February/ March 2021 Newsletter
FEBRUARY / MARCH 2021
Starting in 2021, each newsletter will focus on one aspect of the Center's functioning in greater depth. I am pleased to feature in our February/March Newsletter a report of survey research on attitudes towards adjudication of campus sexual misconduct and assault which has been a long standing project central to CRVAW's mission. The research presented is the product of many research hours and the basis for a recent article featured in Journal of Interpersonal Violence. Please enjoy our second issue of our 2021 Newsletter that provides a RESEARCH SPOTLIGHT.
Diane Follingstad, Ph.D.
Director, Center for Research on Violence Against Women
Endowed Chair and Professor of Clinical and Forensic Psychology
Though most of us do not frequently imagine the serious crime of rape, if we are asked to do so, we might imagine a dark corner of a public park and a sober victim resisting a violent and unfamiliar perpetrator. However, more commonly on college campuses the perpetrator of rape is known to the victim, maybe a fellow classmate; the setting is a student apartment or dorm room; and partying and alcohol are the social context. Cases of campus sexual misconduct usually are not tried in criminal court, but instead may be reported to a university official and the complaint results in a hearing before a campus disciplinary body after a Title IX Office investigation. Such a hearing is typically organized by the institution of higher education (IHE) where the complainant and accused are enrolled, and these hearings may include student peers as hearing members. What, then, do students think is a just sanction for a male student found responsible for sexual misconduct, but who claims that the female complainant consented to have sex with? How do students’ attitudes compare in a situation in which a female victim becomes infected with a sexually transmitted infection as a consequence of the assault?
The answers to these questions were the focus of recent research conducted by CRVAW researchers Dr. Diane Follingstad, Dr. Claire Renzetti, Ms. Jaspreet Chahal, and Dr. Caihong Li. Their vignette survey research and analysis examine student attitudes about ”just” sanctions in various sexual misconduct/assault scenarios as well as students’ assignment of guilt and responsibility to the two parties. The research has several important implications. First, a university’s ability to create, update, and apply policy regarding sexual misconduct can be informed by data showing what students deem to be just and, therefore, what sanctions may be most effective in responding to sexual misconduct on campus. Second, because student-led efforts to address campus sexual misconduct are significant in shaping policy, it is also useful to have data as to whether certain attitudes or prejudices that students hold place undue blame on victims of sexual assault; on campuses where students serve on disciplinary boards, cases may not produce just outcomes, even if a university follows its required procedures, if students harbor victim-blaming attitudes. As the researchers state in one of the papers resulting from this project which was published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence:
The researchers acknowledge that even if students are not determining the sanctions applied at a particular institution, they are subject to them and are more likely to accept them as just if they align with their attitudes and values. But the research findings are also important in their implications for prevention programming on campuses. Students, for example, may know their university’s affirmative consent policy, but in practice, may not apply it. This research reveals gaps in campus sexual assaults prevention programming.
In order to assess attitudes about the application of sanctions in sexual assault cases, the researchers designed a study that presented students with varying scenarios of campus sexual assault to see how they would apply varying degrees of sanctions, from mild to severe, and assign guilt and responsibility to the perpetrator and victim. The study’s experimental design used vignettes for comparison which varied only for the levels of a single factor that was being tested [e.g., medical consequences for the victim varying as 1) no consequences, 2) pregnancy, or 3) contracting an STI]. In addition, attitudes and beliefs expected to be aligned with making these judgments (e.g., rape myth acceptance, sexism, just world beliefs, authoritarianism) were assessed. The researchers hypothesized that students who scored high in rape myth acceptance, sexism, just world beliefs, and authoritarianism would assign less serious sanctions to the perpetrator, assign greater blame to the victim, and assign less responsibility to the perpetrator.
Study participants were undergraduate students attending a large, public, Southern university who were members of a student research subject pool and voluntarily chose to complete the project’s online survey in partial fulfillment of a course requirement. The sample comprised 845 students, 248 of whom identified as males (29%) and 597 as females (71%). Participants ranged in age from 18-46 years old (median age=19 years). The majority identified as white (80%); 10% identified as African American, 5% as Hispanic/Latino, 2% as Asian, and 3% as another race/ethnicity. Only 1% of the participants were international students. Nearly two-thirds of the participants were first-year students, 21% were sophomores, and 14% were juniors and seniors, although the analyses did not show any significant differences in responses by class year.
The study included 14 factors that are common elements of sexual assault cases on college campuses; the factors varied characteristics of the victim, characteristics of the perpetrator, and characteristics of the assault itself. The characteristics of the victim included: reason for a victim’s incapacitation leading to sexual assault, sexual orientation of a male victim, level of attractiveness of the victim, and initial level of sexual interest indicated by the victim. Characteristics of the perpetrator included: the accused’s reaction to the victim’s account, social status of the perpetrator, whether the perpetrator was a member of a fraternity, and the sex of the perpetrator in a heterosexual assault. Sexual assault characteristics included: physical injury to the victim from the sexual assault, medical consequences for the victim from the sexual assault (such as pregnancy or contracting an STI), psychological impact on the victim, number of perpetrators, the race of the victim and perpetrator, and the type of forced sex activity (for example, oral sex, anal sex). Each factor had 2-4 levels, depending on the number of variations used for comparisons that were considered relevant to campus sexual assault. The levels for all 14 factors resulted in a total of 32 different vignettes. Student participants were randomly presented with one of four versions of the survey, with each version containing 8 vignettes. Each vignette was followed by a list of 13 hierarchically ordered (from most lenient to most severe) sanctions used at most universities to sanction a student found responsible for sexual misconduct. Students also distributed 100% of the guilt between the complainant and accused and determined the relative level of responsibility born by the two parties
The lowest sanctions for perpetrators were applied by students for the following factors: when the female victim had shown initial interest in the male student by flirting with him compared with a woman who showed only mild interest; when the accused engaged in oral sex with the victim rather than forcing fellatio, vaginal, or anal intercourse; when the accused was a female student who had forced oral sex on a male student vs. a male student who had forced oral sex on a woman; and when a male student claimed sex was consensual vs. a male student who admitted to nonconsensual sex or who claimed he misunderstood the situation and apologized.
The factors for which the study participants neither assigned different sanctions nor applied different levels of guilt/responsibility to the perpetrators actually had positive implications. For instance, the perceived attractiveness of the victim did not influence students’ judgments, suggesting that less sexism was at play here. In addition, students were not more lenient in assessing sanctions when the perpetrator was a high-status campus figure versus someone without highly valued status on campus, suggesting that a perpetrator’s perceived status did not bias their decisions. Whether the victim or perpetrator was White or African American also did not influence decisions regarding sanctions for the perpetrator. And finally, different from historic societal perceptions that one must not have been raped if one did not have physical injuries proving resistance, the presence or absence of post-assault physical injuries did not affect students’ judgments.
Overall, scenarios that appeared to have elements that allow people to believe that a rape likely happened (i.e., stranger attack, public space, pure, sober, and uninvolved victim) still held some influence, and when these stereotypic views of a rape were contrasted with other versions of that factor, more severe sanctions were applied. Interestingly, however, assignments of guilt and responsibility were not always consistent with how sanctions were applied. For example, a perpetrator who drugged a victim received a more severe sanction than a perpetrator who sexually assaulted a woman who voluntarily drank to incapacitation, but the perpetrator who drugged the victim was not assigned more guilt in that scenario. Consequently, based on the variability among student judgments regarding sanctions, guilt, and responsibility across the different factors studied, the researchers concluded that campus sexual assault cases are more complex than most policies and prevention programs would lead one to believe.
To further investigate the judgments of college students for what is justice regarding campus sexual assaults, the researchers’ assessment of beliefs and attitudes proved highly relevant. Rape myths are misguided standards and stereotypes about sexual assault, often accepted by the general public, that act as filters when a person hears about a rape and, in turn, influence their interpretation of a sexual assault as not being a “real rape.” Sexism is the belief system that devalues women and assigns them inferior roles and status based simply on their gender, which might lead a sexist individual to place more responsibility on women for sexual assaults and thereby reduce the sanctions they impose on perpetrators. Just world beliefs constitute a life perspective that the world is fair and just and people get what they deserve; thus, a rape victim could not have been a good person or this would not have happened to her. And, right-wing authoritarianism is characterized by submission to authority, support for traditional values, and hostility towards people who do not appear to follow traditional rules. While one might expect individuals with this belief system to harbor stronger negative sentiments toward perpetrators of crime, an authoritarian world view is actually linked with more general conservatism which is associated with victim blaming.
Of the 5 attitude variables, two forms of rape myth acceptance (Downplaying Rape and General Rape Myths) and Sexism were most frequently and strongly related to students’ assignments of just sanctions across the scenarios they rated as well as for their assignment of guilt and responsibility to perpetrators and victims. Just World beliefs had a negligible relationship with the outcome variables, and authoritarianism had a weak relationship with assignment of guilt and responsibility (i.e., greater guilt and responsibility assigned to the victims and conversely less to the perpetrator). These results support the finding, in the analysis of the factors, that the lowest sanctions that were applied to perpetrators were those for which the vignette elements reflected more common rape myths and sexist views of women. However, while different scenario factors resulted in varying judgments, it appears that students’ preformed ideas in terms of rape myth acceptance and sexism provide a general filter through which they evaluate different sexual assault scenarios.
Although the analyses so far have produced interesting findings with significant research and training implications, further analyses are planned. Importantly, for each vignette, participants were asked an open-ended question to allow them to explain why they imposed the sanction they chose in the case. These responses constitute a body of qualitative data that the researchers expect will enrich the quantitative findings by providing greater insight into students’ perceptions of what is justice in campus sexual assault cases.
Chahal, J. K., Li, C. R., Follingstad, D. R., & Renzetti, C. M. (2020). Are College Students’ Attitudes Related to Their Application of Sanctions for Campus Sexual Assault Cases? Journal of Interpersonal Violence. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260520925789
Follingstad, D.R., Li, C.R., Chahal, J.K. et al. (2020) Students’ Perceptions of Justice: Application of Sanctions, Guilt, and Responsibility in Campus Sexual Assault Cases. Journal of Family Violence. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10896-020-00129-5
Claire Renzetti, Ph.D., the Judi Conway Patton Endowed Chair since 2010.
Camille Burnett,Ph.D., MPH, Cralle-Day Foundation Endowed Professor since 2020.