Study questions focus on serial offenders in preventing campus rape

A new study questions a popular belief that college men who commit rape are often serial offenders.

Story highlights

  • 10.8% of men surveyed at two universities reported committing at least one rape from age 14 through the end of college
  • 7.7% of men surveyed said they committed rape during college, 74.7% of whom did so during only one academic year
  • A critic cites the study's small focus, says more research on perpetrators' behavior is needed

(CNN)A new study questions a long-held assumption by many that serial rape offenders should be the primary focus of campus assault prevention.

The study, published Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, tested the "campus serial rapist assumption," an idea that campus perpetrators are often serial offenders, and one frequently cited by advocacy organizations as well as the White House Council on Women and Girls.
The popular focus on serial perpetrators is an incomplete understanding, said the study's lead author, Kevin Swartout, a professor at Georgia State University's department of psychology.
    "Campus sexual assault is a multifaceted problem, and not one cohesive group of men is entirely responsible for the problem," he told CNN.
    In the study, researchers charted the behavior paths of 1,646 participants during orientation and throughout college, including the analysis of responders' sexual violence from 14 years of age through college.
    Of the collegiate men surveyed, 10.8% (177) reported that they committed completed rape, either before or during college, according to responses to the Sexual Experiences Survey, which consists of face-to-face interview questions measuring a range of sexually aggressive acts.
    As a baseline in analysis, however, only behaviors consistent with rape according to FBI standards were used, defined as "penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim."
    The study found that men could be divided into three groups based on their low, decreasing or increasing likelihood to commit rape across the high school and college years.
    Additionally, the study found that 7.7% of the total committed rape during college, while the majority of men (74.7%) who committed college rape did so during only one academic year.
    The data was collected from two unidentified Southeastern universities from August 1990 through April 1995 and from March 2008 through May 2011. The first study period established the behavior paths for researchers, the three-group model that showed men's likelihood to commit rape over time. Responses from the second time frame validated the findings of the initial period.
    But coming into a college campus having already perpetrated rape did not indicate a prediction of future behavior. In fact, neither time period identified a group of men who consistently committed rape across their emerging adulthood, according to study findings.
    "The guys who come to college at seemingly greatest risk for perpetrating rape are not the guys who are at greatest risk once they're in college," Swartout said, showing that men who perpetrate campus rape do not fit a mold. However, the study points out that more research is needed to identify risk factors that may influence increasing and decreasing likelihood to commit rape, including alcohol, peer networks, childhood experiences and hostility toward women.
    nr sot wallace campus rape study_00001120
    nr sot wallace campus rape study_00001120

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    A recent survey of women conducted at one university found that 19% of female freshmen -- nearly one in five -- have been a victim of attempted or completed rape. But more research on perpetrators' behavior needs to be conducted, said Jacquelyn Campbell, PhD and a registered nurse, who authored the editorial of the study that was published Monday.
    In particular, the new study consisted only of samples from two universities, both in the Southeast, which may bias results.
    Diversity was also a limitation, said Campbell.
    "If I said I didn't at least partially agree with those criticisms, I'd be lying," said Swartout, who told CNN he is collecting data across 30 campuses to address concerns that the data and conclusions are limited. He anticipates to release those findings in the spring of 2016.
    Other experts point to the difficulty of reporting the perpetrators' perspective.
    "I definitely think that this study helps contribute to our understanding of the consistency of rape behavior among men from one year to the next," said Christine Lindquist, a senior research sociologist at RTI International, a research institute. "But not necessarily whether a small number of men account for the vast majority of rapes on a given campus," she added, as the number of incidents committed or the number of victims would also need to be accounted for.
    "Someone who only committed rape during his freshman year (but not any other years) could have raped 10 people (or one person 10 times) and still not be identified in the 'increasing' trajectory," explained Lindquist, who has done several studies on undergraduate sexual violence alongside RTI colleague Christopher Krebs.
    The study does indicate that this is an initial foray into perpetrator behavior, and more research is needed regarding specifics of the assault, including victim characteristics.
    Collecting data on perpetration is very challenging, according to Krebs, who is a senior research social scientist. Instead, much of the pair's research has focused on the experience of survivors and trying to describe the incidents and the victimization from their perspective.
    "We feel like it's a little more straightforward to collect data from that population," Krebs told CNN. "When you're asking mostly young men about what are very sensitive behaviors, people are going to tell you what they think sounds right or sounds good. Many are not going to answer questions honestly," he added.
    However, as national attention on the issue continues following cases at the University of Montana and Columbia University, among others, the recent findings do offer a counter perspective for college administrators and lawmakers to consider.
    "The results shed additional needed light on the nature of campus sexual assault," said Campbell of the study. But more needs to be done to inform current policy and programming.