In New Bedford, Mass., four men have been indicted on charges of raping a woman in a bar while other patrons cheered them on. Two other men have been charged with accessory to rape on grounds they encouraged the attack and stopped patrons from leaving the bar. New Bedford is suddenly notorious and everyone is horrified. How could such a thing happen?
Just last Friday a 12-year-old girl in Colton, Calif., left school with two male classmates for what police Detective George Nunez called "some kind of experimentation. Evidently word got around and two other boys went out there and joined in." They had gone to a shed on property owned by a 40-year-old retired Air Force master sergeant. He heard noises in the shed, went to investigate and instead of breaking the incident up, began to participate, according to Nunez. Finally, other students heard what was going on and police were called. The girl was hospitalized and released. The man has been charged with rape, oral copulation and sodomy. Charges of oral copulation were filed against all four of the boys and charges of unlawful intercourse against two of them.
"She got into a situation and then the situation changed. . . She was held there against her will," said Nunez.
Every few years an incident or series of incidents occurs that focuses national attention on rape and violence against women, but the problem continues to be intractable. Researchers are beginning to find, however, solid links between people's attitudes toward rape and what they see in such cultural conditioners as TV and movies. They are also discovering what one called an "astounding" proclivity toward sexual aggression among men as well as a very high acceptance of the myth that women secretly enjoy being raped.
Ed Donnerstein, a professor in the communications department at the University of Wisconsin, and Neil Malamuth, a psychologist who is an associate professor in the communications department at the University of California at Los Angeles, have both found that men's attitudes toward rape are altered after seeing filmed scenes of women being raped, particularly if she is shown enjoying it.
"The media in general has reinforced these stereotypes," says Donnerstein. "They are quite prevalent. There's no question women are disproportionately victims of aggression in television film today, and the aggression is usually quite sexual in nature. Rape many times is eroticized and sensationalized and not presented in a realistic light."
Donnerstein points to an incident on "Falcon Crest" involving a husband and wife who hated each other. After he slaps her around at a party, she tells him he's "incredible," and the two are shown heading to bed. In "General Hospital," a heroine falls in love with her rapist. In the movie "Getaway" a woman who is raped is shown enjoying it.
"We have clearly found that various kinds of myths portrayed in the media do affect males' attitudes about rape and other acts of aggression against women," says Malamuth.
In one study they have done involving thousands of men, only a third said there was no likelihood of their being sexually violent toward women. "There is a great deal of support in our research program for the social model of the causes of rape as opposed to the psychological model," says Malamuth. "Part of the sex roles that males are taught is to be aggressive, specifically toward women, to have a conquest mentality. And the social model of rape suggests that if we're ever going to deal with this problem in any serious way, we are going to have to really change in fundamental ways various aspects of our culture and of our ideology about male/female relations."
Feminists have for years pointed to cultural conditioning as a cause of male aggression against women, There is now research spanning seven years and involving more than 5,000 men that clearly demonstrates that it has an effect.
In the past quarter century, Americans have undergone a profound change in their tolerance of racism. One of the first steps in that process involved a hard look at how blacks were portrayed in the mass media. Research is now available to argue that a similar change in the way women and violence are portrayed might help curb sexual attacks against women.
The incident in Colton shows that what happened in New Bedford is not isolated. And while the news stories about it have shocked a nation, Malamuth and Donnerstein were not surprised.