Perceptions of Appropriate Punishment for Committing Date Rape: Male College Students Recommend Lenient Punishments
McDonald, Theodore W., Kline, Linda M., College Student Journal
Past research has shown that date rape is a crime that is committed with surprising frequency, particularly on college campuses, and that college men may hold a number of rape-tolerant attitudes that make this crime more likely. In the present research, 300 men and women college students read one of three vignettes, varying the type of descriptive language, describing a date rape situation. After reading the vignettes, each participant recommended one of five punishments for the perpetrator. The results showed that overall, the type of descriptive language used to describe the act of date rape, as well as the gender of the college student respondent, affected recommendations of punishment. The implications of these findings are discussed.
During the past several decades, there has been a heightened awareness of the frequency of occurrence of date rape on college campuses (Bell, Kuriloff, & Lottes, 1994; Harrington & Leitenberg, 1994; Tescavage, 1999). The rape of a woman by a man she is dating, which at one time is believed to have gone almost completely unreported, continues to be underreported, even though it is believed to occur much more frequently than stranger rape (National Victim Center, 1992). The tendency for crimes of date rape to go unreported may be due in large part to the fact that both perpetrators and victims of this crime often fail to characterize their experiences as rape (Koss, Dinero, Seibel, & Cox, 1988), and also may be attributed to the fact that the crime of date rape seems to many people to be more ambiguous than the crime of stranger rape (McDonald & Kline, 2000; Sawyer, Pinciaro, & Jessell, 1998; Tescavage, 1999). Whatever the reasons for the underreporting of the crime, the tendency not to report date rape seems to obscure the magnitude of the problem.
Almost all research on date rape suggests that it is indeed a major problem, particularly on college campuses (e.g., Canterbury, Grossman, & Lloyd, 1993; Kalof, 1993; Lauman, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994; Miller & Marshall, 1987). In an oft-cited study, Koss and her colleagues (Koss et al., 1988) reported that 15% of college women in their sample reported having been raped (85% of them reported having been raped (85% of them by dates), and other studies (e.g., Laumann et al., 1994) report similar or even higher percentages. Further, surveys of college men have shown that a surprisingly high percentage (from 7-15%) of these men report having forced sex on an unwilling date (Koss, Gidycz, & Wisniewski, 1987; Rapaport & Burkhart, 1984), and also that many college men, when presented with a hypothetical situation in which they would definitely not get caught for date-raping a woman, reported that they would do so (Lott, Reily, & Howard, 1982).
The brief literature review above should make two important points quite clear. First, date rape is a crime that occurs with surprising frequency, particularly on college campuses. Second, at least some college men seem willing to force sex on a date. Why? One answer might be that men perceive date rape to be less of a crime than women. Certainly, some evidence suggests this to be the case. Several studies (e.g., Abbey & Harnish, 1995; Holcomb et al., 1991; Muehlenhard & Linton, 1987; Varelas & Foley, 1998) have confirmed that college men hold more rape-tolerant attitudes than do college women. For example, Holcomb and his colleagues (1991) found that the college men in their sample were significantly more likely than college women to endorse statements such as "Some women ask to be raped and may enjoy it" and "If a woman says 'no' to having sex, she means 'maybe' or even 'yes'". They also found that their male participants were more likely than their female participants to agree that "Any woman could prevent rape if she really wanted to", suggesting that men tend to blame the victim more than women. This finding is consistent with that of other researchers (e.g., Bell, Kuriloff, & Lottes, 1994; Kanekar & Kolsawalla, 1981; Kanekar, Pinto, & Mazumdar, 1985; Krahe, 1988). Bell and her colleagues (1994) found that although men tended to blame the victim of date rape more than women, both men and women tended to blame the victim of date rape more than the victim of stranger rape. They speculated that this may be due to an inaccurate perception that both the perpetrator and the victim shared responsibility for the event and its outcome.
Inspired in part by Bell and her colleagues' (1994) work, McDonald and Kline (2000) recently explored the notion that common descriptions of date rape may tend to diffuse responsibility for the crime. Adapting procedures from Lamb and Keon (1995), who found that language which diffuses responsibility for the crime of wife-battering affects recommendations of punishment for the perpetrator, McDonald and Kline (2000) developed three vignettes describing a crime of date rape using either active (which clearly specified the perpetrator as the agent of the act), passive (which clearly specified the victim of the act), or diffused responsibility language. They distributed 100 of each version to 50 men and 50 women, the majority of whom were middle-aged, non-college student adults. Having created a factorial design crossing respondent gender and descriptive language type, McDonald and Kline (2000) hypothesized that women would recommend harsher punishments than men, regardless of language type, and that both men and women would recommend harsher punishments when presented with a scenario describing the act of date rape in active and passive language, compared to when presented with a scenario featuring language which seemed to diffuse responsibility for the crime. Their findings only partially confirmed their hypotheses; although more harsh punishments were recommended by participants who read the active and passive descriptions, compared to those which seemed to diffuse the responsibility for the act between the perpetrator and the victim, no gender difference in assigned punishments was found (McDonald & Kline, 2000).
This last finding provided the impetus for the current study. The strong evidence suggesting that college men have more rape-tolerant attitudes (e.g., Abbey & Harnish, 1995; Bell et al., 1994; Holcomb et al., 1991; Kanekar & Kolsawalla, 1981; Kanekar, Pinto, & Mazumdar, 1985; Krahe, 1988; Varelas & Foley, 1998) clearly did not seem to translate into recommendations for reduced punishment for older, non-college student men. Two possible, and contrasting, conclusions can be drawn from these seemingly inconsistent results. First, McDonald and Kline's (2000) procedure may not have been sensitive enough to successfully tap rape-tolerant attitudes. Second, perhaps younger college men harbor more rape-tolerant attitudes than older, non-college men. The purpose of the present study was to systematically evaluate these two possibilities by replicating McDonald and Kline's (2000) study, using college students instead of an older population who have few, if any, connections to campus life. By again crossing respondent gender with descriptive language type, we expected to find a main effect for language type, such that both college student men and women who read vignettes written in language which seemed to diffuse responsibility for the act of date rape between the perpetrator and the victim to recommend less punishment for the perpetrator than those respondents who read passages which used active and passive language. Such a finding would provide additional evidence for the effect of descriptive language type on recommended punishment for sex-related crimes, as reported by Lamb and Keon (1995) and McDonald and Kline (2000). We also expected to find a main effect for respondent gender, such that college student men recommend less punishment for the perpetrator of the date rape than would women. This finding, although it would be inconsistent with that reported by McDonald and Kline (2000) with a different population, would reinforce the notion that college men are more likely to hold rape-tolerant attitudes than are college women. No interaction between respondent gender and language type was anticipated.
A convenience sample of 300 college students (150 female; 150 male) was recruited from a number of locations on and around a mid-sized western university campus. The sampling locations included common areas, classroom halls, and in front of the campus library, as well as coffee shops and restaurants adjacent to the campus. The participants ranged in age from 18-57, and the vast majority (89%) were traditionally-aged students (18-25 years of age). No compensation or reward was offered for participation.
Each stimulus packet consisted of two pages; one page featured a brief set of instructions and the simulated newspaper article, and the other listed five possible punishments for the perpetrator of the crime. The second page also featured several demographic questions querying the participants on their gender, age, and race.
The simulated articles, which were developed and employed by McDonald and Kline (2000) for an earlier study, had been determined to be similar in wording and length (ranging from 157-173 words). Each described an act of date rape, and differed only in the type of language used to describe the crime (see Table 1). The active language vignette clearly specified the man as the agent of the act, for example "Elizabeth Jones' date kissed her, fondled her, and had sexual intercourse with her, all after she told him to stop". The passive language vignette presented the act without an agent, for example, "Elizabeth Jones was subjected to unwanted kissing, fondling, and sexual intercourse". The final vignette contained language that diffused responsibility for the crime between the agent (perpetrator) and the object (victim) of the act, for example, "Elizabeth Jones and Charles Ward became involved in kissing, fondling, and sexual intercourse after Ms. Jones told Mr. Ward to stop" (see Table 1).
The five punishments which could be selected for the perpetrator were deliberately selected to form a continuum of punishment ranging from very lenient to very severe, and included: 1) 2 months of sensitivity training; 2) 1 year of therapy; 3) 1 year of public service and a $2,500 fine; 4) 1 year of jail and 1 year of psychotherapy; and 5) three years of jail and mandatory registration as a sex offender. These five punishments had been selected by McDonald and Kline (2000) after earlier pilot testing with college students determined all punishments to differ significantly in severity from each other (all ps < .001).
One hundred of each version of the survey were randomly distributed to 50 men and 50 women college students. Eligible participants (who were required to be college students) were approached at a number of on-campus locations, as well as several off-campus locations, and were informed by student experimenters that they were conducting a study on how people perceived controversial passages in newspaper articles, and were asked if they would be interested in participating. They were informed that they would be asked to read a simulated newspaper article and make a brief judgment about its contents. If they agreed, they were given the two-page packet, read the article, and selected a punishment.
Selected punishments were aggregated by respondent gender and language condition and subjected to a 2 (gender: female and male) x 3 (descriptive language type: active vs. passive vs. diffused responsibility) analysis of variance. The results of this test can be seen in Table 2. As anticipated, and consistent with the earlier findings reported by McDonald and Kline (2000), a significant main effect was found by language condition, F (2, 294) = 7.86, p < .001. A post-hoc Tukey test revealed that this effect was accounted for by respondents who received the diffused responsibility passages selecting significantly more lenient punishments for the perpetrator than those who received the paragraphs using both active and passive language (see Table 3). Contrary to what was found by McDonald and Kline (2000) in their study of perceptions of date rape among an older, non-college student sample of adults, but consistent with the predictions made in the present study, a significant main effect for respondent gender was found, F (1,294) = 21.37, p < .001. This effect was accounted for by male college students selecting significantly more lenient punishment for the perpetrator than female students (see Table 3). No significant interaction between gender and language condition was found, F (2, 294) = .05, p = .95.
As additional variables, both race and age were tested as possible determinants of selected punishments. As expected, and consistent with McDonald and Kline's earlier work, race was produced no systematic differences in selected punishments, F (5, 294) = .74, p = .59. Unexpectedly, and unlike in McDonald and Kline's (2000) earlier study, a significant difference in selected punishment was found as a function of age, F (3, 294) = 3.33, p < .05. A post-hoc Tukey test revealed that this finding was accounted for by participants over the age of 50 choosing significantly more lenient punishments for the perpetrator than those participants younger than age 50 (see Table 5). We caution that any conclusions drawn from this finding must be doubtful at best, due to the uneven sample sizes of the age categories, and particularly, the extremely small number of participants in the crucial 50+ age category. Age categories were created on an ordinal basis, with 89% (N = 263) of the participants reporting their age as 18-25, 7% reporting their age as 26-35 (N = 21), 3% reporting their age as 36-49 (N = 3), and less than 1% (N = 2) reporting their age as 50 or older.
The results of this study clearly demonstrate several important findings. The first finding, that descriptive language type affects how men and women college students assign punishment to a perpetrator of date rape, clearly demonstrates that people are quite sensitive to how situations are portrayed in written passages. The main effect for language type shows that both the men and women in our sample were responsive to the wording describing the act of date rape. When language that seemed to diffuse the responsibility for the act of date rape between the perpetrator and the victim was used, the perpetrator was assigned less punishment than when either active or passive language was used. This result directly parallels those reported by Lamb and Keon (1995) in the their study of the effects of language type on punishment for wife-battering, and also those reported by McDonald and Kline (2000) in their study of the effects of language type on punishment for date rape among older, non-college student participants.
The second major finding, that respondent gender systematically affected recommendations of punishment, was expected in this study, but is inconsistent with the findings of Lamb and Keon (1995) and McDonald and Kline (2000), who used procedures that were nearly identical to those employed in the present study. As noted earlier, we expected that college men, who have been demonstrated to hold more rape-tolerant attitudes than college women (Abbey & Harnish, 1995; Bell et al., 1994; Holcomb et al., 1991; Kanekar & Kolsawalla, 1981; Kanekar et al., 1985; Krahe, 1988; Muehlenhard & Linton, 1987; Varelas & Foley, 1998), would assign more lenient punishments to the perpetrator in a date rape scenario, than would college women. This result was clearly demonstrated. In fact, participant gender accounted for a greater portion of the variance in assigned punishment than did descriptive language type (see Table 2). In other words, when using college students as participants, how the crime is described may matter less than the simply the gender of the participant.
We believe that the findings of this study should be seriously considered by faculty, staff, and administrators at all co-educational colleges and universities, because several important implications can be drawn from the results. First, there appears to be an influencing factor, with regard to perceptions of the seriousness of date rape, which stems either from the age of college men, or from various situational forces at play on college campuses. Further research featuring this same paradigm, but using young non-college students could easily isolate the age factor, and such research is encouraged. However, we speculate that age is not the determining factor; other authors (e.g., Holcomb et al., 1991; Koss et al., 1988; McDermott, Sarvela, & Bajracharya, 1988), drawing similar conclusions, have speculated that date rape may be a greater problem, and considered more tolerable to some students, due to a campus atmosphere that is sexually-charged, and which often features a large amount of alcohol and substance use. Further isolation of these possible contributing factors is also encouraged. Studies that focus on such factors (Fisher, 1995; Norris & Cubbins, 1992; Osman & Davis, 1999; Stormo, Lang, & Stritzke, 1997; Testa & Livingston, 1999), which are relatively unique to college campuses, are important and should be continued.
Because rape-tolerant attitudes in college men has been found to be predictive of aggressive sexual behavior (Koss, Leonard, Beezley, & Oros, 1985; Muehlenhard & Linton, 1987), it is particularly important for campus personnel to combat the development and maintenance of these attitudes. Our results show that the language used to describe the crime of date rape has a significant impact on the perceived severity of the crime. Using language which seems to diffuse the responsibility for the crime between the perpetrator and the victim leads to the recommendation of less punishment for the perpetrator of the crime; we feel that the use of this type of language may reinforce the "rape myth" that women who are assaulted by their dates may have actually wanted to have sex (Holcomb et al., 1991; Osman & Davis, 1999). In this way, use of language that diffuses responsibility for the crime of date rape may both make college men more tolerant of this crime, but may also implicitly convey to them that committing this offense themselves is less objectionable. Further, being exposed to media reports which use diffused responsibility language may deter women from reporting the crime of date rape if they themselves are victims. In short, we urge writers and editors of campus and non-campus publications to avoid the use of ambiguous language that fails to clearly specify the perpetrator and/or the victim, and their roles in the crime. Most importantly, we urge that date rape be clearly identified as a crime, in the same way that stranger rape is portrayed.
In conclusion, we strongly recommend that researchers continue to closely monitor the frequency of date rape on college and university campuses, and continue their attempts to tease apart the various factors which contribute to the development and maintenance of rape-tolerant attitudes among college men. To ignore the occurrence of date rape, or to fail to study it and the attitudes that contribute to it seems to us to invite disaster in the form of hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of raped college women annually. Almost all faculty, students, and the parents of students would agree that college and university campuses should be pleasant, safe, and intellectually-stimulating environments, rather than environments fostering dangerous attitudes in men and fear in women. An aggressive, systematic program of research on attitudes about date rape and the behavior that stems from them is perhaps the first step in ensuring that present and future campus life will be characterized by the former description, rather than the latter.
Table 1 Three Versions of Date Rape Article 1. Linda Davidson, a solicitor and lecturer in law, is collecting evidence of (men date-raping women/date-rape of women/date rape), which she hopes will bring about changes in laws dealing specifically with diminished responsibility. 2. Diminished responsibility refers to the (man's/left blank/accused's) right to show that there was ambiguity or a misunderstanding which accounted for (him having sex with an unwilling woman/the date rape/ during the alleged date rape). 3. The possibility of changing aspects of this law will benefit such (people as Elizabeth Jones/people as Elizabeth Jones/persons as Elizabeth Jones and Charles Ward). 4. V1. Elizabeth Jones' date, after dinner and a movie, kissed her, fondled her, and had sexual intercourse with her, all after she had told him to stop. V2. Elizabeth Jones, after a dinner and movie date, was subjected to unwanted kissing, fondling, and sexual intercourse. V3. Elizabeth Jones and Charles Ward, after a dinner and a movie date, became involved in kissing, fondling, and sexual intercourse after Ms. Jones told Mr. Ward to stop. 5. V1. Giving evidence, Ms. Jones said her date told her before penetrating her that "Even though you say no, I know you mean yes". V2. Giving evidence, Ms. Jones said that before she was penetrated she was told that even though she said "no", it was known that she meant "yes". V3. Just before penetration she was told that "Even though you say no, I know that you mean yes". 6. After that (she/she/they) sought help from a local community service organization. 7. Her caseworker, Bob Martin, said that Elizabeth Jones had seen her "friends in similar situations where (they were forced to have unwanted sex with a date/they were forced to have unwanted sex/they had unwanted sex)" and V1. She figured that her date's behavior was normal and that she had to accept the forced sex. V2. She figured that the forced sex was normal and she had to accept it. V3. It was figured that the unwanted sex was normal and had to be accepted. Table 2 Summary for Analysis of Variance Crossing Respondent Gender and Language Effect df MS F p et[a.sup.2] Gender 1,294 30.72 21.37 0.001 .07 Language Condition 2,294 11.30 7.86 0.001 .05 Gender * Language Condition 2,294 .07 .05 .952 Table 3 Mean Selected Punishments by Language Condition Language Condition Active Passive Diffused Responsibility Mean Punishment 3.87 (a) 3.93 3.32 (b) (1.15) (1.21) (1.34) Note. Numbers in parentheses are standard deviations. Superscripts indicate significant differences across rows. Table 4 Mean Selected Punishments by Respondent Gender Gender Female Male Mean Punishment 4.03 (a) 3.38 (b) (1.12) (1.32) Note. Numbers in parentheses are standard deviations. Superscripts indicate significant differences across rows. Table 5 Mean Selected Punishments by Participant Age Category Age Category 18-25 26-35 36-50 50+ N = 263 N = 21 N = 9 N=2 Mean Punishment 3.72 (a) 3.52 (a) 3.89 (a) 1.00 (b) (1.24) (1.44) (1.17) (.00) Note. Numbers in parentheses are standard deviations. Superscripts indicate significant differences across rows.
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Author Note. Parts of this article were presented at the annual meeting of the Western Psychological Association in Portland, Oregon, in 2000.
THEODORE W. McDoNALD Boise State University
LINDA M. KLINE California State University, Chico…
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Publication information: Article title: Perceptions of Appropriate Punishment for Committing Date Rape: Male College Students Recommend Lenient Punishments. Contributors: McDonald, Theodore W. - Author, Kline, Linda M. - Author. Journal title: College Student Journal. Volume: 38. Issue: 1 Publication date: March 2004. Page number: 44+. © 2009 Project Innovation (Alabama). COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.