “rape culture,” a term once relegated to the feminist blogosphere that has recently become more mainstream. Rape culture refers to the larger societal norms that allow rape to thrive — the lack of consequences for people who commit rape, the assumption that this type of sexual behavior is a normal aspect of gender relations, and the obscuring of rape as a serious crime. Participants’ responses to the University of North Dakota study fit neatly into this worldview.
Previous studies have revealed similar attitudes among both men and women. A sweeping international survey of men conducted by United Nations researchers found that most men who had perpetrated rape simply believed they had the right to take control of women’s bodies. A survey of U.S. teens found that many young men are manipulating their partners into sex and getting away with it. And a study that focused specifically on teenage girls in the United States found that most of them assume sexual coercion and violence is normal, because they think men simply can’t control their sex drives.
In order to reach the population of men who don’t currently associate forcible sex with rape, the lead authors of the new study suggest education programs that focus on defining sexual consent and encouraging healthy relationships. Simply pushing an anti-rape message won’t necessarily reach those men, they point out, because they don’t think of themselves as rapists.