A Recipe for Sexual Assault

Certain structural factors appear to make rape especially prevalent on some college campuses.

The former home of San Diego State's Delta Sigma Phi frat, which was banned from the campus after its members were accused of harassing people taking part in an anti-rape march last November. (Earnie Grafton / Reuters)

According to a recent national Inside Higher Ed survey of college and university presidents, nearly one-third agree that sexual assault is prevalent on college campuses nationwide. But only 6 percent believe it’s prevalent at their own institutions.

When the survey came out in April, pundits and critics immediately pounced, some of them lambasting the presidents as being “out of touch,” “delusional,” and “in denial” about sexual assault on their campuses. But the apparent gap between national and campus-specific perceptions may have less to do with what critics described as administrative myopia and more to do with the institutional structures of campuses themselves. Can this gap be explained sociologically? And what would such a sociological explanation suggest about sexual assault?

Reading the results of the survey reminded me of the work of the researcher Peggy Reeves Sanday, who roughly two decades ago proposed that some campuses are more “rape prone,” while others are more “rape free.” She concluded that these characteristics are contingent on various “cultural” variables, such as respect for women’s integrity as individuals or a tendency to excuse rape “as a ceremonial expression of masculinity.”

Upon learning of the recent survey results, I decided to analyze the findings using my training as a sociologist in an attempt to see whether they correlate with structural variables—some institutional arrangements that might lead to more “rape prone” and “rape free” campuses. Such an analysis, I figured, might help make sense of the apparently widespread perception among university presidents that sexual assault isn’t a problem on their own turf.

Efforts to parse this along a single line—public versus private, Greek versus non-Greek, sports culture versus non-sports culture, and so on—would, I suspected, yield little. A multivariate analysis—juggling several structural variables at the same time—might help unravel why some schools are more rape prone than others. It would help elucidate what’s happening inside those schools.

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The first variable I evaluated was the range of degrees offered by a given institution. There are a few differences between institutions offering bachelor’s degrees only and those also offering more advanced, graduate-level programs. But the biggest differences are between those granting four-year and associate’s degrees. Community colleges are almost universally non-residential, and most students work off campus. Community-college students tend to be older learners—the average age is 29—and are often returning to school after getting married and having a family, serving in the military, being displaced at work, and so on. Roughly three-fifths of community-college students are enrolled in classes part time.

These characteristics are largely why evening campus activities at community colleges are far less plentiful; people commute to school as they would—or do—for work. Of course, that’s not to say that sexual assault is nonexistent at such institutions, but many of the major structural features of the “rape-prone campus”— a social life that revolves around the campus residential experience, party culture, weekend sports activities—are missing.

A little under a third of the roughly 650 presidents surveyed by Inside Higher Ed are at community colleges, and almost all of those respondents (170 or so) disagreed that sexual assault is prevalent at their campuses. Chances are most of those community-college presidents are being realistic in their responses. Same goes for the estimated 10 respondents who represent all-female colleges, where sexual assault is almost certainly less prevalent (albeit by no means nonexistent).

So what about the others? In theory, that still leaves another 450-plus presidents who are potentially “delusional” in thinking that sexual assault isn’t a problem on their own campuses.

The second variable I considered involves the rapists themselves. While the Justice Department estimates that one in five female college students experience some form of sexual assault, the other half of the equation is far more circumspect: Only 6 percent or so of male college students commit sexual assault, with each committing nearly six rapes on average, according to the psychologist David Lisak, who’s conducted extensive and widely cited research on sexual assault. That suggests that many sexual assaults on campus are committed by serial predators.

Based on the research by Lisak and others, as well as my own findings, I’ve concluded that these predators tend to share several characteristics. Unlike the lone serial murderer on Criminal Minds, the serial rapist has to have the motive (a sense of entitlement to women and an alarming contempt for them), opportunity (sexualized spaces), and support—a “culture of silence” that he interprets as approval. This is probably not the stereotypical rapist who jumps out of bushes. He’s the guy who eyes you seductively when you walk into a party, dances with you flirtatiously, and seems so solicitously chivalrous in making sure your drink is always refilled. The sexualized space may be “upstairs” to his room, while the approval he gets from his friends could count as the support.

On some campuses, certain residential spaces enable these conditions more readily than others. Sexual assault in dorms is possible and does happen, but there are usually resident advisors who are trained and charged specifically with making sure the parties remain safely within bounds. Off-campus residences, on the other hand, fall outside the official scrutiny of campus administrators, while fraternities often fall outside the unofficial scrutiny of those administrators. These residences tend to serve alcohol at their parties, including to minors, and I’ve known of at least a few administrators who opt to stay away from these events avoid having to witness illegal activity and subsequently report on the activities.

Though little data exists to confirm the role of these environments in sexual-assault rates, my analyses suggest that campuses without such out-of-sight, out-of-mind residential spaces are less likely to harbor and sustain serial predators. That would mean that colleges and universities with lots of dorms and few off-campus options might be less rape-prone, especially if RAs are required to attend official dorm parties. (That’s also why I’ve proposed that colleges experiment with policies stipulating that only sororities—and not fraternities—serve alcohol as a means of reducing the prevalence of sexual assault on campus. Then, sisters would decide who gets into a party and who doesn’t—and when a woman gets too drunk, she can, of course, go upstairs to her own room.)

Third, time matters just as much as location. A majority of sexual assaults take place during the “red zone,” those first three months of college life—generally from first-year orientation to Thanksgiving break. According to a Justice Department report, more than half of all campus sexual assaults take place between August and November. A subsequent article in The Journal of American College Health found much higher rates of sexual assault among first-year women than among those in their second year. So, campuses that pay attention to the timing of sexual assaults—by developing mentorship opportunities pairing freshmen with juniors and seniors, for example, or even organizing weekly programming— would be in a far better position to prevent them and hence theoretically less “rape-prone.” (It seems that few, if any, such programs currently exist.)

Fourth, campuses with large and powerful Greek systems tend to also be places that place exceptional value in sports. A relatively dated, but reputable, survey suggested that athletes are overrepresented in reports of sexual assaults on campuses. Not all athletes are equally likely to be accused of sexual assault. Research suggests that the so-called “helmet sports”—football, hockey, and lacrosse—are dramatically overrepresented in incidents of assault, while tennis, swimming, soccer, and track are far less so. The “revenue” sports also exist in a protected bubble of alumni boosters and loyal local fans (including police and prosecutors) who run constant interference for them. Living “under the dome” may keep residents inside on television, but on campus, that dome is what keeps others out.

Finally, there are the ways in which young men and women tend to interact with each other on campus. For two decades, the UCLA psychologist Neil Malamuth has surveyed students using an “attractiveness-to-sexual-aggression scale,” which measures respondents’ inclination toward sexual aggression, as well as the likelihood that they would consider using such aggression. He’s found that between 16 percent and 20 percent of male students said they’d commit rape if they could be certain of getting away with it. That’s at least one in six. When he used the phrase “force a woman to have sex” instead of “rape,” the percentage jumped to between 36 percent and 44 percent—that means for nearly two out of every five guys, the key deterrent seems to be the fear of getting caught.

Based on Lisak’s research, the sense of entitlement—to act with impunity—seems to be what enables so many guys to believe they can do what they want. And, when they’re enabled and abetted by administrators and alumni and boosters, they’re largely right.

All of these structural variables may help clarify what distinguishes “rape free” and “rape prone” campuses and, ultimately, allow college and university presidents to more accurately assess the prevalence of sexual assault on their own campuses. They wouldn’t eliminate sexual assault on America’s college campuses—but they outline some empirically testable structural changes that just might have an effect.

Sexual assault happens everywhere, yes, but it happens more often in some places than in others. As the aforementioned research on athletics and fraternities suggests, it likely happens the most on residential college campuses where there are lots of people of the same age going to alcohol-soaked parties in all-male residences with no official administrative oversight—in places there is a high-level of gender inequality in social life, a pervasive attitude male sexual entitlement—in places where men bond over sexual conquests and believe that true brotherhood means silence. Tinker with any of those variables, and there might be some shifts in rates. Take them all on, and assault rates will, I would hypothesize, plummet.