Discussions of campus sexual assault usually place the onus on survivors, for better and worse. Considering that as many as 1 in 5 college women will experience attempted or completed rape, it's understandable that their experiences are front and center while their attackers are demonized. A recent study published by the journal Violence and Gender, however, suggests that college men's motivations for — and understanding of — rape deserve our attention as well.
The study, conducted by University of North Dakota professor Sarah Edwards, found that one-third of the college students surveyed admitted that they would have forced intercourse, while only 13% said they would "rape" someone. This finding suggests that while some college men baldly self-report their intention to rape and others don't endorse or condone rape at all, there is another group that has gone arguably unstudied: men who may identify with and even endorse descriptions of rape but who wouldn't explicitly label such behavior as "rape."
Edwards further linked this distinction to the ingrained attitudes and behaviors of these men, suggesting that traits like callous sexual attitudes and hostility toward women, which past studies have associated with sexual assault, might lead college men to "endorse a behavioral description" of rape rather than identify themselves as rapists. By acknowledging the nuance in motivation beyond predatory violence, Edwards' findings suggest that "there might be different types of offenders with potential differences in underlying motivation, cognition and/or personality traits."
While other studies have attempted to demonstrate a link between various forces and a proclivity for assault — for example, being in a fraternity — few address the role of rape culture, or the way that sexual violence is normalized in our culture, in this dynamic. As the study states, "Men who admit intentions to force women to have sexual intercourse only, but do not believe that this act constitutes rape, might not be primarily motivated by a desire to retaliate and overpower women," but rather may be strongly influenced by factors such as "stereotypically masculine gender roles."
Though this study has notable limitations, including its admittedly small and socioeconomically homogenous subject group (73 primarily white and heterosexual college men), it clearly lays important groundwork for future sexual assault research.
Beyond broadening cultural understandings of this nuanced dynamic, these findings can potentially have tangible results. Educational programming about sexual assault can be improved based on these results, according to Edwards, by "clarifying different behaviors that all constitute sexual assault, but do not follow the stereotypically imagined scenarios related to rape." Furthermore, such programs must more dynamically engage men, so they don't fall into the mental trap of distancing themselves from the identity of "rapist" and can more fully comprehend what acts constitute assault.
Hopefully this study's insights will help bolster the work of anti-sexual assault activists, educators and researchers alike so that they can pave the way for a future in which we're all better educated about the realities of sexual assault and rape culture.