New Study Reveals How Many Male College Students Would Commit Sexual Assault If There Were No Consequences

Supermajority Education Fund

April 27, 2020

One in five incoming male college students say they might commit sexual assault if they knew there would be no consequences to their behavior, a newly released American University study found. The study examined how male students at a large public university in the Northeast viewed issues of consent and sexual assault and the circumstances needed to avoid assaults from occurring.

The researchers drew from a survey filled out by 1,619 incoming male college students in 2010, which lead researcher Jane Palmer stressed in a statement, was before mainstream initiatives like the “It’s On Us” campaign and the MeToo movement and that attitudes by students today may be different. 

But the survey’s findings still provide insight into this population. Notably, the researchers found that white male students and those who expressed an interest in joining a fraternity were more likely to say that they would commit a violent act against women. Students said they were less likely to harm others if they felt their friends would intervene, which led the researchers to conclude that, “it is critical to consider the role of peers and social norms in impacting individuals’ proclivity to perpetrate.”

Lead researcher Jane Palmer stated that she was surprised the survey participants were so open about their feelings regarding consent. “You’d think there would be a social desirability issue around not admitting to having any proclivity [towards committing sexual assault]––but it was an anonymous survey, so maybe they were more likely to be honest.”

Because participants were asked to fill out the survey just as they were beginning their college careers, the researchers also noted that these results indicate sex education classes geared towards high school and middle school students should address consent in age-appropriate ways early on.

Angela Lee, the director of the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s teen advocacy program Love is Respect, told Supermajority News that adults are often reluctant to address teens’ questions about healthy relationships and consent. “It is a conversation that should happen at home and at school,” she said. While some parents may think their children are too young for these discussions, one in three American adolescents say they have experienced abuse from a dating partner. 

“Young people have to feel comfortable and safe before they can even have these conversations,” said Lee. “We need to make sure that we are channeling the conversation to make sure that they don’t go elsewhere where they might be misinformed.”

Discussing what to do when a teen witnesses a friend perpetuate violence should also be a key part of any conversation about consent, said Lee. Teens “have to be able to say ‘hey that’s not ok.’” Teens often refrain from calling out a peer’s damaging behavior due to “a lot of different fears,” including the fear of losing a friend, Lee explained. they are afraid they might lose them as a friend. “But,” she added, “we need to let them know it is not ok to witness something and not say anything.”