The problematic myths that students believe about sexual assault

Anna Bull and Hayley Turner-McIntyre outline the findings of their study into the acceptance of "rape myths" among students - with some concerning demographic trends

Anna Bull is a Senior Lecturer in Education and Social Justice at the University of York and a founding member of The 1752 Group

Hayley Turner-McIntyre is a former Welfare Officer at a UK University (2019-2021).

TW: This article contains detailed discussions of sexual assault, sexual acts, and victim-blaming attitudes throughout. 

There is increasing activity taking place in higher education institutions to tackle gender-based violence.

But much of this work is not being evaluated. Universities UK, in their 2019 review of progress on the Changing the Culture report, found that

only a small number of institutions are currently looking at the impact and evaluation of interventions […] robust ways to measure impact remain very much in the early stages.

Four years after this report, there remains a lack of appropriate tools and approaches for evaluating work in this area.

Rape myths

One way of evaluating the effectiveness of an intervention is measuring changes in belief in ‘rape myths’ over time. A “rape myth” is a false belief about rape shaped by sexism and other prejudices. They are inaccurate assumptions about rape that deny, downplay or justify sexual violence, and they are essential to understand because they “serve to deny, downplay or justify sexual violence”.

People who believe rape myths are more likely to perpetrate sexual violence, and a recent study of sexual violence perpetration among male UK university students found that one in nine participants (11.4 per cent) self-reported recent sexual aggression.

Rape myth acceptance – along with atypical sexual fantasies, general aggression, and hostility toward women – was one of the most reliable predictors of sexual aggression. Tackling the attitudes that inform rape myths is part of the prevention work that needs to occur in higher education around changing attitudes.

Students’ belief in rape myths

As part of a wider survey of gender-based violence and harassment at one UK university, also reported in Wonkhe, we asked respondents about their belief in rape myths to explore the attitudes that enable gender-based violence to occur. We used an internationally-recognised survey instrument for measuring rape myth acceptance. It comprises four subscales: “she asked for it”, “he didn’t mean to”, “it wasn’t really rape”, and “they lied”, which map onto four wider set of beliefs:

  • Beliefs that blame the victim/survivor
  • Beliefs that cast doubt on allegations
  • Beliefs that excuse the accused
  • Beliefs that assume rape only occurs in certain social groups

Each of these scales asked a set of questions that have been combined to give an overview of the extent to which the respondent believes these myths about rape.

The scale we used draws on gendered understandings of rape and sexual violence and uses binary gendered language, for example, “if a girl doesn’t say no, she can’t claim rape”.

The use of “girl” rather than “woman” and “guy” rather than “man” was suggested in a revision of the scale in the US in 2011 for use among university students, as the authors found that this reflected the language used by students.

In filling out the survey, some students expressed concern that these scales made assumptions about the gender of the perpetrator and the victim. One respondent commented, “The survey should include how men can be raped too”.

We added the following statement in the survey to explain the reason for including these gendered questions:

The following statements are looking at attitudes in relation to heterosexual behaviours. They are based on research and reports in the UK that a large proportion of rape cases, including harassment, hate crime and violence, are committed by men against women.

Once this explanation was added, we received no more comments along these lines. However, it is a limitation of these survey questions that they do not take into account the more fluid gender identities of many young people today, especially as the data from this survey shows non-binary students were highly likely to be subject to sexual or gender harassment.

Male students are more likely to believe rape myths

The majority of the 725 respondents did not believe rape myths. However, there were a minority of students who agreed with some of the rape myths put forward. Perhaps most concerningly, there was also a large minority of students who indicated they were unsure whether or not they agreed with many of the statements.

Across all questions, there was a clear pattern that male students were more likely to hold these beliefs than women. These findings are all the more stark when examined in the context of the findings of this survey on sexual violence victimisation, which show that women and non-binary people were three times more likely to be subjected to sexual violence than men.

A number of items showed a concerning lack of understanding around consent and legal definitions of rape. For example, 19 per cent of respondents were unsure about or agreed with the statement that “it can’t be rape if both parties are drunk”. Similarly, 11 per cent were neutral or agree with the statement that “it’s not rape if the guy is drunk and doesn’t realise what he is doing”.

The legal definition of consent for sexual activity clearly states that people must agree by choice and have “the freedom and capacity to make that choice”. The Crown Prosecution Service states that “a complainant does not consent if they are incapacitated through drink.” and “does not need to be unconscious through drink to lose their capacity to consent”.”

These beliefs urgently need to be challenged. If students do not understand what rape or sexual violence is under the law, then if they perpetrate it or experience it, they will be unable to recognise these experiences as unlawful.

“He didn’t mean to”

Between a quarter and a third of respondents agreed with or were unsure of statements relating to the idea that men commit rape because they can’t control themselves. These attitudes suggest that this group see sexual violence as a normal part of male behaviour.

Between a quarter and a third of respondents agreed with or were unsure with the statements “Guys don’t usually intend to force sex on a girl, but sometimes they get too sexually carried away” and “Rape happens when a guy’s sex drive goes out of control”. These beliefs are not only untrue, but they are derogatory towards men as they assume men can’t control themselves.

As outlined by the Crown Prosecution Service, the first statement “attempts to remove the responsibility for the rape from the rapist.”. As they go on to state, “men are capable of controlling sexual urges and refraining from raping women and other men. An assertion contrary to this is sexist”.

Figure 1. Percentages for each of the items on the “he didn’t mean to” scale.

“She lied”

False accusations of sexual violence might happen a lot on TV, but they are rare in real life. A study of reporting to the Metropolitan police found that false reports of rape were at most 3 per cent but likely lower.

A far bigger problem is that many people do not tell anyone about experiencing sexual violence, and one of the reasons for this is that they are worried they won’t be believed. They may also be very ashamed of what happened, and if they are met with even slightly sceptical responses when they do tell someone, this can be extremely harmful.

The responses to the questions in this section show that there is a relatively high level of disbelief – and even stigma – towards women who disclose rape, as well as a high level of uncertainty – just under a quarter to nearly a third of people selected the “neither disagree or agree” response to all of the questions in this section (see figure 2).

Items that respondents were most likely to agree with were “girls caught cheating on boyfriends sometimes claim rape” and “rape accusations are often a way of getting back at a guy”, with 15 per cent agreeing or strongly agreeing and nearly a third unsure.

These statements suggest that many students think false accusations of rape are, in fact, much more common than they really are. This belief contributes to the ongoing silencing and shame around sexual violence, which means people are reluctant to speak out.

In addition, a large minority of respondents also agreed with beliefs that reinforce stereotypes of women as vindictive and untruthful. 30 per cent of respondents either agreed with or were unsure about statements about women saying they have been raped because they regretted having sex.

Figure 2. Percentages for each item on the subscale “They lied”.

Overall, the responses in this section suggest that students hold strong, harmful gender stereotypes that need to be challenged through education and awareness-raising.

Yes, there are problems with this scale

This scale, despite being widely used, has been heavily criticised. First, for not being inclusive of sexual and gender minorities, in particular omitting to look at attitudes that legitimise sexual violence against male-identifying people. The exclusion of gender minorities is being addressed through researchers piloting gender-neutral rape myth scales. However, these measures are problematic as they obscure the gendered nature and patterns of sexual violence. People identifying as women are more likely to be targeted for such violence and harassment (with trans women particularly at risk), and gendered attitudes and social structures underpin such behaviours. Using gender-neutral rape myth scales will not solve the problem.

The second criticism is that the attitudes presented are quickly becoming outdated; most people tend to select “strongly disagree” for most items in the scale, making it less useful than it could otherwise be. However, the findings from this recent study – while they did show most respondents selecting “strongly disagree” – still had a high level of respondents selecting “unsure,” particularly on the “she lied” scale. This shows that the original scale – while flawed– is still useful for assessing students’ attitudes, particularly those of male students.

Another argument for continuing to use this scale is that, as the authors of a gender-neutral scale admit;

“there seems to be no contemporary measure for rape myth acceptance that both reliably yields enough variability, uses gender-inclusive language in all items, and has been widely tested.”

Next steps

Despite these criticisms, the above findings show that this scale is still valuable for assessing attitudes that enable and excuse gender-based violence. In particular, the high proportion of “unsure” responses indicates a large grey area in attitudes, suggesting that many students might welcome an opportunity to discuss these issues in a non-judgmental space.

This study was also carried out at one university in England, with a primarily undergraduate sample. Differences have been found between campuses and the level of sexual aggression among male UK university students. This suggests that a one-size-fits-all intervention approach may not be effective across the sector.

Nevertheless, in the absence of a wide range of existing evaluation tools, this scale is likely to be sufficiently useful to measure changes in attitudes among male and male-identifying students. It can be supplemented with the domestic violence abuse (DVA) myths scale.

Building on their work using these scales, Rachel Fenton and Cassandra Jones argued that “rape and DVA myths need to be targeted in effective prevention programming in English universities.”

Research shows that rape myths are part of the scaffolding that underpins sexual aggression among male university students. This evidence base is easily strong enough to build prevention programmes. As previous articles in this series from Bridget Steele and colleagues, Susan Lagdon and colleagues, as well as ourselves, have shown, we now have robust evidence revealing the rates of sexual violence in UK universities. It’s time to reduce the rates of gender-based violence in UK higher education.

2 responses to “The problematic myths that students believe about sexual assault

  1. This is incredibly disturbing, but sadly not unexpected. So many myths exist about sexual norms, activities and consent. Thank you for bringing it to our attention. Knowledge is often the only tool we have to change perceptions and effect change.

  2. Why is it that the male alleged to have perpetrated a series of assaults on several women in a recent high profile case is not identified? That conduct has facilitated subsequent assault(s).

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