An online study of male college students suggests that sexual coercion by college athletes is far more widespread than previously believed, even given the numerous recent scandals involving sexual assault.
The study, published in the journal Violence Against Women, found that more than half of those who play on intercollegiate and recreational sports teams reported engaging in sexual coercion, including rape.
In an online survey about sexual activity and attitudes, more than half the men who played an intramural or intercollegiate sport reported coercing a partner into sex.
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, according to researchers at North Carolina State University.
The study also found that more than a third of non-athletes reported engaging in sexual coercion, including rape.
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 Dr. Sarah Desmarais, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University and co-author of 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 the study, researchers surveyed 379 male undergraduates online, including 191 non-athletes, 29 intercollegiate athletes, and 159 recreational athletes.
The men 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,” said Desmarais, who conducted the study along with researchers at the University of South Florida, Northern Arizona University, and Emory University.
“As high as these numbers are, they may actually underrepresent the rates of sexual coercion, since the study relied on self-reported behavior.”
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, according to the study’s findings.
And non-athletes were less likely to harbor more traditional, and frequently negative, beliefs about women, such as “women should worry less about their rights and more about becoming good wives and mothers.”
The researchers also 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.”
Source: North Carolina State University