Studies Show Peer Pressure Helps Combat Sexual Violence

According to a number of studies, individuals may have significant power in either perpetuating or combating rape culture. Although that logic seems kind of obvious, it can be harnessed to implement more effective — and underutilized — sexual violence prevention methods.

As NPR reports, a 2013 study found that "having friends who support violence against women is a big risk factor for committing sexual assault." In other words, if your friends seem to be okay with sexual violence — either explicitly or tacitly — then you're far more likely to think that sexual violence is acceptable on some level. Conversely, having friends who vocally object to sexual violence could serve as "a powerful antidote" to the prevailing attitudes that permit, if not outright encourage, sexual assault and harassment. This is an idea rape prevention experts are beginning to explore.

The NPR report cites David Lisak's famous 2002 study on "undetected rapists," in which Lisak surveyed about 1,800 men at the University of Massachusetts about their sexual behavior. He found that 120 men in the sample had committed rape or attempted rape, and that two-thirds of those men were serial rapists. Each serial rapist polled had committed, on average, 5.8 rapes. Most of them began in high school.

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According to Lisak's interview transcripts, as quoted by NPR, the perpetrators willingly discussed the ways in which they'd carefully plan and execute their assaults — often using alcohol (and other studies have found that sexual predators will intentionally target intoxicated women):

They'd often ask a girl to come to a party, saying it was invite-only, a big deal to a nervous freshman. Then they'd get her drunk to the point of incapacitation so they could have sex with her.

In an excerpt from one of Lisak's interview transcripts, a college student using the pseudonym Frank talks about how his friends would help him prep for an assault: "We always had some kind of punch, you know, like our own home brew. We'd make it with a real sweet juice, and just pour in all kinds of alcohol. It was really powerful stuff. The girls wouldn't know what hit them."

Many of them didn't recognize that what they were doing was illegal.

Lisak argues that, while the vast majority of men in high school and college don't commit sexual assault, "by their participation in peer groups and activities" they "either actively or passively provide support or camouflage for the sexual predators in their midst." He adds, "By laughing at [rapists'] jokes, by listening uncritically to their stories of 'conquests' and 'scores,' men become facilitators or passive bystanders of criminal behavior."

The good news is that the obvious answer to these findings, bystander intervention, really works. Bystander intervention calls on witnesses to "prevent or intervene when there is a risk for sexual violence," and it's something campus rape activists have long been advocating; colleges across the country are now starting to institute mandatory bystander intervention programs during orientation.

NPR examines one specific program that a few high schools in Sioux City, Iowa, have implemented, and the prognosis seems pretty encouraging:

MVP, or Mentors in Violence Prevention, matches upperclassmen with groups of incoming freshmen. Throughout the school year, the older kids facilitate discussions about relationships, drinking, sexual assault and rape.

Xavier Scarlett, a rising senior and captain of the football, basketball and track teams, says he tries to get inside the heads of the freshmen guys he mentors. They talk through various scenarios. What does it mean to hook up with a drunk girl when you're sober? Would you be letting down your guy friends if you didn't hook up in that situation?

Tucker Carrell, a former MVP mentor who now attends Iowa State University, told NPR that he uses his bystander intervention training at college parties and bars. Recently, he said, he saw his friend's cousin looking "pretty drunk" and "cornered" by two guys she didn't know; he and a friend approached her and diffused the situation. He also says he'll confront his frat brothers when they "talk about women in a way that makes him uncomfortable." Stuff like this isn't hard at all, and it does make a significant difference.

"This idea that getting somebody intoxicated, plastered, so that you can have sex with them is an idea we just simply are going to have to confront and erode," Lisak said to NPR. "Just like we have eroded the idea that it's fine to get drunk and get in your car." And the easiest way to erode that idea is to call our friends out when they say or do something that normalizes sexual violence.

Image via a katz / Shutterstock.com.