It’s no secret that we live in a society where rape myths – such as the idea that people can be ‘to blame’ for sexual violence they’ve experienced – are rampant. It’s also the case that sexual violence is shockingly prevalent, affecting roughly one in five adult women, and one in 10 adult men. Yet joining the dots between these two truths has proven surprisingly elusive. That’s why new research, that highlights a connection between young British men with misogynistic or victim blaming beliefs, and their likelihood of having recently perpetrated sexual violence, is so crucial.
It might seem obvious that someone who believes that certain people ‘deserve’ to be raped, or that sexual violence is sometimes excusable, is more likely to have committed a sexual crime, but this study. from the University of Kent, is the first British research to provide solid evidence for this (although several studies overseas have previously demonstrated a connection).
The research comprised two online surveys of 554 male university students, with 63 admitting to a disturbing total of 251 rapes, sexual assaults and other coercive and non-consensual incidents over the past two years. It was also able to identify a strong link between toxic masculine traits and sexual violence, with those who had committed acts of sexual violence more likely to hold misogynistic views, such as believing women who get drunk are to blame for being raped, as well as having sadistic sexual fantasies about harming a partner.
Someone who believes that certain people ‘deserve’ to be raped, or that sexual violence is sometimes excusable, is more likely to have committed a sexual crime
'The statistics are really eye opening and worrying,' says the report’s co-author Samuel Hales, a PhD researcher at the University of Kent’s Centre of Research and Education in Forensic Psychology.
As well as the existing connection in certain men between these toxic beliefs and sexual violence, there’s a concern that developing these beliefs could be a precursor to violence. 'Some non-perpetrators also held hostile beliefs, which is why, if universities are going to develop prevention strategies, they need to be rolled out across whole student bodies. Just because someone who holds those beliefs hasn’t committed an act of sexual violence, it doesn’t mean they won’t go on to do so,' says Samuel.
While these men are 100 per cent accountable for their appalling actions, you can also see the societal petri dish in which these views might be formulated. It’s in the marrow of a media landscape that’s obsessed with shaming women for what they wear, say and do. It’s in the law courts that are systematically failing to prosecute rapists, and woven into the fabric of our ‘banter’ culture. It’s the people asking, when another women is found raped and murdered: but why was she walking home alone?
Stoking criminally violent behaviour isn’t the only way in which victim blaming harms survivors — its impact continues beyond the rape. For my project Survivor Stories I’ve interviewed numerous women and I’ve lost count of the times when a harrowing story has been proceeded by: 'I know I shouldn’t have been drinking/put myself in that position/trusted that person,' or 'I don’t know if this really "counts" as rape.'
Survivors often tie themselves in knots trying to pin the blame on themselves for acts that – let’s be crystal clear here – are in no way their fault. It’s easy to connect their language to those stock victim blaming phrases we hear every day. As well as its impact on their feelings of self-worth, this internalised blame can also have an effect on how likely survivors are to seek help — a new study from law firm Bolt Burdon Kemp has today revealed that one in 10 women would hesitate to tell the police or a lawyer about sexual abuse in case they were blamed for what happened.
The University of Kent researchers now hope this study will be used to create evidence-based intervention programmes for students, and I would suggest schools and workplaces follow suit. From a more personal perspective, I look forward to highlighting it to anyone who claims that victim blaming is ‘just asking harmless questions’. Words matter.