Sexual violence and domestic abuse are public health problems in society – and they are issues that also affect universities. One 2011 study reported that during their time at university, 25% of women students in the UK had experienced sexual assault, 7% were subject to a serious sexual assault and 68% were subject to physical or verbal sexual harassment on campus.
A new study that I’ve just published found that some students – both male and female – hold myths about sexual violence and domestic abuse when they arrive at university.
These include rape myths such as believing that the victim brought it on herself by her behaviour or her consumption of alcohol, that rape is about sexual desire that men cannot control, and that women lie about being raped when they regret sex or are caught cheating. For domestic abuse, myths include not believing that violence happens in young people’s relationships, and that controlling behaviour is just an expression of “love”.
Myths shape societal perceptions of sexual violence, and can lead to many victims blaming themselves for their own victimisation. They can prevent victims from disclosing their abuse for fear of not being believed or being blamed – leaving the perpetrators free to carry on abusing. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, women may also believe in rape myths because to do so protects them from the potential of being victimised themselves: if they can think that the victim brought it on herself then they can feel safe that it will not happen to them. Previous studies have shown that rape myths are quite widely believed across society.
While there is little evidence about domestic abuse in universities, research shows partner violence is a significant concern in teenage relationships. Young women of university age are also at high risk of becoming victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse. Such sexual violence can lead to unfulfilled academic potential and interruption of studies as well as mental health problems.
By understanding whether new students endorse sexual violence and domestic abuse myths – and which myths – it should be possible to tailor prevention efforts more precisely. This way universities can work with students more effectively in tackling sexual violence and domestic abuse and survivors can be supported to access the help they need.
What myths prevail
In our new research paper, my colleague Cassandra Jones and I looked at the extent to which 381 new undergraduates at one university endorsed different myths about rape. We also looked at how these beliefs were related to domestic abuse myths, and to the students’ readiness to help in tackling the issue. Roughly a third of the students we surveyed were men and two thirds were women.
Participants in our study were asked to mark how much they believe in certain rape myths on a scale of one to five, where one was “strongly disagree” and five “strongly agree”. We found that for some of the questions, a substantial minority of the students supported myths about rape. Overall, men endorsed these myths more than women did.
Around 27% of the students we surveyed agreed or strongly agreed with statements that equated rape with men’s “uncontrollable” desire for sex. Around 20% agreed or strongly agreed with statements that suggested women claim they’ve been raped if they regret sex or desire revenge. The pattern we found is the same as a large study of over 2,300 undergraduates in the US and a general population study of over 3,000 participants.
However, we also found that some myths, which are collectively characterised as “it wasn’t really rape”, were supported by very few people. For example, only 3% supported the statement that “if a girl doesn’t physically resist sex – even if protesting verbally – it really can’t be considered rape” and only 1% believed rape required a weapon.
Consistent with other research, we also found that men endorsed myths about domestic abuse more than women did. We also found the more the students in the study believed in rape myths, the more likely they were to believe in domestic abuse myths.
Work I’ve been doing with my colleague Helen Mott aims to empower bystanders to intervene to prevent sexual violence and domestic abuse, and to create cultural change. One key component of such prevention programmes is tackling and reducing myths about sexual violence and domestic abuse.
We wanted to know whether myths had any bearing on the extent to which the undergraduates would be ready to help with work to prevent sexual violence and domestic abuse. Overall, we found an overwhelming majority of the students felt a responsibility to help. Women felt more responsibility to help than men and a slightly higher proportion of men than women felt sexual violence and domestic abuse was not a problem or not their concern. We also found that the more students held myths about sexual violence and domestic abuse, the more likely they were to think violence is not a problem and not their concern.
There are educational, health and legal reasons why universities should help address these issues. But doing research and prevention work around sexual violence means acknowledging the problem. Some universities fear they will be being singled out as having a problem with sexual violence, and that it might deter prospective students and parents and cause reputational damage. Yet the opposite is true. The more a university engages with tackling sexual violence, the more reason students have to trust that their university is genuinely concerned with their safety and support. I have been fortunate to work with universities and students who understand this.
It is not surprising that some new students will come into university holding preconceptions about some of the causes and responsibility for sexual violence and domestic abuse – students are products of society where such myths are endorsed and are not to be blamed for holding them. Our research shows which myths we must tackle in prevention programmes, and that universities must engage both women and men students in a positive way in their prevention efforts.