Campus sexual assault scandals have practically become routine. The most recent one to make the news led to the firing of Baylor University's head football coach and the demotion, and then departure, of its president. A new study, published last week in the journal Violence Against Women, suggests that sexual assault by college men is an even more widespread problem than the scandals imply.
In an online survey about sexual activity and attitudes, more than half the men who played an intramural or intercollegiate sport reported coercing a partner into sex. Of the sexually coercive behaviors listed on the survey, including "I used threats to make my partner have oral or anal sex," almost all met the legal definition of rape.
A total of 379 male undergraduates from a single large, public, Division I university in the Southeast volunteered to take the online survey. Of that total, 159 were members of recreational, or club, sports teams; 29 were intercollegiate athletes; and 191 were non-athletes. Having to rely on subjects from only one institution was an unavoidable limitation of the research, according to the scientists.
Prior research has indicated an outsize proportion of sexual violence cases on campus are committed by intercollegiate athletes. This new survey examined the previously unexplored population of intramural athletes, those who play recreationally and are the largest group of undergraduate athletes nationwide, and found that the risk factor for those club athletes was not significantly different from that of intercollegiate athletes.
"I actually was surprised," said lead author Belinda-Rose Young, who acknowledged that many scientists think intercollegiate athletes are at greater risk because they tend to be isolated from much of the rest of the university community.
"That leads to sexual violence," she said, "because of the closed environment. They are in separate dorms, separate classes ... and there's that constant reiteration of male superiority and athletes who are rewarded for being aggressive. That’s the reality. But we saw that that attitude is just a part of the general sporting environment."
Young and a team of researchers at four universities also found that almost 38 percent of men who were non-athletes used verbal or physical pressure to engage in sex.
The scientists also found an association between admitting to coercive sex acts and endorsing two distinct attitudes: the belief in rape myths, such as "If a woman doesn't fight back, it isn't rape," and traditional views of gender roles, such as "Women should worry less about their rights and more about becoming good wives and mothers."
"It was the attitudes toward women and acceptance of the rape myth that explained the difference between athletes and non-athletes," said Sarah Desmarais, a forensic psychologist at North Carolina State University and a member of the team.
"[The idea of] comparing recreational and intercollegiate athletes — that's filling a gap. That’s really important," said Kristy McCray, an assistant professor of health and sport sciences at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. "This idea of engaging in athletic behavior, even if you’re not on an [intercollegiate] team — just being in a sports culture — is really interesting."
At that same time, it was not surprising.
"Sports are a hypermasculine endeavor, and there’s a lot that connects hypermasculinity to violence," said McCray, who was not part of the research team.
Young says the athletic departments at five universities were contacted, but only one agreed to participate in the survey.
"They were being protective of their athletes," she said, "because the topics are so sensitive."
Nonetheless, Desmarais thinks their findings, while limited, are a fair representation of the problem.
"There was nothing in the socio-economic characteristics [of the survey participants] that would lead us to believe the results don't generalize."
What surprised the researchers most were the attitudes toward women reflected in some of the statements on the survey, which were drawn from a survey developed back in 1973.
"The items [on that scale] make a lot of sense if you think about women’s lib back then," Desmarais said. "I'd hoped we’d come a longer way since 1973."
McCray believes there is evidence to suggest that old attitudes about gender differences are reanimated simply by belonging to a closed, sex-specific sports team.
"When you separate the men and the women, they’re different," she said. "And who gets the glory and the media attention, it’s the men. Women are less valued. We've seen in previous studies, for participants in [college] sports, when the athletic director shows up for women’s events the athletes feel valued. So sex segregation has a lot to do with how we value women and also makes it easier to de-value women."
For the researchers, one of the most important takeaways of the study is that public education at the university level needs to be sharpened and more targeted.
"What our study tells us is it’s not just about improving knowledge of what is rape and how to treat women in relationships," Desmarais said, "but attitudes about equality, and detailed knowledge about roles of responsibility."
Advocating for change and educating for prevention, however, takes research into the problem, which can be hard to come by, Young said. She suspects that colleges and universities simply don't want to expose their students, and athletes in particular, to research that could potentially have legal consequences if they admit to criminal acts.
"That means we don’t know what’s going on or by whom," said Young, referring to education and prevention programs, "because it’s certainly not being reported or researched. If there is something being done, it hasn’t been published."
Correction: An earlier version of this post erroneously characterized the departure of Baylor University's president.