A new study of male college student's attitudes about rape has set off alarm bells. Have you seen the headlines? "Nearly One-Third of College Men in Study Say They Would Commit Rape," advised The Huffington Post's Tyler Kingkade. "1 in 3 College Men Admit They Would Rape, If We Don't Call It 'Rape,'" warned Jezebel's Ann Merlan.
One-third of male students would be willing to commit rape? That may sound frightening, but moving beyond the headlines and examining the study itself reveals that the actual claim is much, much weaker.
Let's take a look. Here's the section on the study's methodology:
Eighty-six male college students received extra credit for their participation. All participants were over 18 (M = 21,SD = 3.6) and most were juniors in college. The overwhelming majority of participants ( > 90%) identified as Caucasian, consistent with the general student make up at this university, and all identified as heterosexual, with prior sexual experiences.
Emphasis added to point out that that was the whole study. That's it: just 86 people at a single campus, the University of North Dakota. Actually, the final tally included even fewer participants, since researchers excluded incomplete survey results and tossed out one response that confused them. At the end of the day, the study considered the statements of just 73 guys.
And a third of them confessed their willingness to commit rape? Not exactly. Some 32 percent (i.e., just 20-odd people) said they would force a woman to have sex with them if they knew they would get away with it. Many of those same respondents didn't actually think this constituted rape, which might speak to the fact that men are poorly educated about what rape entails—but it's hard to say for sure, since we're actually talking about very, very few guys here.
So a small number of confused men in an unrepresentative survey of a single campus said that under fantastical conditions they would do something very bad. Are these findings worrisome, even if they don't ultimately say much? The Washington Examiner's Ashe Schow writes that we shouldn't panic:
Cosmo brings up an interesting point, surely unintentionally raising a question that is more ancient than universities themselves and appears in Plato's Republic. How many people would break any law if they knew they could get away with it? How many seemingly just people could you get to say they would steal or even murder if there was no chance of being caught — if they were given a ring that made them invisible?
Which brings up another problem with the study: Saying you would do something bad if there are no consequences is not the same as doing those bad things. How many people say they'd love to tell off their boss but never do?
Schow concludes that perhaps the handful of respondents who indicated they would commit sexual assault under extremely hypothetical conditions, "didn't take the survey too seriously." I'm not convinced anyone else should, either.