Many forces can drive a male college student to commit sexual assault. But one of the most important may be the company he keeps.
A number of studies, on college campuses and elsewhere, have shown that having friends who support violence against women is a big risk factor for committing sexual assault. Now prevention efforts are exploring the idea that having male friends who object to violence against women can be a powerful antidote to rape on college campuses.
"One of the things that matters most to boys and emerging adult men is the opinion of other men," says John Foubert, a researcher at Oklahoma State University who studies rape prevention among young men.
One of the most well-known studies on perpetrators of campus sexual assault is psychologist David Lisak's 2002 "undetected rapists" study. Because few campus rapes are ever reported, much less prosecuted, Lisak looked for sex offenders hiding in plain sight at University of Massachusetts in Boston.
He surveyed about 1,800 men, asking them a wide range of questions about their sexual experiences. To learn about sexual assault, he asked things like, "Have you ever had sex with an adult when they didn't want to because you used physical force?" When the results came back, he was stunned.
All told, 120 men in the sample, or about 6 percent of the total, had raped women they knew. Two-thirds of those men were serial rapists, who had done this, on average, six times. Many of the serial rapists began offending before college, back in high school.
Other studies at colleges and in the military have since found similar numbers — usually somewhere around 10 percent of men admitting to either an attempted rape or a rape, with a significant proportion of them reporting a history of repeated offenses.
"I was forced, really, to accept that these are college students, but there is this small percentage of college students who are sex offenders," says Lisak. "They are behaving like sex offenders. They are sex offenders."
Together, the 120 men in Lisak's study were responsible for 439 rapes. None was ever reported.
But Lisak had no problem getting details about how the men carefully planned and executed their assaults. 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."
Alcohol was the weapon of choice for these men, who typically saw themselves as college guys hooking up. They didn't think what they had done was a crime.
"Most of these men have an image or a myth about rape, that it's some guy in a ski mask wielding a knife," says Lisak. "They don't wear ski masks, they don't wield knives, so they don't see themselves as rapists."
In fact, they'd brag about what they had done afterwards to their friends. That implied endorsement from male friends — or at the very least, a lack of vocal objection — is a powerful force, perpetuating the idea that what these guys are doing is normal rather than criminal.
But in a group of guy friends, Oklahoma State's Foubert says, the opinions that can end up influencing behavior are often just what a guy thinks his friends think.
"Let's say you have a peer group of 10 guys," says Foubert. "One or two are constantly talking about, 'Oh, I bagged this b- - -h.' Many of the men listening to that are uncomfortable, but they think that the other men support it through their silence."
What if that silence could be broken before college — as early as high school?
At a few high schools in Sioux City, Iowa, students are starting to find out what that might look like.
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?
And they spend a lot of time on that scenario Lisak heard about over and over in his U-Mass Boston study. You're at a big party. You see a guy you know with an extremely drunk girl, and he's trying to leave with her.
Scarlett says he talks through all the options with the freshmen in his group. "Do I let them just leave? Or do I grab him, or do I grab her? Or do I get some friends? If I say something, then will my friend judge me?"
These conversations are tough, often awkward, in high school. A lot of the mentors still haven't confronted this kind of situation in real life by the time they graduate. But once they get to college, says Iowa State University junior Tucker Carrell, a former MVP mentor, the scenarios come to life.
Tucker says that he's not afraid to confront his Delta Tau Delta fraternity brothers when they talk about women in a way that makes him uncomfortable. He'll sit down with them, sometimes even bringing a woman they've hit on into the conversation.
The day we talked, Tucker said he'd used his MVP training to intervene in a situation just the night before.
This was at a going-away party at a bar in Ames, Iowa. Tucker noticed that a friend's female cousin was pretty drunk. She was over by the jukebox with two guys who weren't part of the party. They were strangers. Tucker says he was paying attention to her body language, and something didn't look right. She looked almost cornered.
So Tucker grabbed a buddy, and they went over to the jukebox together.
"We were like, 'Hey, let's pick a song.' So we picked a song. And then we were like, 'Do you want to go to the table and see your cousin?' "
They steered her back toward their group of friends.
And that was it. The night went on as if nothing had happened.
Lisak says by the time 18-year-olds leave for college, they need to be hearing this kind of challenge from their guy friends.
"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," he says. "Just like we have eroded the idea that it's fine to get drunk and get in your car."
There are only a few dozen high schools around the country that offer the MVP program. It's been used in high schools around Sioux City, Iowa, for over a decade now. Surveys of participating students suggest their attitudes about sexual assault, and intervening in dangerous situations, shift after they go through the program, but researchers have yet to evaluate how effective it is in reducing incidents of sexual violence.
John Foubert, the psychologist in Oklahoma, says it's important to remember that 90 percent of men have never committed a rape. The key is opening their eyes to what's going on with the other 10 percent, so they can see it and intervene.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Kelly McEvers.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. Good morning. Today in Your Health, the latest in our series on campus sexual assault. It can be hard to learn much about who commits sexual assaults on campus, and that's because only a very small number ever get reported to the police. But we wanted to find out what's known about the perpetrators and the circumstances that surround their crimes. So NPR's Laura Starecheski dug into research that gets into the minds of men who commit sexual assaults on campus. She has this report.
LAURA STARECHESKI, BYLINE: Psychologist David Lisak started looking into men who rape at college back in the 1980s. He surveyed about 1,800 men at U-Mass Boston. When the numbers came back in from that first study, Lisak was stunned. One-hundred-twenty men in the sample, or about 6 percent, had raped women they knew. Two-thirds of the guys were serial rapists who had done this on average six times.
DAVID LISAK: I was forced really to accept that, well, yes, these are college students, but there is this small percentage of college students who are sex offenders. They're behaving like sex offenders. They are sex offenders.
STARECHESKI: Together, the 120 men were responsible for 483 rapes. None of those were ever reported. So why would these guys talk to a researcher like Lisak about their crimes?
LISAK: The reason that these men are not just willing but actually were quite open about disclosing sexual assaults that they had committed is that they don't view them as assaults. They don't view them as rape. Most of these men have an image or a myth basically about rape that it's some guy in a ski mask wielding a knife. You know, they don't wear ski masks; they don't wield knives; so they don't see themselves as rapists.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Frank) I had this girl staked out. I picked her out in one of my classes, you know. I worked on her. She was all prepped. I was watching for her, and, you know, the minute she walked into the door of the party, I was on her.
STARECHESKI: This is an actor playing Frank, a pseudonym for a guy from Lisak's study. He's working from the actual interview transcript. Lisak says he heard the same tactics over and over again from these guys. They carefully planned their assaults. They'd ask the girls to come to a party saying it was invite-only, a big deal to nervous freshman. And the guy's friends usually knew exactly what was going on. In fact, they'd help them prep for it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Frank) We'd have all those kegs, but we always had some kind of punch, also, you know, like her own homebrew. And 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.
STARECHESKI: Alcohol was the weapon of choice for these men who typically saw themselves as college guys hooking up. They didn't think of what they'd done as a crime. In fact they'd brag about it afterwards to their friends. That buy-in from friends, researchers say, is a big deal.
JOHN FOUBERT: One of the things that matters most to boys and emerging adulthood men is the opinion of other men.
STARECHESKI: John Foubert is a researcher at Oklahoma State University. He studies rape prevention among young men. He says that in a group of guy friends, the opinions that matter so much and end up influencing behavior are often just what a guy thinks his friends think - more his perception than their actual opinions.
FOUBERT: So let's say you have a peer group of 10 guys. One or two guys are consonantly talking about, oh, I bagged this, you know, expletive. Many of the other men listening to that are uncomfortable, but they think everyone else supports it through their silence.
STARECHESKI: That silence is powerful. A number of studies from different colleges have shown that having friends who support violence against women is a major risk factor for committing sexual assault. So what if that silence could be broken before college, as early as high school?
XAVIER SCARLETT: I don't know if I'd call myself a jock. (Laughter) I would say I look at myself as a leader instead of a jock.
STARECHESKI: Xavier Scarlett is captain of the football team, the basketball team and the track team. He's just about to start his senior year at West High In Sioux City, Iowa. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio version of this story, we misidentify the name of the high school Xavier Scarlett attends. It is North High, not West High.] But the past few weeks, he's been focused on getting ready to meet the incoming freshmen guys.
SCARLETT: Freshman year is so critical because you're going to see things in high school that you probably haven't seen yet in your life.
STARECHESKI: Xavier is a mentor in a program called MVP, Mentors in Violence Prevention, which pairs up popular guys, many of them athletes, with a group of incoming freshmen who look up to them. Together they talk through scenarios about dating, relationships, bullying, sexual assault and rape.
SCARLETT: You're with a girl, she's drunk and you're sober. How does that make you feel as a guy, you know? Will you let your guy friends down by not doing anything with her?
STARECHESKI: One of the scenarios about sexual assault plays out like a story from David Lisak's study. There's a big party happening. You see a guy you know with an extremely drunk girl, and he's trying to leave with her.
SCARLETT: Do I let them just leave, or do I grab him, or do I grab her, or do I get some friends? You know, if I say something, then my friend will judge me. He'll be mad at me for stopping him, or, you know, what will the girls say about me? Will rumors start about me in school?
TUCKER CARRELL: Some of those scenarios - you will never see those; you'll never see them in high school.
STARECHESKI: Tucker Carrell was an MVP mentor, too. He's now a junior at Iowa State University and a member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity. He says that once he got to Iowa State, he started seeing the scenarios play out in real life. And he was ready. The day we talked, he told me he'd used his MVP training to intervene in a situation just the night before.
CARRELL: I was at a going-away party last night for one of my friends that was getting shipped off to basic training.
STARECHESKI: This was at a bar in Ames, Iowa. Tucker noticed that one of the guy's cousins was pretty drunk. She was over by the jukebox with two guys who weren't part of the party. They were strangers. Tucker says he was paying attention to her body language, and something didn't look right. She looked almost cornered.
CARRELL: What I saw last night was, you know, you kind of raise your shoulders up more; you back up a little bit more; you twist around a little bit more, kind of side-to-side trying to look for which way you're trying to get out - maybe not really making eye contact with the guys at all.
STARECHESKI: Tucker's friend saw him looking over there and asked what was going on. What was Tucker seeing that he couldn't see?
CARRELL: He was just oblivious completely to it, and we had that discussion. And he was just like, do you think she's fine?
STARECHESKI: So he enlisted that guy to help him step in. They went over to the jukebox together.
CARRELL: We were like, hey, let's pick a song, you know. We had her pick a song, and we were over there. And we just walk - were like, hey, let's go back to the table and see your cousin.
STARECHESKI: And that was it. The night went on as if nothing had happened. Tucker says he had more in-depth interventions with guys in his fraternity who've gotten out of line who talk about women in a way that makes him uncomfortable. He'll sit down with them, sometimes even bringing a woman they've hit on into the conversation.
CARRELL: There's more accountability than just sending them out your front door or just saying, hey, you're just being rude; you need to leave. Like, that doesn't solve anything. It might stop the current situation, but that doesn't stop it from happening again.
STARECHESKI: There are only a few dozen high schools around the country that offer the MVP program. It's been embedded in public high schools in Sioux City, Iowa for more than 10 years. But researchers have yet to evaluate how effective it is in reducing incidents of sexual violence. David Lisak says there's strong evidence, though, that this kind of training is urgently needed in high schools.
LISAK: We also have research now that confirms that the vast majority of the serial offenders started committing sexual assaults in high school, at least.
STARECHESKI: Lisak says that by the time 18-year-olds leave for college, they need to be hearing this kind of challenge from their guy friends.
LISAK: This idea that getting somebody intoxicated, plastered - whatever you call it - so that you can have sex with them is an idea that we just simply are going to have to confront and challenge anderode, just as we have challenged and eroded the idea that it's fun and perfectly fine to get drunk and get in your car. You know, we really have changed how normative that is and how acceptable that is in a matter of - what? - two to three decades.
STARECHESKI: John Foubert, the researcher in Oklahoma, says it's important to remember that 90 percent of men have never committed rape. The key is opening their eyes to what's going on with the other 10 percent so they can see it and respond. Laura Starecheski, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.