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UND professor spearheads research that finds men have murky perception of rape

GRAND FORKS - About a third of the men responding in a recent study said if there weren't any consequences, they would rape a woman as long as the act wasn't defined as "rape."

The research was spearheaded by Sarah Edwards of UND's Department of Counseling Psychology and Community Services and several local and national media outlets have taken notice.

Eighty-six male college students participated in the study, most of whom were Caucasian juniors and all of whom identified as heterosexual with prior sexual experience. The students surveyed did not attend UND.

The study found that 31.7 percent of the men said they would force a woman to have sexual intercourse, while only 13.6 percent said they would rape a woman.

"We need to be aware there is this group of men who do not consider their own actions to be rape, although they would qualify for any legal definition of sexual assault or rape," Edwards said. "We need to find a way to talk with these men, to engage them in our prevention efforts, so we can actually challenge their faulty assumptions and attitudes and beliefs around women and sexuality and respectful relationships and what it means to get consent."

Edwards has been studying rape for about 14 years and said she, UND doctoral student Kathryn Bradshaw and North Dakota State University professor Verlin Hinsz began collecting data for this pilot study in the mid-2000s.

Participants filled out a paper survey and received extra credit. The results were eventually published in the peer-reviewed journal Violence and Gender in 2014.

While the study initially received media attention from local channels and national blogs partially due to the incorrect statement that the men who had taken the survey were UND students, Edwards declined to specify which Midwestern university she and her team surveyed because it detracted from the fact that sexual assault is a nationwide issue.

"I think this is very representative of any college campus or most college campuses you go to," she said.

For analysis, some of the study participants were dropped due to missing or unusable data and left researchers with 72 cases to work with.

Of those, 49 respondents didn't endorse any sort of sexual assault but 13 endorsed using force to achieve intercourse while denying intentions to "rape," and 10 endorsed both rape and the use of force.

Edwards said the sample size is acceptable in the research community for the kind of information she and her team dealt with, but that it was merely a pilot study.

The study also found men who used the term "rape" were more hostile toward women and had more callous attitudes about sex.

Nearly one in five women have experienced rape at some time in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a Bureau of Justice Statistics report released in December stated women ages 18 to 24 are at more risk of being sexually victimized than women in other age groups.

"In my mind that means the men who say they would force a woman to sexual intercourse but deny that they would rape someone, those men don't self-identify their actions as rape and they don't self-identify as rapists." Edwards said. "I think it's important to understand how that can be and I wanted to look at the personality characteristics of men in those groups."

The study concludes that those who don't see acts of sexual aggression as rape won't benefit from traditional college programming on the subject since they don't see themselves as rapists.

Edwards said consent is an important aspect of helping educate men and change mindsets about sexual assault and rape.

"For a sexual interaction, if any participant has any sort of question as to whether or not it's consensual, stop and ask, and for any sexual interaction to be consensual you want to get enthusiastic agreement from both people," she said.

Edwards said studying women as rapists would require a separate study because women are far less likely to use violence and more likely to use coercion. She also said that while juxtapositioning this research alongside whether people would also be willing to commit other crimes if they knew they could get away with it would be interesting, that's not the intent of her research.

In the future, Edwards said she'd like to survey a large number of men from across the country who are more representative of the United States population as a whole with different economic, racial and cultural backgrounds.

Anna Burleson

Anna Burleson is the higher education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of South Dakota's Mass Communication program and is originally from Watertown, S.D. Contact her with story ideas or tips by phone, email or Twitter, all of which are listed below. Examples of her work can be accessed here.