Perceptions of Appropriate Punishment for Committing Date Rape: Male College Students Recommend Lenient Punishments

By McDonald, Theodore W.; Kline, Linda M. | College Student Journal, March 2004 | Go to article overview

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.

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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. …

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