Another day, another dubious study shared without critical thought throughout a media desperate to prove rape and sexism are everywhere.
This time, a small-scale, online survey of undergraduate college men at a single Southeastern university is being trumpeted as proof that male athletes are rapists. Some media outlets, like the Washington Post and Inside Higher Ed, at least claimed the study showed athletes admitting to "sexual coercion," which is what the study purported to show. But the Independent went full stop, claiming the study showed "More than half of university sportsmen admit to raping or sexually assaulting women."
The survey, as with all other surveys purporting to show rampant rape among college students — especially athletes and fraternity members — had some limitations.
It was a small sample size from one school. And after weeding out respondents for various reasons, the final sample consisted of 29 intercollegiate athletes, 159 recreational athletes (those not on intercollegiate teams but who train and compete, though not nationally or internationally) and 191 non-athletes. So from this small sample (and just 29 intercollegiate athletes) we get media headlines claiming that half of all athletes are rapists. Okay.
And what did these young men actually admit to? What was passed as sexual coercion was, as with the definition of rape and sexual assault in other studies, quite broad. Respondents were provided seven statements about sexual coercion and asked to respond. The statements with the largest responses were: "I made my partner have sex without a condom," "I insisted on sex when my partner did not want to" and "I insisted my partner have oral or anal sex."
None of these three questions required the respondent to use physical force or threats to obtain sexual activity. We don't know the circumstances around why the students answered yes to any of these questions, as it doesn't appear the researchers followed up for more information (the Washington Examiner has asked this question to the lead researcher and will update if she responds).
Activists might think the statements above are clear signs of coercion, but they can be interpreted many ways. Maybe some students were just answering that, yes, they have had sex without a condom, and weren't thinking about whether they somehow forced the woman to go along. And as for the "insisting," sometimes guys do a little begging routine for sex. What activists are saying is that the best thing to do is to throw up one's hands and walk out of the room the instant someone — even a long-term romantic partner — says no.
Sometimes people don't necessarily want to have sex in one moment, but can be persuaded by someone they love. Activists like to use tea or some kind of food as a stand in for consent, so I'll do the same: Your best friend made a new pot of tea and wants you to try some, but you don't really care for tea or otherwise don't want any. Your friend begs you to try the tea so you do, because you care about your friend and on another occasion probably would have had the tea without any question.
Did your friend commit assault by asking you to try the tea? Of course not.
Again, maybe these young men did use nefarious means to obtain sex, but without more information or explanations behind why they answered the way they did, we just can't know.
To be fair, there were small percentages who answered affirmatively to statements like "I used threats to make my partner have sex" and "I used force (like hitting, holding down, or using a weapon) to make my partner have sex."
Those, though more rare, are disturbing answers, and probably should have been followed up on. Again, perhaps some of the respondents were just acknowledging that they have had some kind of rough sex, not that they hit a woman and held her down while she was otherwise objecting.
As with other sexual assault surveys, things that don't necessarily jump out as sexual assault are lumped into the smaller category of things that could meet the legal definition of rape, and presented as one scary statistic – in this case, that 54.3 percent of college athletes (intercollegiate and recreational combined) admitted to rape.
Another problem I had with the survey was how perfectly it answered the researcher's hypothesis. They set out believing the worst of college athletes, and huzzah! they proved themselves right. That raises red flags about incoming bias, especially since lead author Belinda-Rose Young appears to have conducted a nearly identical survey as her graduate thesis, entitled "Beliefs of and Attitudes Toward Sexual Violence by a Diverse Group of Self-Identified Male Collegiate Athletes."
The researchers also begin the survey by using debunked statistics purporting to show that 1-in-5 women will be sexually assaulted in college. It appears the researchers set out with an agenda, and designed a study to prove that agenda.
Ashe Schow is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.