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Attitudes Toward Women Key In Higher Rates of Sexual Assault By Athletes

Photo credit: Seabamirum. Shared under a Creative Commons license.

An online study of male undergraduates shows that more than half of study participants on intercollegiate and recreational athletic teams — and more than a third of non-athletes – reported engaging in sexual coercion, including rape.

The increased risk of sexual coercion by athletes was linked to “traditional” beliefs about women and a higher belief in rape “myths,” which are used to justify sexual assault.

Previous research has shown that male college athletes are more likely than college students in general to commit sexual violence or engage in sexual coercion. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education called for colleges and universities to institute efforts to educate athletes and address sexual violence.

“We wanted to know what these programs need to address,” said Sarah Desmarais, an associate professor of psychology at NC State and co-author of a paper on the recent study. “What are the factors that contribute to these higher rates of sexual assault? And are these issues confined to intercollegiate athletes, or do they extend to club and intramural athletes?”

For this study, the researchers conducted an online survey of 379 male undergraduates: 191 non-athletes, 29 intercollegiate athletes and 159 recreational athletes. The study was conducted by researchers at NC State, the University of South Florida, Northern Arizona University and Emory University.

Study participants were asked about their sexual behavior, their attitudes toward women and the degree to which they believed in rape myths.

“We found that 54.3 percent of the intercollegiate and recreational athletes and 37.9 percent of non-athletes had engaged in sexually coercive behaviors – almost all of which met the legal definition of rape,” Desmarais says.

“As high as these numbers are, they may actually under-represent the rates of sexual coercion, since the study relied on self-reported behavior,” Desmarais said.

Non-athletes were much less likely to believe in rape myths, such as that if a woman is drunk or doesn’t fight back, it isn’t rape. And non-athletes were less likely to harbor more traditional, and frequently negative, beliefs about women, such as that “Women should worry less about their rights and more about becoming good wives and mothers.”

In addition, the researchers found that there was no difference between recreational and intercollegiate athletes in regard to their views toward women, belief in rape myths or sexual behavior.

After analyzing the data, researchers found that belief in rape myths, and more traditional beliefs about women, played a key role in the increased likelihood that athletes would commit sexual assault.

“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 paper, “Sexual Coercion Practices among Undergraduate Male Recreational Athletes, Intercollegiate Athletes, and Non-Athletes,” is published in the journal Violence Against Women. Lead author of the paper is Belinda-Rose Young of the University of South Florida. The paper was co-authored by Julie Baldwin of Northern Arizona University and Rasheeta Chandler of Emory University. 

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  1. I am not surprised at these findings and I recently pondered the factors that may lead male athletes to commit sexual crimes against women. My observations as a middle school substitute teacher this past school year have lead me to believe that male athletes are allowed to get away with negative behaviors in school due to their status as school athletes. For example, one male student who was on the middle school baseball team was referred to the principal for damaging school property by stabbing a pair of scissors through two glue bottles in art class. Two female students reported witnessing his actions, although they were discreet about telling me who did it. When the principal came into class at my request, the first thing he wanted to know when he found out which student was responsible was if his coach knew about it. The coach did know already because he was close by and I called him to contact the principal.

    Anyway, during a later class block, it was revealed that this same student had erased another student’s name from her work and had written his own name on it. He was again referred to the principal who said that he had called the students mother. As far as I know, this student did not receive any type of suspension or other formal discipline. Interestingly, during the last two weeks of school, a non-athletic and lower achieving male student was suspended for the remainder of the school year, including the EOG testing dates, because he brought a speaker to school and acted out when the assistant principal happened to be on the hall.

    I think that student athletes, particularly males, have developed a sense of being untouchable because they are not as likely to be held accountable for their negative behaviors. The administration and other staff members do not want to hinder the students’ participation in sports so they let them off easy. This may be a contributing factor in the likeliness of male student athletes eventually committing sexual crimes against women. While they may hold some “archaic” views toward women in general, it is very likely that their willingness to commit such crimes has more to do with the fact that they do not believe that they will be held responsible for their actions. Even high-profile cases involving college and professional athletes are often down-played in an effort to resolve the charges without major penalties. Think about the recent case involving the student swim team athlete. It was his involvement in sports that led the judge to lessen his sentence. Researchers need to focus on accountability in the lives of student athletes and determine if we need to educate students and stakeholders in the dangers of leniency in addition to addressing their views toward women. I am interested in future developments on this topic. I applaud the efforts of researchers in this area. It is time something be done to stop this problem and to protect victims. I believe our intervention efforts must begin early and should address full accountability for student athletes at every stage of life development.