A new study of single young men finds that 43 percent report pressuring or forcing a woman to do something sexual against her will at least once. But according to the results, there may be differences between those men who are sexually coercive only as teens and those who continue into adulthood.
These factors include personality differences, belief in stereotypes about women and the man's own experience of being an abuse victim.
"We were trying to understand who are the most extreme members of the group, and who might have done this a few times but felt regret or learned [not to behave this way]," said study researcher Antonia Abbey, a psychologist at Wayne State University in Detroit.
The results should help researchers understand how to target the different groups of men with specific anti-sexual assault education.
An average of 207,754 new victims of sexual assault are reported each year, not including cases under the age of 12, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Most of the victims are women, though men are targeted too.
Contrary to common sense, people are actually quite willing to admit to sexual assault in research studies, even acts that would legally meet the definition for rape, as long as researchers ask them about specific behaviors rather than labels. In other words, asking, "Are you a rapist?" is likely to yield few "yeses," but, "Have you ever had sex with an unconscious woman who did not consent?" will trigger some surprisingly honest answers.
Studies like these done with college students suggest that sexually coercive behaviors are common. One of Abbey's earlier studies, for example, found that about 41 percent of her sample of college men admitted to knowingly forcing a woman to have sex or do some other sexual act. A 2004 study conducted by other researchers followed three classes of college men through all four years of school and found that by graduation, 34.5 percent had been sexually coercive.
Not all of these behaviors meet the legal definition for rape, Abbey cautioned. Some do, but others include things like verbal bullying, threats and guilt trips, all of which had a sexual context. Nonetheless, she said, even these legal behaviors can be harmful.
"I think most of us would view it as, 'That's not right, that's not ethical,'" Abbey told LiveScience. "That's not what we want young men and women to feel sexual activity is about."
Profile of sexual aggression
While college rates of these unhealthy patterns of sexuality seem to be high, few people have researched the general community, Abbey said. She and her colleagues conducted phone interviews in the Detroit area to gather single men between the ages of 18 and 35 who had dated women in the past two years. They chose this group because they wanted to find men on the dating scene who were in the "transitioning to adulthood" phase of life.
The men were offered $50 to complete two guided computer surveys one year apart. They were told the study was on dating and sexual experiences. Four hundred and seventy men signed on, and 90 percent completed the follow-up a year later, for a final sample of 425.
The surveys covered everything from personality profiles to a man's sexual history to his attitudes toward women and his beliefs about alcohol. Men were also asked if they had ever been abuse victims.
The results echoed those in college students: Levels of sexual aggression were high. Forty-three percent of the men who participated had perpetrated some sort of sexually aggressive act since age 14. A quarter of participants reported engaging in sexual coercion in the year between the first survey and the second.
In the year between surveys, 8 percent had forced sexual contact upon someone, 10 percent had verbally coerced a woman into sex when they knew she wasn't interested, 1.4 percent had attempted rape, and 5.4 percent had actually raped someone, usually an impaired or unconscious victim, they reported.
Starting and stopping
Abbey and her colleagues were interested in more than raw numbers. They compared the men who had started sexual aggression before the first survey and continued throughout (18 percent of all men in the study) with those who had done something aggressive before the survey but had not done anything in the year between surveys (25 percent) and with those who started acting sexually aggressive between the first and second surveys (7.5 percent).
Unsurprisingly, the persistent sexual offenders were the worst on every risk factor for sexual aggression and mental health variable measured, the researchers report in the January 2012 issue of the journal Psychology of Violence.
"They had more experience of being a victim of some kind of abuse as a child, they tended to have personality traits like being low in empathy toward other people, more risk-taking, more delinquent, more sexual partners," Abbey said. The men also reported more often that they misconstrued women's signals, believing they wanted sex when they didn't. They also believed more strongly in stereotypes about women. [6 Gender Myths Busted]
"On a host of different type of factors that you would think could contribute to someone's willingness to use another person for their purposes, this group scored high," Abbey said. "So it fit a profile that you often see."
The "desistors," or men who had been sexually aggressive in the past but had since stopped, showed a shift over the year-long study period. At the second survey, they reported a drop in sexual partners and said they had fewer misunderstandings about women's sexual intentions. For lack of a better term, Abbey said, they seemed to be "growing up."
"Some adolescents and adults act out in various ways," she said. "But you can kind of grow out of it, you mature. So this is clearly part of you, these people did these things, but on the other hand, it seems to be something where when circumstances change, they change."
The third group, those who started acting sexually aggressive during the study period, seemed to be late bloomers. Over the year-long study, they began drinking more and more often said that they believed alcohol makes people want sex. They also began to misunderstand women's sexual motives more, the opposite of the "desistor" group.
These men may be falling into crowds and situations where alcohol and sex mix, Abbey said.
"With that seems to be this pressure, internal or not, to push sex," she said. "And certainly there's lots of reasons to think that alcohol can allow people to cross a line."
Preventing sexual assault
These three profiles are limited in scope, given that the researchers had only a year's glimpse into these men's lives, Abbey said. But the findings suggest that preventing sexual assault may take a varied approach. Men who are abuse victims in early life, for example, need a different kind of help than men who become sexually pushy as teens and later grow out of it.
"We really need to intervene with children in trouble early, so you don't deepen these negative patterns," Abbey said.
For less-troubled men who may become sexually aggressive as teens or young adults because they see sex as conquest or a way to impress other men, education can help, Abbey said. One school-based program, The Date Safe Project, teaches kids explicitly about healthy relationships and consent, she said. Studies have borne out that exposing middle-school kids to the program decreases future sexual assaults.
Abbey and her colleagues hope to follow up with the same group of Detroit men again to see how their sexual aggression changes over at least another year.
"Clearly, [our study] gives us lots of hints about prevention," Abbey said. "But the more we learn in detail about the pressures people feel at certain ages, the better we can develop these programs."
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.