More than half of male collegiate athletes have coerced a partner into sex, according to a new study published in the journal Violence Against Women.
Researchers surveyed 379 male undergraduates from a large, public Division I university in the Southeast about their views on sexual activity and attitudes toward women. Of the students who took the voluntary online survey, 159 were members of recreational sports teams, 29 were intercollegiate athletes, and 191 were non-athletes. Survey participants responded to statements about sexually coercive behaviors, such as "I used threats to make my partner have oral or anal sex."
More than 54% of athletes said they had engaged in sexual coercion, compared with 37% of non-athletes. Researchers found no difference between intercollegiate and recreational athletes.
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"What we see in this study speaks to a larger issue than just the high-profile and sensational reports we hear about," says study co-author Sarah Desmarais, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University. "There are some attitudes and beliefs prevalent among all kinds of male athletes that seem to be leading to high levels of sexually coercive behavior."
The study also identified a connection between admitting to sexual coercion and endorsing myths about rape and traditional views of gender roles. The survey measured attitudes toward women with questions such as, "Women should worry less about their rights and more about becoming good wives and mothers," which comes from a tool called the Attitudes Toward Women Scale, developed in 1973.
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"It was the attitudes toward women and acceptance of the rape myth[s] that explained the difference between athletes and non-athletes," Desmarais says.
Isolating intercollegiate athletes from the rest of the campus community may promote a climate of sexual violence, according to lead author Belinda-Rose Young.
That isolation "leads to sexual violence because of the closed environment," she says. "[Intercollegiate athletes] are in separate dorms, separate classes ... and there's that constant reiteration of male superiority and athletes who are rewarded for being aggressive. That's the reality. But we saw that that attitude is just a part of the general sporting environment."
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However, changing the environment on campuses will be difficult because college officials want to protect their students, Young says. She notes that researchers contacted the athletic departments at five universities for the study, but only one agreed to participate.
"What our study tells us is it's not just about improving knowledge of what is rape and how to treat women in relationships, but attitudes about equality, and detailed knowledge about roles of responsibility," Desmarais says (Ellis Nutt, "To Your Health," Washington Post, 6/5; New, Inside Higher Ed, 6/3).
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