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Research and Innovation

Study: Attitudes Toward Women Key in Higher Rates of Sexual Assault by Athletes

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For Immediate Release

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 may be 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,” says Sarah Desmarais, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University 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 surveyed online 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 says.

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 says. “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.


Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“Sexual Coercion Practices among Undergraduate Male Recreational Athletes, Intercollegiate Athletes, and Non-Athletes”

Authors: Belinda-Rose Young, University of South Florida; Sarah L. Desmarais, North Carolina State University; Julie A. Baldwin, Northern Arizona University; Rasheeta Chandler, Emory University

Published: May 30, Violence Against Women

DOI: 10.1177/1077801216651339

Abstract: Prior research shows that male intercollegiate athletes are at risk for perpetrating sexual violence. Whether this risk extends to male recreational athletes has not been explored. This study assessed associations between attitudes towards women, rape myth acceptance, and prevalence of sexual coercion among 379 male, undergraduate recreational and intercollegiate athletes and non-athletes. Our analyses showed significant differences between the responses of: athletes and non-athletes for all dependent variables; and intercollegiate and recreational athletes on attitudes toward women and the prevalence of sexual coercion.  Controlling for rape myth acceptance and traditional gender role attitudes eliminated differences between athletes and non-athletes in prevalence of sexual coercion.