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About the study

  • Title: “Understanding Community-Specific Rape Myths : Exploring Student Athlete Culture” [link]
  • Authors: Sarah McMahon (smcmahon@rci.rutgers.edu); Rutgers, State University of New Jersey
  • Scope / Methodology: 250 Division I student athletes at a large public university; Three stage research encompassing:
    1. Student surveys
    2. Nine focus groups, and
    3. In-depth interviews to follow-up on focus group responses.[/box]

Get Inclusive’s Summary

Athletes tend to have higher acceptance of rape-supportive statements vs. control group. Athletes (both men and women) were likely to blame the victim, “they provoked it” and express misunderstanding of consent, e.g., “accidental” or “fabricated” rapes. Women athletes held a belief that they are not vulnerable, and in conjunction with victim blaming, risks making them less likely to seek support in case of sexual assault. Findings from this research are likely to be very valuable for colleges where sports play an important role and also will inform content choices for training providers who focus on Campus SaVE Act and bystander intervention. Great care must be taken to not single out athletes as being a high-risk group and permeating a belief that they are members of rape-prone culture. Instead, training should focus on raising awareness and empowering athletes to use their position of authority on campuses to champion the cause of bystander intervention by acting as role models for the broader college community.

Myth: Athletes are more likely to commit violence because of the pervasive culture of dominance and sanctioned violence

Reality: Several studies cited in this research paper found no evidence that athletes are any more or less likely vs. non athletes in committing sexual violence (FOOTNOTE: Brown, Sumner, & Nocera, 2002; Crosset, 1990; Schwartz & Nogrady, 1996). However, recent data shows a rise in share of athletes vs. non athletes in sexual assault cases.

Implication: Sexual assault prevention training, including Campus SaVE Act compliance training, could benefit a college athletic community by including components on awareness of this specific trend. Forums of discussions could be created to discuss specific ideas on how to shift these norms.

Myth: Athlete's attitudes towards rape are strongly negative, just like they are for a majority of campus communities

Reality: Athletes attitudes towards rape were found to vary significantly from the non-athlete student population. Athletes responded more positively to rape-supportive statements (56%) vs. control group (8%). The study did not highlight how this attitude has changed over the past decade and would be a valuable research topic that ties in with the finding from the previous myth that over the past decade there has been an increase in share of athletes in sexual assault cases. The study did not link higher rape-acceptance as evidence for higher incidence of rape.

Implication: Sexual assault prevention training programs, including training focused on Campus SaVE Act compliance, could create opportunities for athletic teams to reflect on the findings that rape-supportive cultural norms vary significantly between athlete and non-athlete student communities; discuss aspects of athletic culture that reinforce these norms, and aid in ongoing monitoring of attitudes and beliefs in the athletic community.

Myth: Rape myths are mostly related to the denial that athletes are perpetrators

Reality: strongest rape myths were related to definition of consent (e.g. definition, “no sometimes means yes”), belief in “accidental” and fabricated rape, and the belief that some women provoke rape. The study also found a belief held by female athletes of being less vulnerable to sexual assault and violence.

Implication: Training for athletes (and non-athletes alike) should ensure that consent is clearly understood.

Myth: “Women sometimes provoke rape” is an argument made and supported by many male athletes

Reality: yes but it was actually also supported by female athletes who participated in this research, “When we go out to parties, and I see girls and the way they dress and the way they act, and then how close the guys come up to them, and just the way they are, under the influence, I honestly always think it’s their fault.”

Implication: Sexual assault prevention training and Campus SaVE Act compliance training programs should introduce the concept of victim-blaming and for athletes consider raising awareness that higher incidence of such beliefs in any community could interfere in its member’s ability to intervene in cases of sexual assault and violence and for the survivors to seek help.

Myth: Women, regardless of whether they are athletes or not, face equal barriers and have equal opportunities for assistance if assault does occur

Reality: women athletes are less likely to seek assistance because of their belief that they are less likely to be raped. The belief that they are stronger than their non-athletic counterparts, are more capable of fighting back and that they possessed superior mental strength, self-esteem and self-confidence actually may contribute to self-blame and stigma and create barriers to seeking help.

Implication: Sexual assault prevention training and Campus SaVE Act compliance training programs could raise awareness among women-athletes of this limiting belief.

As a bystander intervention training course provider, Get Inclusive would find it very valuable if this “invulnerability” belief was studied further in its impact on women athlete’s attitudes towards being allies vs. passive bystanders when they witness sexual assault on non-athletic women. On the one hand we believe that women athletes, believing that they are strong and can fight back, would be more likely and motivated to intervene, but on the other hand, the victim-blaming belief may hold them back from such interventions.

Double-Myth:

Athletes are independent-minded and generally consistent in the beliefs they express as individuals or in group settings

Athletes are more accepting of rape-supportive attitudes in private than in group setting

Reality, not so. Athletes were more likely to be accepting of rape-supportive attitudes and victim blaming beliefs when they were in a group vs. when they were surveyed as individuals. Cultural norms likely contributed to their open expression of rape-supportive attitudes. Their beliefs in group setting regarding consent contradicted what they expressed in individual surveys. As a group, athletes were less likely to assign accountability of violence to the perpetrator.

Implication: Sexual assault prevention training and Campus SaVE Act compliance training programs could raise awareness regarding this difference in beliefs at individual level vs. group level and use this contraction in views to foster a dialogue to bring the focus back to individual’s own views which could serve as a strong foundation for bystander intervention programming.

Get Inclusive Reflections:

As the authors of this study suggest, the findings from this study are not generalizable to athletes in other colleges, they do, however, raise important concerns and opportunities to rethink the training content for Campus SaVE Act:

From Definitions to Accountability

This study highlights heavy reliance on misunderstanding of the term “consent” and accountability of the victim in the sexual assault. Training programs must address this head-on by removing any ambiguity related to the definition of consent and the need to eliminate victim-blaming language and attitudes.

One-size-fits-all Campus SaVE Act Compliance training

Generalized training methodologies should be questioned as they may not be addressing the different attitudes held by athletic and non-athletic student populations; and even within the athletic student population, there were non-trivial differences between male and female student athletes, i.e. their sense of invulnerability.

Women athletes as allies

Women athletes’ view that they are stronger and can fight back can be nurtured into their ability to intervene and prevent sexual assault and violence. However, victim-blaming was a key limiting beliefs highlighted by this study that may prevent women athletes from becoming allies in their campus communities and should be the target of training programs.