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Sexual assault on campus has long been perceived as a problem of miscommunication between young, drunk adults. The evidence refutes this. Campus perpetrators of nonconsensual sexual acts have traits in common with convicted rapists, according to research.

College perpetrators are predatory and their assaults are premeditated. They use alcohol, rather than force, to incapacitate the people they target. “College sex offenders have common characteristics,” says Dr. John Foubert, associate professor at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, and a specialist in gender and violence issues.

Attitudes and Beliefs

Hostile to women

Lisak, D. (2011). Understanding the predatory nature of sexual violence. Sexual Assault Report, 14, 49-50, 55-57.

  • This 2011 review by psychologist David Lisak outlines the characteristics of “undetected rapists,” including college perpetrators.
  • “When compared to men who do not rape, these undetected rapists are measurably more angry at women, more motivated by the need to dominate and control women, more impulsive and disinhibited in their behavior, more hyper-masculine in their beliefs and attitudes, less empathic and more antisocial.”

Forbes, G.B., Adams-Curtis, L.E., White, K.B. (2004). First- and second-generation measures of sexism, rape myths and related beliefs, and hostility toward women: Their interrelationships and association with college students’ experiences with dating aggression and sexual coercion. Violence Against Women, 10(3), 236-261.

  • This 2004 study explores how sexist attitudes and rape-supporting beliefs relate to relationship aggression and sexual coercion.
  • Sexism and rape-supporting beliefs were related to each other and to aggressive and sexually coercive behaviors.
  • Hostility to women was a more powerful factor than were sexist attitudes and belief in rape myths.
Believes rape myths

Forbes, G.B., Adams-Curtis, L.E., White, K.B. (2004). First- and second-generation measures of sexism, rape myths and related beliefs, and hostility toward women: Their interrelationships and association with college students’ experiences with dating aggression and sexual coercion. Violence Against Women, 10(3), 236-261.

  • This 2004 study explores how sexist attitudes and rape-supporting beliefs relate to relationship aggression and sexual coercion.
  • Sexism and rape-supporting beliefs were related to each other and to aggressive and sexually coercive behaviors.
  • Hostility to women was a more powerful factor than were sexist attitudes and belief in rape myths.

What’s a rape myth?

Rape myths are attitudes and beliefs that seek to justify sexual assault by suggesting survivors invited it.

People who accept rape myths are more likely to commit nonconsensual sex acts and are less likely to intervene to help prevent them, studies show.

Men, fraternity and sorority members, and male athletes are more likely than others to accept rape myths.

In a 2004 study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, repeat perpetrators expressed victim-blaming attitudes and beliefs.

Lacks empathy

Lisak, D., & Ivan, C. (1995). Deficits in intimacy and empathy in sexually aggressive men. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 10, 296-308.

  • Two studies tested the hypothesis that sexually aggressive men present as more stereotypically “male,” with a lower capacity for empathy and intimacy.
  • Compared to their male peers, sexually aggressive men rated themselves as less feminine, manifested a reduced need for intimacy and a lower capacity for empathy, and more strongly endorsed rape myths.
  • These findings support the conceptualization of male sexual aggression as a consequence of male gender socialization. Hypergendered males are considered to suppress “feminine” emotions and exhibit more anger.
Hypermasculine

O’Donohue, W., McKay, J. S., & Schewe, P. A. (1996). Rape: The roles of outcome expectancies and hypermasculinity. Sex Abuse, 8, 133-141.

  • This 1996 study examined coercive sexual behavior in male undergraduates as it relates to hypermasculinity.
  • Men who hadn’t been held accountable for sexual aggression reported more ongoing sexual coercion of others than the men who had been held accountable.
  • These men had a greater likelihood of raping in the future.
  • Subjects with this profile were more likely than average to exhibit stereotypically “male” attitudes and behaviors, such as toughness, daring, virility, and violence.
Impulsive

Prentky, R. A., Knight, R. A., Lee, A. F. S., & Cerce, D. D. (1995). Predictive validity of lifestyle impulsivity for rapists. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 22(2), 106-128.

  • In this 1995 study, 109 violent offenders were observed over a 25-year period.
  • Researchers studied lifestyle impulsivity as a factor for reoffending rapists.
  • The high-impulsivity offenders were twice as likely to commit repeat offenses as were the low-impulsivity offenders.
Rationalizes actions

Abbey A., & McAuslan P. (2004). A longitudinal examination of college men’s perpetration of sexual assault. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72, 747-756.

  • This 2004 study analyzed the self-reports of 197 college men in two surveys a year apart.
  • 14 percent of the sample self-reported having perpetrated a sexual assault within the previous year.
  • Repeat perpetrators expressed significantly less remorse than did past perpetrators who had not repeated the offense.
  • One repeat assaulter believed that the first woman he assaulted “was just being hard to get” and called his second assault “just another night.” Another repeat assaulter claimed that “most women say ‘no’ at first most times. A man has to persist to determine if she really means it.”

Behavior

Predatory

Shapiro, J. (2010, March). Myths that make it hard to stop campus rape. National Public Radio.

  • According to psychologist David Lisak’s 2002 study, 1 in 16 college males (6 percent) had committed sexual assault, but had never been charged or convicted.
  • Male college perpetrators targeted the most vulnerable women.
  • Their weapon was alcohol.
  • These perpetrators sought out women who were younger and new to college, relatively inexperienced with alcohol, and eager to fit in.
Uses alcohol as a weapon

Shapiro, J. (2010, March). Myths that make it hard to stop campus rape. National Public Radio.

  • According to psychologist David Lisak’s 2002 study, 1 in 16 college males (6 percent) had committed sexual assault, but had never been charged or convicted.
  • Male college perpetrators targeted the most vulnerable women.
  • Instead of guns or knives, these perpetrators used alcohol as a weapon.
  • Male college perpetrators tried to get their victim(s) as intoxicated as possible.
Heavy drinker

Abbey, A., Clinton-Sherrod, M., McAuslan, P., Zawacki, T., & Buck, P. O. (2003). The relationship between the quantity of alcohol consumed and the severity of sexual assaults committed by college men. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 18(7), 813-833.

  • This 2003 study examined whether alcohol use contributed to the severity of sexual assaults.
  • Data were collected from 113 college men who reported that they had committed a sexual assault since the age of 14.
  • The amount of alcohol that perpetrators consumed during an assault was related to how much aggression they used and to the type of sexual assault committed.
  • Increased alcohol consumption was related to increased aggression, though at high levels of intoxication perpetrators were less likely to complete a rape.
  • Heavy drinking is a likely risk factor for perpetrating sexual assault among college men.
Serial perpetrator

Lisak, D., & Miller, P.M. (2002). Repeat rape and multiple offending among undetected rapists. Violence and Victims, 17(1).

  • This 2002 study involved 1,900 male university students, mean age 26.
  • 120 men self-reported acts that met the legal definition of rape or attempted rape. They were never prosecuted.
  • Most of the 120 were repeat rapists. The repeat rapists averaged six rapes each.
  • Most of the 120 had committed other acts of violence, such as battery or child abuse.
  • These profiles mirrored those of incarcerated sex offenders.
Violent history

White, J.W. & Smith, P.H. (2004). Sexual assault perpetration and reperpetration: From adolescence to young adulthood. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 31, 182-202.

  • Three incoming freshmen classes of men provided data in this 5-year longitudinal study.
  • Men who perpetrated in high school were at greater risk for sexual perpetration in college.

Lisak, D., & Miller, P.M. (2002). Repeat rape and multiple offending among undetected rapists. Violence and Victims, 17(1).

  • This 2002 study involved 1,900 male university students, mean age 26.
  • 120 men self-reported acts that met the legal definition of rape or attempted rape but were never prosecuted.
  • Most of the 120 were repeat rapists. The repeat rapists averaged six rapes each.
  • Most of the 120 had committed other acts of violence, such as battery or child abuse.
  • These profiles mirrored those of incarcerated sex offenders.

Campus

Passive bystanders

Gidycz, C.A., Orchowski, L.M. & Berkowitz, A.D. (2011). Preventing sexual aggression among college men: An evaluation of a social norms and bystander intervention program. Violence Against Women, 17(6), 720-742

  • This study evaluated the effects of a sexual assault prevention program on 635 men living in first-year dormitories.
  • The program incorporated social norms and bystander intervention education.
  • The men self-reported reduced sexual aggression and an increased expectation of peer intervention to limit inappropriate behavior.
  • The men also reported less reinforcement for engaging in sexually aggressive behavior, fewer associations with sexually aggressive peers, and reduced exposure to sexually explicit media.
Heavy drinking

Mohler-Kuo, M., Dowdall, G. W., Koss, M. P., & Wechsler, H. (2004). Correlates of rape while intoxicated in a national sample of college women. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 65(1), 37-45.

  • This 2004 study analyzed data from 119 schools, involving approx. 8,500 women (1997 survey), 8,400 women (1999 survey), and 7,000 women (2001 survey).
  • One in 20 women (5 percent) reported being raped in college.
  • Rape is more common on college campuses that have higher rates of binge drinking.
Greek culture

Bannon, R. S., Brosi, M. W., & Foubert, J. D. (2013). Sorority women’s and fraternity men’s rape myth acceptance and bystander intervention attitudes. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 50(1), 72-87.

  • This 2013 study examined Greek members’ attitudes and beliefs relating to rape.
  • Compared to other students, fraternity men were more likely to be perpetrators of sexual assault and sorority women were more likely to be survivors.
  • Fraternity men are particularly prone to false beliefs about rape, rape survivors, and rapists.
  • Compared to fraternity men, sorority women were more rejecting of rape myths and were more willing to intervene to prevent a sexual assault.
  • There was no difference in bystander effectiveness between sorority women and fraternity men.
Male sports culture

McMahon, S. (2007). Understanding community-specific rape myths: Exploring student athlete culture. Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work, 22(4), 357-370.

  • This 2007 study explored the college athlete subculture around rape myths.
  • Data included a survey of 205 male and female student athletes, nine focus groups, and 22 individual interviews.
  • Although most surveyed athletes said they didn’t accept rape myths, the focus groups and individual interviews found persistent views, including:
    • Misunderstandings around what constitutes consent
    • Belief in “accidental” and fabricated rape
    • Belief that women provoke rape
    • Belief that female athletes are less likely to be raped than other women.

Who is most likely to experience sexual assault?

In a 2010 national survey of adults, 37 percent of female rape survivors were first raped between ages 18 and 24, according to the CDC.

What's the risk for college women?
1 in 5 undergraduate women say they have experienced attempted or completed sexual assault at college, according to a 2009 study in the Journal of American College Health.

1 in 20 college women are sexually assaulted each academic year, says the US Department of Justice.

Do survivors know their attackers?

Among college women subjected to nonconsensual sexual intercourse or other sexual assaults, 9 out of 10 know their attacker, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2000).

What proportion of college sex crimes is reported?

Less than 5 percent of acts of nonconsensual sexual intercourse (completed or attempted) are reported to law enforcement, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2000). In two-thirds of cases, however, the survivor tells a friend or someone else.

Why are so few college sex crimes reported?

The reasons vary depending on campus policies. According to the US Department of Justice, common barriers include:

  • The risk of consequences relating to drug and alcohol policies.
  • A requirement to participate in adjudication.
  • Perceived victim-blaming on the part of college administrators or officials.
  • A trauma response in survivors, including shame and self-blame.
  • The anticipated stigma around victimization.

The terminology in this infographic reflects evidence that students relate more easily to “nonconsensual sexual intercourse” and “nonconsensual sexual contact” than to “rape” and “sexual assault.”

Not all perpetrators fit the description in the infographic.

Individuals who fit the description are not necessarily perpetrators.

All genders

The statistics on sexual assault vary depending on numerous factors, including reporting policies and how sexual assault is defined.

Who are the survivors?
Most evidence indicates women are far more likely to be sexually assaulted than men. Eighteen percent of women, and 3 percent of men, experience a rape or attempted rape in their lifetime, according to the US Department of Justice and the CDC.

In a 2012 survey, however, 38 percent of people who said they’d been sexually victimized (including childhood abuse) were men, according to the US Department of Justice.

Studies suggest gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people experience rates of sexual violence equal to or higher than the general population.

Who are the perpetrators?
Most evidence suggests that an overwhelming proportion of perpetrators are male. For example, nearly 99 percent of offenders in single-victim sex crimes in the mid-1990s were male, according to the US Department of Justice. Research suggests a small proportion of college men commit an overwhelming proportion of campus sexual assaults. College men who admitted to actions that met the legal definition of rape or attempted rape held views on women, violence, and sex that matched those of convicted rapists, according to David Lisak, a clinical psychologist who has conducted extensive research on undetected sex offenders.

The risk factors for perpetration include individual, relationship, community, and societal characteristics, according to the CDC. A list of risk factors.

Targets

First-and second-year women

Gross, A. M., Winslett, A., Roberts, M., & Gohm, C.L. (2006). An examination of sexual violence against college women. Violence Against Women, 12(3), 288-300.

  • This 2006 study examined sexual violence against college women.
  • Women who were 1st and 2nd year students had a higher risk of being sexual assaulted than 3rd and 4th year women.
  • The vast majority of women (84 percent) who reported sexual coercion experienced the incident(s) during their first four semesters on campus.
Dates, friends, and acquaintances

Fischer, B. S., Cullen, F. T., & Turner, M. G. (2000). Sexual victimization of college women. National Institute of Justice.

  • This National College Women Sexual Victimization (NCWSV) study involved approx. 4,450 women in college in the fall of 1996.
  • The incident rate per 1,000 female students ranged from 9.5 to 66.4.
  • 9 out of 10 victims knew their attacker. He was most commonly a boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, classmate, friend, acquaintance, or coworker.
  • Most incidents occurred in living quarters.
Sorority women

Bannon, R. S., Brosi, M. W., & Foubert, J. D. (2013). Sorority women’s and fraternity men’s rape myth acceptance and bystander intervention attitudes. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 50(1), 72-87.

  • This 2013 study examined Greek members’ attitudes and beliefs around rape.
  • Compared to other students, fraternity men were more likely to be perpetrators of sexual assault and sorority women were more likely to be victims.
  • Compared to fraternity men, sorority women were more rejecting of rape myths and were more willing to intervene to prevent a sexual assault.
  • There was no difference in bystander effectiveness between sorority women and fraternity men.
LGBT students

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). NISVS: An overview of 2010 findings on victimization by sexual orientation. National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. [Summary of findings.]

  • Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people experience equal or higher rates of nonconsensual sexual contact than the general population does.

Duncan, D. (1990). Prevalence of sexual assault victimization among heterosexual and gay/lesbian university students. Psychological Reports, 66(1), 65-66. Not available online

  • In this 1990 study, 42 percent of gay, lesbian, and bisexual university students reported they had been forced to have sex against their will, compared to 21 percent of heterosexual students.

Place

Off campus

Krebs, C. P., Lindquist, C. H., Warner, T. D., Fisher, B. S., & Martin, S. L. (2007). The Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study: Final report. National Criminal Justice Reference Service.

  • Most sexual assaults of college women took place off-campus.
  • Sexual assaults, both on and off campus, occurred mostly in a person’s living quarters.
Residence halls

Fischer, B. S., Cullen, F. T., & Turner, M. G. (2000). The sexual victimization of college women. National Institute of Justice.

  • This National College Women Sexual Victimization (NCWSV) study involved approx. 4,450 women in college, fall 1996.
  • The incident rate per 1,000 female students ranged from 9.5 to 66.4.
  • Most victims knew their attacker.
  • Most incidents occurred in living quarters.
Parties

Krebs, C.P., Lindquist, C.H., Warner, T.D., Fisher, B.S., & Martin, S.L. (2007). The Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study: Final Report. National Criminal Justice Reference Service.

  • Many sexual assaults (incapacitated and forced) occurred at parties.
  • Most incapacitated sexual assaults occurred at parties.
  • Most sexual assaults of college women took place off-campus.
  • Sexual assaults, both on and off campus, occurred mostly in a person’s living quarters.


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Heidi Priebe graduated this year from the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. She majored in psychology.