Driven by negative attitudes toward women and misperceptions about rape and consent, more than half of male college athletes surveyed for a new study say they have pressured women -- through physical and verbal threats -- into having sex with them.
And sexual coercion, which is defined as “any unwanted oral, vaginal or anal penetration as a result of verbal or physical pressure, including rape,” is not just prevalent among big-time basketball and football players. The athletes included in the study were mostly those who play recreational, not intercollegiate, sports.
“What we see in this study speaks to a larger issue than just the high-profile and sensational reports we hear about,” said Sarah Desmarais, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University and the study’s co-author. “There are some attitudes and beliefs prevalent among all kinds of male athletes that seem to be leading to high levels of sexually coercive behavior.”
The study is based on an online survey of 379 male undergraduate students at a large, public university in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I. Students were asked questions about their sexual behaviors, attitudes toward women and belief in what are called rape myths -- a series of commonly held but inaccurate assumptions about sexual violence.
The authors of the study said they decided to conduct the survey after noticing there was a dearth of research on the prevalence of sexual assault among athletes. A 1995 survey of 30 NCAA Division I institutions found that while athletes only represented 3 percent of students, they accounted for 19 percent of sexual assaults, but there’s been little published research on the subject since that study.
“Despite the ongoing, high-profile cases of violence against college women by male intercollegiate athletes, research on this phenomenon has been stagnant,” the researchers wrote. “This present study not only adds to the paucity of research on intercollegiate athletes, but also widens the scope to include recreational athletes.”
The researchers define recreational athletes as students who train up to four times per week but don’t compete nationally and are not members of any intercollegiate team. They surveyed 29 intercollegiate athletes and 159 recreational athletes, as well as 191 nonathletes, all of whom were men.
More than 54 percent of the athletes said they had engaged in sexually coercive behaviors, compared to 37 percent of the nonathletes. There was no difference between intercollegiate and recreational athletes.
“I think we were somewhat surprised at first that there was no difference,” Desmarais said. “But when we really thought about the findings, they made a lot of sense. Those participating in recreational athletics were likely involved in team and varsity sports in high school or middle school, and they arrive at college with many of the same beliefs as those who continued to play the sport for a college team. It makes a lot of sense that there would be similar issues between those two groups.”
The survey included questions about common rape myths, such as “if a woman is drunk or doesn’t fight back, then the encounter is not rape.” Athletes were more likely to believe those myths than nonathletes, the researchers found.
Using a survey tool called the Attitudes Toward Women Scale, the study also examined what kinds of beliefs male students had about women and their role in society. For example, the students were asked to say how much they agreed that “women should worry less about their rights and more about becoming good wives and mothers.”
Athletes in the study were more likely than nonathletes to have traditional, and often negative, views of women, the study concluded. An analysis of the prevalence of these beliefs and the prevalence of sexual coercion among athletes indicated that “the effect of athletic status on likelihood of sexual coercion may be attributable to group differences in attitudes toward women and rape myth acceptance,” the researchers wrote.
“This study shows how important it is to change these attitudes,” Desmarais said. “The Attitudes Toward Women Scale used in the study was created in the 1970s and includes some truly archaic, sexist items, and we still see these results today. That shows you how far we still have to go. The hope is that this research provides some concrete targets that prevention programs can look at.”
While the the authors of the study take care to note that this study represents athletes at just one institution, research published earlier this year by the NCAA also suggests many male athletes hold problematic beliefs about sexual assault.
A survey of 923 students found that male athletes struggled to understand consent more than nonathletes did. Nearly two-thirds of male athletes said they agreed that “it is OK to take it to the next level unless you get a definite no,” compared to 47 percent of nonathletes.
“The results of these surveys are not all that surprising,” said John Foubert, a professor of higher education and student affairs at Oklahoma State University and founder of the sexual assault prevention program One in Four. “Hostile masculinity is a predictor of sexual violence, and you’re more likely to see that on an athletic team. If you have a norm among a group of men that is negative toward women, there can be an effect where they all drop to that lowest common denominator. If you have a few vocal, popular members of a football team, and they’re saying noncomplimentary things toward women, it can impact the team’s culture.”
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