Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Risk Factors Associated with Acquaintance Rape

Societal Attitudes About Acquaintance Rape

During the 1990s, researchers found that attitudes about acquaintance rape victims improved. However, in general, college students, campus administrators, police, prosecutors, judges, and juries still overwhelmingly view and treat acquaintance rape less seriously than stranger rape, sustaining the myth that stranger rape is "real rape," while acquaintance rape is less serious and less harmful. College studies still find that many on campus, both men and women, have little understanding of acquaintance rape because, as discussed below, it is a much more complex crime than stranger rape.

Rape myths allow us to believe that a "real rape" is one in which a victim is raped by a stranger who jumps out of the bushes with a weapon, and in which she fought back, was beaten and bruised, reported the event to the police, and had medical evidence collected immediately. In a "real rape," the victim has never had sex with the assailant before, is preferably a virgin, was not intoxicated, was not wearing seductive clothing, and has a good reputation. …Unfortunately, acquaintance sexual assaults contain few, if any, of those elements. In many acquaintance rape situations, the victim had been drinking, did voluntarily go with the man to his apartment or room, was not threatened with a weapon, did not fight back, did not report the event to the police immediately, did not have medical evidence collected, and may have even had sex with the assailant voluntarily before.28

Risk Factors Associated With Acquaintance Rape

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

Acquaintance rape is less random and more preventable than stranger rape.29 A woman's condition or behavior does not cause rape, but certain factors appear to increase a woman's vulnerability to it:

  • frequently drinking enough to get drunk;30
  • drinking to the point of being unable to resist forceful sexual advances;31
  • using drugs and/or drinking (both the victim and the assailant);32
  • having previously been the victim of sexual assault, before the start of the school year;33
  • being single;34
  • engaging in social activities with sexually predatory men;35
  • being at an isolated site;36
  • miscommunicating about sex;37 and
  • holding less conservative attitudes about sexual behavior.38

Repeat Victimization

Numerous studies of campus rape have found that a small number of victims are repeat victims.39 One of the largest studies to date found that 22.8 percent of college rape victims had been victimized before.40 College women most at risk of rape are those who were previously victims of childhood or teen sexual assault.41 Prior victims are nearly twice as likely to be raped in college than those with no previous history of sexual assault.42 "Adolescent/ young adult victimization is the most robust risk factor for victimization in the college years, and victimization in one semester predicts victimization in the following semester."43 Some researchers believe that college men can sense out women who are less able to defend themselves, or target women whose behavior (e.g., binge drinking) weakens their credibility. 44

Repeat Offending

It is unknown how many college rapists are repeat offenders. Most college acquaintance rapists go unpunished (in part because reporting is so low), so the number of serial offenses are difficult to determine. However, one study found that 96 college men accounted for 187 rapes, 45 suggesting that further research may establish that serial rapists are a common component of the acquaintance rape problem. Lack of reporting complicates the problem, since it may prevent colleges from identifying and ridding themselves of their most dangerous students.

Why Some College Men Rape

In studies in the early 1980s and 1990s, approximately one-third of college men reported they would rape a woman if they knew they would not get caught. 46 Given the number of college women raped, researchers have tried to explain the problem's prevalence:

  • Some men have stereotypic views of women's sexual behavior. In light of the high number of rapes, researchers believe that rape is not the product of psychopathic behavior; rather it is the product of mainstream beliefs about women's role in sexual situations. 47 For example, many men are socialized to believe that women initially resist sexual advances to preserve their reputation and, because of this, prefer to be overcome sexually. If a woman says no, a man is to proceed as if she said yes. In addition, some men believe that if a woman is a "tease" or "loose," she is asking for sex. If she then claims rape, she changed her mind after the fact. Such men generally believe that most rapes are false reports.
  • Some college men have sexist attitudes and seek sexual conquests. Some men simply do not care about women's feelings. "They have learned that what counts, in the popular sports term invariably adopted… is that they 'score.'"48
  • Some men see alcohol as a tool for sexual conquest. While alcohol use does not cause rape, "alcohol abuse is strongly related to abuse of women."49 In addition, many college men may be unaware that having sex with someone who is drunk is rape.
  • Some men receive peer support for sexually abusive behavior. Sexually abusive men often are friends with and loyal to other sexually abusive men and get peer support for their behavior, fostering and legitimizing it.50 During the 1980s and 1990s, a series of rapes in fraternity houses, and subsequent cover-ups by fraternity members, suggested to researchers that certain all-male living arrangements foster unhealthy environments conducive to rape. 51

Alcohol's Role in Acquaintance Rape

Alcohol appears to play a large role in acquaintance rape, although it is not the cause. Research indicates that in over three-quarters of college rapes, the offender, the victim or both had been drinking. 52 Researchers provide several explanations for alcohol's presence in so many rapes:53

  • Men expect to become more sexualized when drinking. "Men view the world in a more sexualized manner than women do and, consequently, are more likely than women to interpret ambiguous cues as evidence of sexual intent."

    † Some studies have found that men (more so than women) view certain cues as evidence that a woman is interested in having sex, such as her wearing revealing clothing, agreeing to a secluded date location such as the man's room or the beach, drinking alcohol, complimenting the man during the date, and tickling the man (Abbey 1991).

  • Alcohol increases misperceptions because it reduces a person's capacity to analyze complex stimuli. Alcohol (and drug) use increases the risk that men and women will misinterpret messages between them.
  • Some men believe in stereotypes about women and drinking. Some men believe that women who drink are more sexually available than those who do not.54
  • Some men use alcohol as a justification or an excuse. Some men use alcohol to justify or excuse acting out, misbehaving or committing a crime.
  • Alcohol causes poor sending and receiving of friendly and sexual cues. "While drinking alcohol, a woman may not notice her date's persistent attempts to get her into an isolated location or encourage her to consume even more alcohol."55 In one study, "threequarters of the acknowledged date rapists interviewed . . . said that they sometimes got women drunk in order to increase the likelihood of having sex with them." ††

    †† In one study, researchers found that women did not see being alone with a man and drinking as putting them at risk. Women tended to appropriately estimate the risk to others, but not to themselves, perhaps because on prior occasions, being alone with a man and drinking did not result in rape. The researchers found that women drinkers believed they could drink a lot before being at increased risk for sexual aggression (Norris, Nurius and Graham 1999).

  • Alcohol decreases women's ability to resist rape. Alcohol slows motor functions, reducing the likelihood that a woman can verbally or physically resist a rapist.

Research has found that when alcohol or drugs are involved in acquaintance rape—which is frequently the case—peers tend to hold women more responsible for the rape, and men less responsible for it.

Athletic Teams, Fraternities and Acquaintance Rape

College athletes are disproportionately reported to campus judicial officers for acquaintance rape.56 It is unclear whether they actually offend more, or whether students tend to report them more (perhaps angered by athletes' esteemed and privileged status). On some campuses, revenue-generating athletes (usually football and basketball players) may believe they are immune to campus rules (and sometimes are), and take advantage of "groupies" or other women they perceive as sexually interested in them.57

As for fraternities, a disproportionate number of documented gang rapes involve fraternity members. Research on reported gang rapes committed by college students from 1980 to 1990 found that fraternity members committed 55 percent of them.58 Fraternities often have a unique place on campus; they are typically housed in private residences (with many private rooms) and hold large unsupervised parties, often with free-flowing alcohol. Some fraternity members approve of getting a woman drunk to have sex. This, combined with some fraternities' emphasis on loyalty above identifying members who rape, has put fraternities in the center of controversy because a disproportionate number of reported rapes occur on their property. A number of researchers believe that certain fraternities, because of their practices, are more rapeprone than others, placing sorority members (and other frequent women attendees at fraternity parties) at greater risk of rape. Some researchers also believe that binge drinking makes certain fraternities high risk for rape. Many national Greek organizations now require education for their local chapters concerning sexual assault and alcohol consumption, and some now mandate "dry" houses.

† Humphrey and Kahn (2000) found that college women correctly identify the campus fraternities and athletic teams that are high risk and low risk for rape, based on the type of parties they have had.

Legal Obligations of Colleges

The more that acquaintance rape remains a hidden crime, the less incentive that schools have to invest sufficiently in its prevention. Stranger rape results in dramatic and unwelcome publicity for colleges. Administrators try to prevent such victimization by putting cameras in parking garages, running late-night student escort and/or shuttle services, deploying student patrols, placing emergency telephones throughout campus, locking buildings to prevent strangers from entering, trimming obstructive foliage, and improving the lighting in dark or less-traveled areas. The costs of these prevention initiatives far exceed the dollars spent on acquaintance rape prevention, even though acquaintance rape is a much more likely occurrence. Increased reporting—even anonymous reporting—may push colleges to further invest in more effective acquaintance rape prevention.

Colleges have a legal duty to warn students of known risks and to provide reasonable protection.59 If a crime is foreseeable, then a college can be held liable for not sufficiently protecting against it. As noted, acquaintance rape is the most common violent crime on college campuses.60 If "acquaintance rape(s) occur at predictable times and places, the school must make reasonable efforts to prevent a recurrence; and the school may be liable if it fails to deal effectively with repeat student offenders, including rapists, whose conduct eventually results in more damage."61