Understanding the Accused Student

The purpose of this section is to provide information about individuals who commit acts of sexual violence.  This section will address contributing factors to why a person commits acts of sexual violence, the role that alcohol plays, and research focusing on college males who report engaging in acts of sexual aggression.  It is designed to inform panelists about the reality of this offense so that they are as informed as possible when hearing sexual-violence related cases.

Years of research have revealed some key aspects of sexual aggression on college campuses:  (1) it is extremely common; (2) it is seldom reported to the authorities; (3) it typically occurs in dating situations (ranging from casual to long-term partners) that include some consensual sexual activity; and (4) it usually involves a man using false promises, verbal pressure, and alcohol to make a woman have sex.  (Abbey et al., 2014)

It is important to note that there is no one profile, motivational, or personality factor that can characterize all sexual assaults and all individuals who commit acts of sexual aggression.  Rather, it is usually a “confluence of societal, individual, and situational risk factors for sexual aggression” that facilitates sexual violence (Abbey, et al. 2014).  Research over time has, however, identified some similar characteristics and risk factors that are often exhibited by those who commit acts of sexual aggression.

Statistics and Facts

  • About 85 to 90 percent of sexual assaults reported by college women are perpetrated by someone known to the victim; about half occur on a date.  (National Institute of Justice, 2008).
  • Repeated Offenses:
    • Notably, campus perpetrators are often serial offenders. One study found that 7% of college men admitted to committing rape or attempted rape, and 63% of these men admitted to committing multiple offenses, averaging six rapes each.[1]
    • In a longitudinal study of college men, of those who had committed at least one act of sexual aggression, 68% recidivated during the four-year timeframe.  Of repeat offenders, 42% offended at two time points, 22% offended at three time points, 14% offended at four time points, and 23% offended at five or more time points.  (Zinzow & Thompson, 2014)
  • Some Basic Risk Factor Statistics  (Carr & VanDeusen, 2004)[2] 
    • Alcohol
      • 35% of sample said their friends approve of getting a woman drunk to have sex.
      • 20% reported having friends who have gotten a woman drunk or high to have sex with her.
      • 15% reported using some form of alcohol-related sexual coercion to have sex.
    • Sexual Experience
      • 16% reported being so aroused that they could not stop even though the woman did not want to continue.
      • Majority of coercion reported was verbal (not physical force).
      • 26% said their friends pressured them to have sex.
      • Significant portion of sample reported using pornography at least on a monthly basis.

Social & Personality Factors

  • Cross-cultural studies of rape and studies of rape-prone versus rape-free campus cultures identify the following factors as contributors to sexual violence:
    • sex-role socialization
    • rape myths
    • lack of sanctions for abuse
    • male peer group support
    • pornography
    • all-male membership groups such as fraternities and sports teams

(University of Michigan, citing Bem, 1974, 1981; Berkowitz, 1992; Quackenbush, 1989; Sanday, 1996; Schwartz & DeKeserdy, 1997; Warshaw & Parrot, 1991).     

  • In a study of college men, rape supportive beliefs, peer norms, and risk behavior (e.g., multiple sexual partners, risky alcohol and drug use) were predictive of both single and repeat sexual offending.  (Zinzow & Thompson, 2014)
  • Personal history and personality traits can play in important role in potential for sexual violence.  A “perfect storm” of factors have been identified that may contribute to a man’s sexually coercive and violence behavior, including:
    • Childhood history of some form of abuse
    • Holding hostile attitudes toward women
    • Holding positive attitudes toward casual sex
    • Aggressive and narcissistic personality traits

Men with these traits are more likely to misperceive women’s behavior as indicative or sexual interest and, thus, make unwanted sexual advances.  (Littleton, 2014).

  • “Hook up” culture:
    • When social norms for heavy alcohol use are salient, then sexual aggression is more likely to occur.
    • According to a study by Flack et al., (2007)[3] 78% of unwanted vaginal, anal, and oral sexual incidents occurred during ‘‘hook ups’’[4] (Flack et al., 2007).  78% of unwanted fondling incidents occurred at parties or bars.
  • Other social factors that may contribute to college sexual aggression:
    • Cultural emphasis on “sexual prowess” among men and sexual chastity among women
    • Normalizing coercive behaviors to obtain sex
    • Frequenting social contexts where heavy drinking and casual sex occur often and are encouraged
    • When men are taught to be dominant and aggressive, this often leads to hyper-masculinity, male peer support for sexual aggression, development of rape myths, and adversarial sexual beliefs (University of Michigan, citing Kilmartin, 2000; Rozee & Koss, 2001).
  • Men who adhere to traditional gender-role ideology[5] are more likely to believe that the nature of male-female relationships is adversarial and are more likely to be accepting of rape myths.  (Loh et al., 2005)
    • These men are also more likely to:
      • Be in a fraternity
      • Use alcohol to greater degrees
      • Feel more comfortable in situations where females are being mistreated

Alcohol as Risk Factor

Approximately half of the sexual assaults reported by college students occur when the perpetrator, the victim, or both have been drinking alcohol. (Abbey et al., 2014)  This research has been consistently supported other researchers. 

  • Alcohol may be both a precipitant of and an excuse for sexually aggressive behavior by men (University of Michigan, citing Abbey et al., 2001; Berkowitz, 1992; Larimer et al., 1999; Richardson & Hammock, 1991).  
  • Of the 22 substances used in drug-facilitated rapes, alcohol is the most common.  Not GHB or Rohypnol.  (University of Michigan, citing LeBeau et al., Recommendations for Toxicological Investigations of Drug Facilitated Sexual Assaults, Journal of Forensic Sciences. 1999.)
  • In a 1998 study on male sexual coercion, 23% of college men admitted to getting a date drunk or stoned to engage in sexual intercourse, and 23% of women reported a date getting them drunk or stoned and engaging in unwanted sex (University of Michigan, citing Tyler, et al., 1998).
  • Male college students often report that alcohol increases sexual desire and performance, reduces their disinhibitions, and encourages risk-taking and aggression.  Additionally, many males believe that alcohol makes women more sexually available and disinhibited.  (Abbey et al., 2014)
    • Perpetrators who drink prior to an assault are more likely to believe that alcohol increases their sex drive.  They are also more likely to think that a woman’s drinking signals that she is interested in sex.  (Zawacki, et al., 2003)
    • When intoxicated, individuals tend to focus on the most immediate and salient cues in a situation.  “A potential perpetrator’s sexual arousal, sense of entitlement, and anger are likely to be much more salient when intoxicated than are any concerns about the victim or later negative consequences.” (Abbey et al., 2014)
  • Social factors and alcohol:
    • Social factors are likely highly important in increasing some men’s risk of perpetrating acts of sexual violence.  How often they frequent heavy drinking contexts (parties, bars, etc. where heavy alcohol use is common) is an increased risk factor for perpetrating sexual assault. Many college males may frequent these contexts in order to find casual sexual partners.  (Littleton, 2014)
    • Men who reported heavier drinking also reported they consumed more pornography, attended more parties and bars, and were more likely to have friends who approve of getting a woman drunk to have sex with her.  (Carr & VanDeusen, 2004)

Denial or Rationalization

Based on the existing research, Abbey et al. (2014) makes an important observation

“An intoxicated man who wants to have sex may interpret almost any response from a woman to whom he is sexually attracted as a sign of sexual interest (e.g., even a direct         refusal can be viewed as token resistance).”

Perception of “Token Resistance”(From Loh et al., 2005)[6]

  • Study of 325 undergraduate men in the control group of a sexual assault prevention program study at a large Midwestern university.
  • Men who perceived token resistance in the past were almost three times more likely to have a history of sexually aggressive behavior.
  • Men who are sexually aggressive may discount refusals for sexual activity.  They may expect women to refuse sexual activity for social norm related reasons like “not wanting to appear ‘easy’.” 
  • Perpetrators of sexual violence may believe that their role in relationships is to persuade women to engage in sexual activity. 
  • Men who are sexually aggressive are more likely to perceive resistance as “token resistance,” and thus are able to justify their sexually aggressive behavior by labeling their experiences as token resistance even when they are actually perpetrating sexually aggressive acts.

[1] The White House Council on Women and Girls, 2014; citing Lisak, D., & Miller, P. M. (2002). Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists. Violence and Victims, 17(1), 73‐84.

[2] Study included 99 undergraduate men from a large Midwestern university. 

[3] Study of 178 students at small liberal arts university.

[4] “Hook ups” are described as single, casual encounters, sometimes involving sex, with no expectation of future commitment.

[5] Loh et al. used the Hypergender Ideology Scale (HGIS; Hamburger, Hogben, McGowan & Dawson, 1996).  This scale assesses extreme, stereotypical gender roles.  Sample size was 278 college students.

[6] Loh et al. adapted a token resistance question from Marx & Gross (1995): “Have you ever had a single sexual encounter in which the person you were with, at first, told or demonstrated to you that they did not want to go any further, but then did proceed to engage in further sexual activity?”  In Loh’s study, one third of all participants had perceived token resistance from a partner in the past.  Almost one half of men with a history of sexually aggressive behavior reported they perceived use of token resistance from a partner in the past.

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