To Stop Campus Sexual Assault, We Should Study the Men Responsible

May 13, 2014Andrea FlynnNataya Friedan

This post is the second in the Roosevelt Institute's National Women's Health Week series, which will address pressing issues affecting the health and economic security of women and families in the United States. Today, a suggestion for how the White House's Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault could use research to strengthen prevention efforts.

Finally, the national spotlight is focused on the issue of campus sexual assault. Not Alone, the White House’s first report on the topic, is a historic step in acknowledging violations that have long been ignored, mishandled, or silenced by universities and authorities. One in five women on U.S. campuses experiences sexual violence. Not Alone symbolizes President Obama and Vice President Biden’s commitment to reversing that tide.

Not Alone calls for increased prevention efforts, including the sharing of best practices and promoting the intervention of male bystanders. It urges schools to train the officials responsible for investigating and adjudicating assaults as victim advocates. But this isn't just a report: there's also a toolkit to help campuses conduct and evaluate “campus climate surveys” meant to illuminate the dimensions and scope of sexual violence.

Campus climate surveys ask students to anonymously report on topics ranging from their opinions on consent and the role of alcohol to their own encounters with sexual violence. The report calls on colleges and universities to voluntarily conduct the surveys next year, and the administration is exploring legislative or administrative options that would mandate the surveys in 2016.

These surveys are critically valuable and add to the important research done by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on a broad range of sexually violent behaviors, including verbal sexual coercion/sexual pressure. That research – included in the report’s toolkit of resources – shows that between 25 and 60 percent of men report some form of sexual misconduct in their lifetime. It also shows that nearly 80 percent of women who experience rape do so before the age of 25. Campus climate surveys expand on this research and give schools the data they need to institute change.

All of this research is important for understanding the continuum of sexual misconduct and violence. But to truly prevent sexual assault, it seems imperative that we understand the behaviors, triggers, and environments that contribute to these crimes. For that, we need to talk to the men.

When it comes to understanding rape, there is research worth revisiting and repeating: psychologist David Lisak’s study of college men, which found that the majority of campus rapes (and attempted rapes) in the study were committed by a small group of serial offenders. The study – referenced in the White House’s original Call to Action – challenges the myth that campus rape is somehow less real or serious than rapes that occur in other settings. Lisak’s findings disrupt the notion that campus rape is an issue of drunken confusion, or naivety about consent, rather than a violent act of will and force.

Lisak’s study is distinct in that it suggests that a small group of individuals are responsible for the majority of sexual assaults on college campuses. His research was conducted over eight years with nearly 2,000 students at a university in Boston. Unlike other studies, it asked men about their actions, not just their opinions. Lisak’s surveys asked participants to (confidentially) report on a range of their own experiences with interpersonal violence and sexual behavior. 6.4 percent of the participants admitted to actions that legally constitute rape or attempted rape. This small group was responsible for 85 percent of the study’s reported acts of interpersonal violence. Two-thirds of that group admitted to being serial offenders who committed, on average, six rapes each and those offenders committed more than 90 percent of the study’s admitted rapes and attempted rapes.

The study concludes that the campus rape statistics match up with data on convicted rapists. The admitted rapists' answers to questions about their viewpoints on women, sex, and violence closely mirror those of convicted rapists as well. Campus rapists, it turns out, aren't very different from any other rapists.

The study had a small sample size, which makes it difficult to generalize its findings to the larger population. That's why repeating the research on a larger scale would be so valuable: confirming the patterns and indicators of sexual violence could enable administrators to create and implement more effective prevention programs. Not Alone falls just shy of calling for such research, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use this moment as an opportunity to be more expansive in our thinking and questioning of this important issue. Not Alone clearly emphasizes that education is not the only form of prevention: proactive investigation is needed to disrupt patterns of violence. Incorporating more male-focused lines of questioning into the campus climate surveys or conducting separate surveys similar to Lisak’s would allow administrators to focus not only on the experiences of survivors but also on the men who perpetrate these crimes.

The White House – and the activists who have bravely spoken out – has changed the conversation from one that historically blames the victim to one that calls on men to actively participate in ending sexual violence. As the report correctly states: Not all men are perpetrators of sexual assault. But most perpetrators are men, and a deeper understanding of those perpetrators' behavior will help universities build systems of accountability. Right now, too many institutions are doing too little to prevent sexual violence. Given time, resources, and the right kind of research, we can change that.  

Andrea Flynn is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Follow her on Twitter @dreaflynn.

Nataya Friedan is the Program Manager for the Roosevelt Institute's Women Rising initiative.

Share This