By Jesse Singal
Pollsters have long known that the phrasing of a question can significantly affect how respondents answer it — think about the language battle over “pro-life” and “anti-choice.” So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that this applies to sexual assault: Both men and women will offer different responses to questions about rape depending on whether you use the word rape itself or describe the act in question. But it’s still weird how big some of the resulting gaps are.
This isn’t actually a new finding. In a recent study on male college students’ attitudes toward rape led by Sarah Edwards of the University of North Dakota and published in Violence and Gender, the authors cite research first conducted in the 1980s:
Specifically, when survey items describe behaviors (i.e.,‘‘Have you ever coerced somebody to intercourse by holding them down?’’) instead of simply label them (i.e., ‘‘Have you ever raped somebody?’’), more men will admit to sexually coercive behaviors in the past and more women will self-report past victimization.
Edwards and her team wanted to better understand the male side of this gap — that is, why men react differently (and divulge different information) depending on the wording — so they had a group of college men fill out a few surveys. One asked them which sorts of behaviors they would engage in “if nobody would ever know and there wouldn’t be any consequences.” It included items that both used the word rape and that instead described the act of forcing someone to have sex against their will without using the r-word itself. Other survey items assessed the participants’ levels of hostility toward women, hypermasculinity (which includes “viewing danger as exciting, regarding violence as manly, and endorsement of callous sexual attitudes”), and attraction to sexual aggression.
Almost a third of the men (31.7 percent) said that in a consequence-free situation, they’d force a woman to have sexual intercourse, while 13.6 percent said they would rape a woman. Setting aside the fact that it’s terrifying that a full third of a random group of college men will admit to this, the 20-point divide is still weird, even if it does reflect what’s been observed in previous research: At the end of the day, after all, the two groups are saying the exact same thing.
So how did those who endorsed rape differ from those who “only” endorsed forcible intercourse? Edwards and her team found that the men who endorsed rape when the term was used had higher hostility toward women and more callous attitudes about sex. This might matter from a prevention standpoint. The researchers think that “men who endorse using force to obtain intercourse on survey items but deny rape on the same may not experience hostile affect in response to women, but might have dispositions more in line with benevolent sexism.”
In other words, not all potential rapists go around talking about how much they hate women, and this suggests there “is no one-size-fits-all approach to sexual assault prevention.” The researchers think that “[m]en who are primarily motivated by negative, hostile affect toward women and who conceptualize their own intentions and behaviors as rape are unlikely to benefit from the large group primary prevention efforts done as part of college outreach efforts.” In other words, if you’re the sort of person who is so angry at women that the prospect of raping someone doesn’t really bother you, you’re unlikely to be moved by the sorts of sexual-assault-prevention programming colleges offer up at the beginning of the year.
On the other hand, those men who endorse the idea of forcing someone to have sex but not the idea of rape when given that exact word may — despite how confused and misguided they are — be more educable:
[P]rogramming using a group and norm-based approach appears to be appropriate for men who endorse force but deny rape, as long as the programming can establish rapport and credibility with participants. Because these men do not view their sexually aggressive intentions as rape, failing to attend to issues around beliefs about the stereotypical rapist and not identifying with them could weaken the effectiveness of the programming due to not receiving buy in from participants. This would ultimately likely leave the men who could benefit most from these prevention efforts disengaged.
It’s a bit strange to think of different “kinds” of rapists, given that the act is (obviously) horrible and inexcusable in any context. But from a prevention standpoint, that seems to be the direction some experts are headed.