Rape myth acceptance among intercollegiate student athletes: a preliminary examination

Rape myth acceptance among intercollegiate student athletes: a preliminary examination

Robin G. Sawyer

Abstract: This study was an attempt to develop a better understanding about rape myth attitudes among a convenience sample of 704 intercollegiate student athletes from five different universities. Regression analyses indicated that higher rates of rape myth acceptance were identified in male athletes, male freshmen/sophomore athletes, male athletes who played a team-based versus individual sport, and female athletes who participated in division one versus division two athletic programs. The study concludes that student athletes are not a homogenous group with regard to rape myth acceptance, and the study provides recommendations for date rape prevention programming and future research.


Many researchers have established that sexual assault and date rape are problems that exist on contemporary college and university campuses (Aizenman & Kelley, 1988; Koss, Gidycez, & Wisniewski, 1989; Douglas, Collins & Warren, 1997). Depending on the studies being examined, the prevalence of date rape can range from 10 to 20% of the sample surveyed. For example, data from the National College Health Risk Behavior Survey collected from 136 institutions estimated that 20% of college women had at some point in their lives been forced to have sexual intercourse (Douglas, Collins & Warren, 1997). However in a separate study, 45% of the student population sampled reported either knowing someone who had been raped or had themselves been a victim of rape (Chng & Burke, 1999).

Although perpetrators of date rape can come from any part of the college community, two campus populations have been identified as possibly being “high risk” with regard to perpetrating sexual violence–fraternity members and athletes. Although these two communities have been associated with sexual violence, there is a very limited amount of published research on this connection. In a synthesis of sexual assault research, O’Sullivan indicated that of all the gang rapes reported on college campuses between 1980-1990, fraternity members were believed to have committed 55% of these crimes (O’Sullivan, 1991). In another campus-based study, although only 25% of the male students were fraternity members, they accounted for 63% of the sexual assaults, with 24% of all sexual assaults having occurred in fraternity housing (O’Shaughnessy & Plamer, 1990).

If the available research on fraternity involvement is limited, the existence of empirical data on athletes is even more scarce. In addition, we have very little understanding about differences among athletes, because researchers have tended to refer to and view athletes as a monolithic population. In a study of women experiencing sexual aggression at a large mid-western university, male athletes were disproportionately over-represented among the assailants described by the women surveyed. Though male athletes made up less than 2% of the male population on campus, they represented 23% of the men accused of sexual assault (Frintner & Rubinson, 1993). One study on sexual aggression among college men examined team differences and suggested that male athletes on revenue-producing teams (football and basketball) self-reported higher rates of sexually abusive behavior than peers on non-revenue teams (Koss & Gaines, 1993). Despite the paucity of published scientific research on this subject, the suspicion that date rape is an “athlete problem” is maintained by many forms of media and communication, including the internet. One web site, entitled the “Sports Hall of Shame” lists literally hundreds of college and professional athletes accused of sexual violence (Sports Hall of Shame, 2001), while another web site specifically targets college athletes accused of sexual assault on a page named “NCAA’s Most Wanted” (NCAA’s Most Wanted, 2001). Despite this type of public attention, there are no existing quantitative data on student athlete perceptions concerning their role in sexual aggression. An additional void in the literature is the dearth of information relating specifically to women athletes and their attitudes toward sexual violence. Although evidence exists from previous studies that college males are more likely than females to subscribe to attitudes that are more accepting of rape and sexual violence (Syzmanski, Devlin, Chisler, & Vyse, 1993), there are no data examining this construct with female athletes. Effective programming around this issue becomes more difficult to develop when the levels of athlete recognition or acknowledgement of the problem are not in evidence.

One measure that has been widely used to examine the likelihood that an individual will be accepting of violence within a relationship is “rape myth.” Rape myth has been defined as “attitudes and beliefs that are generally false but are widely and persistently held, and that serve to deny and justify male sexual aggression against women”(p. 134) (Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1994). Generally, individuals subscribing to rape myth tend to believe that aggressors are not responsible for their actions and/or the victims are to blame for their predicament. One of the most frequently used instruments to measure this construct is the Burt Rape Myth Acceptance Scale (BRMAS). Research using this scale suggests that a person’s acceptance of rape myths is correlated with an increased acceptance of dating violence, and attitudes that reflect adherence to rape myth beliefs can include sex role stereotyping, acceptance of violence as a part of relationships, and the idea that sexual relationships are basically exploitive (Burt, 1980). Further, researchers have hypothesized that an individual’s propensity to rape is significantly associated with the degree to which he/she subscribes to rape myth acceptance (Koss, Leonard, Beezely, and Oros, 1985). Research findings also suggest that belief in rape myths may influence a person’s definition of rape. As an individual’s acceptance of rape myths increases, the narrower his or her definition of date rape becomes (Burt, 1980).

The purpose of this preliminary study was to develop, through the use of the BRMAS and related items, a more accurate picture of sexual attitudes among intercollegiate athletes. As stated earlier, there exists little or no in-depth published research on college athletes, with most of the data on athletes being derived as sub-samples of larger data sets, usually attempting to compare athletes to non-athletes. This research was not intended to be a comparison study, but rather an attempt to increase the body of knowledge about sexual attitudes among intercollegiate athletes. Specifically, are male student athletes more accepting of rape myths than female athletes? Does the type of sport (team vs. individual) contribute to levels of rape myth acceptance? Does the level of competition (Division I vs. Division II) affect the level of rape myth acceptance? Do higher levels of rape myth acceptance exist among “revenue” sports (football, basketball) than “non-revenue” sports? In the context of date rape research, the term “college athlete” all too often leads to the assumption that such an individual is part of an homogenous group, reflecting little internal variation between its members in terms of attitudes and behavior. The expectation of this research is that results could add to an almost non-existent body of literature and provide a more refined understanding of athletes that might ultimately lead to increasingly precise and effective programming interventions.



The instrument comprised: (a) a revised BRMAS (13 items, with 11 having a 7-point Likert scale, with responses ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree,” and 2 items relating to the perceived proportion of women who lie about being raped, on a 5-point Likert scale, with responses ranging from “none” to “all.” The total possible range of scores was 15-101) that is designed to measure acceptance of rape myths and has well established psychometric properties, including an original Cronbach’s alpha of .88 (Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1994); (b) 7 items related to the definition of rape; (c) 7 demographic items; and (d) 8 items relating to perceptions of athletes and their alcohol use, sexual behavior and levels of stress. (The items on stress and alcohol use were not relevant to this study and therefore not included in this analysis).


Data were collected from intercollegiate athletes at five universities during the Fall 2000 semester. The universities were all public institutions and represented five different states, three mid-Atlantic, one mid-west and one southwest. Gaining access to athlete populations on the topic of sexual violence is very difficult and requires a great deal of trust between institution and researcher. To that end, this group of schools represents a convenience sample based on an existing professional relationship between the first author and athletic department administrators. Anonymous surveys were distributed by athletic administrators and completed during team meetings held during the Fall 2000 semester. On completion, the surveys were immediately placed in sealed envelopes before being returned by mail to the first author. Surveys were not seen or made accessible to team coaches. All participants were told by their meeting facilitator that their participation was completely voluntary and that all responses would be anonymous. Human subjects’ permission was obtained through the Institutional Review Board at the authors university.


An ordinary least squares regression model was estimated within gender subgroups. Specifically, year in school, ethnicity, division of school, and type of sport were regressed on the BRMAS. Sport characteristics were conceptualized in two different ways. First, sports were distinguished according to whether they were individual or team-oriented, with examples of the former including golf, tennis, gymnastics, swimming, and track. Because a study by Koss and Gaines (1993) suggested a strong association between “traditional” thinking and participation in revenue sports such as basketball and football, sports were also characterized as revenue or non-revenue. Only men’s basketball and football were considered revenue sports. Consequently an additional model was estimated among men only, replacing type of sport with revenue versus non-revenue sport. Finally, we operationalized the school athletic environment according to whether the school was in Division I or Division II.

The BRMAS includes questions with a wide range in social acceptability and attitudes towards women in general and rape victims. Consequently, we also compared the means of the items on this scale by gender.


The five institutions returned 725 of the 800 surveys that were initially distributed; however, 21 were incomplete and therefore not analyzed. The final sample size resulted in 704. Due to the fact that only fully or partially completed surveys were returned to the researchers (as opposed to unused surveys that had never been distributed), a precise response rate is impossible to report. Simply comparing the final sample total against the initial number of surveys distributed, the response rate was 88%. The respondents represented 14 different sports (4 female, 3 male, and 7 played by both) and included more men (59.9%) than women (40.1%). The sample was predominantly white (70.5%) and African American (19.8%), and included a greater proportion of younger students than upperclassmen (64.8% freshmen and sophomores versus 34.8% juniors and seniors). The mean age of participants was 19.56 years (SD=1.37), and fewer than 6% of the sample reported sorority/ fraternity membership.

Scores on the BRMAS were summed across all 13 items with higher scores reflecting greater acceptance of myths about rape. For the overall sample, the resulting scale had a mean of 38.6 (SD=10.6), and an alpha reliability coefficient of 0.84. Among men, the average score was 41.83 (SD=10.78) with an alpha reliability coefficient of 0.80, and among women the average score on the BRMAS was 33.82 (SD = 8.15) with a reliability of 0.73. Predictably, there were significant differences between male and female athletes in specific items on the BRMAS (Table 1). While nearly 50% of the men estimated that “about half” of women who report rape are lying and the same percentage of reported rapes are invented by women, female athletes were much more likely to respond that “very few” women who report rape are lying and “very few” rapes are invented.

Table 2 illustrates the results of an ordinary least squares regression with year in school, ethnicity, type of sport, and division of school predicting BRMAS. Among men, freshmen and sophomores scored significantly higher on this scale than juniors and seniors, (beta = 3.97, std error = 1.08). In addition, men who participated in team sports such as basketball, football, and baseball scored significantly higher than men in more individual-oriented sports on the BRMAS (beta = -5.787, std error = 1.479). Contrary to previous research, male athletes in high revenue generating sports (i.e., football and basketball) were not significantly different from their counterparts (analyses not shown). Finally, neither ethnicity nor division of school were found to be significant predictors of rape myth acceptance. The only variable that significantly influenced scores on the rape myth acceptance scale among women was division of school (beta = 2.417, std error = 0.998).

In response to the item, “Do you feel that athletes are more likely than non-athletes to be involved in date rape?” 13.0% agreed, 58.1% disagreed, and 28.9% were unsure, with no significant (p<.05) differences existing between revenue and non-revenue male athletes on this item. Female participants were significantly more likely than males to agree with this statement, F(1,697) = 17.66, p<.0001. Participants were also asked if they felt that athletes were unfairly targeted in sexual assault and date rape incidents. In response to this item, 11.9% of participants answered "never," 51.3% "sometimes," 25.0% "often," and 11.8% replied"always." Again, no significant (p<.05) differences existed between revenue and non-revenue male athletes on this item, but male athletes were significantly more likely than female athletes to agree that athletes were unfairly targeted, F(1,694)=137.90, p<.0001.


A major limitation of this study is the non-randomized sample, restricting the generalizability of the results. Findings should be viewed with caution and are applicable only to the athletes sampled from the five institutions. However, as stated earlier, gaining access to collegiate athletes for research on sexual violence is extremely difficult and, in part, explains the complete dearth of relevant published data. Moreover, this research was intended to be a preliminary study that might be used to initiate larger, more randomized surveys. Also, as self-report was the method of data collection, subject responses could be open to question, given concerns about social desirability of responses. The use of anonymity and careful handling of completed surveys were intended to minimize this concern. To decrease any concerns about team coaches accessing student responses, surveys were placed in a sealed envelope after completion and mailed directly to the first author.


An important goal of this research was to develop, within the construct of rape myth acceptance, a more complete profile of the intercollegiate athlete that would permit the examination and acknowledgement of differences within this community. The likelihood for males to uphold rape myths more than females is well documented in both college student and non-college populations (Syzmanski, Devlin, Chisler, & Vyse, 1993). Findings in this study support this concept, with males being significantly more likely than females to demonstrate a greater acceptance of rape myths. Particularly disappointing was the finding that respondents, especially males, felt that about 50% of rapes were invented by women or that women lied about being raped about half the time. Clearly, this perception of women manipulating sexual situations so dramatically reflects an existing belief that may lead to the perpetuation of rape myth acceptance, and speaks to the need for including this issue in educational programming. The fact that males report higher levels than females of rape myth acceptance might suggest the use of single-sex workshops. Although there is a small amount of evidence that such groups might be effective (Foubert, 2000) there may be less to gain by excluding women from a process that ultimately involves both genders. Furthermore, interaction with the opposite sex in rape prevention workshops might be more a benefit than a detriment for men. In light of research that indicates male single-sex residence halls might become a reinforcing factor for rape myths (Schaeffer & Nelson, 1993), perhaps a more subtle and potentially effective strategy would be to place student athletes in co-ed housing. The day to day social interaction with women that occurs over the length of an academic year may indeed be more effective at changing attitudes than a well intentioned but very limited single workshop. Although there are no empirical data to support the effectiveness of male/ female workshops, or the placement of athletes in coed residence halls, both concepts suggest an intriguing research opportunity to explore the effects of such interventions.

Several interesting factors would seem to support the hypothesis that male athletes in particular are not an homogenous group, but rather a diverse community united by the common thread of being an athlete. Rape myth acceptance was significantly higher among younger (freshmen/sophomore) male student athletes than juniors and seniors. Existing data about the influence of age on rape myth acceptance is unclear with some studies suggesting that older individuals are more accepting of rape myth principles (Johnson, Kuck & Schander, 1997). However, studies examining high school populations support the notion that younger male students tend to subscribe to stronger rape supportive views than their older peers (Blumberg & Lester, 1991). The findings of this study would suggest the targeting of younger students, including, perhaps, orientation sessions for all incoming freshmen student athletes. Also, in conjunction with the earlier hypothesis about the possible advantages of mixed gender housing, placing younger (freshmen) athletes in co-ed housing might prove to be a simple but effective means of attempting to modifying attitudes.

One intriguing finding that serves to reinforce the variability in thinking among student athletes is that male athletes participating in individually-focused sports like tennis, golf, swimming and track were less rape myth accepting than their peers who were involved in more team-based sports. The initial interpretation of this finding might be that the revenue producing male sports of football and basketball would account for this difference, but this study found no significant differences in rape myth acceptance between males on revenue versus non-revenue producing teams. The reasons, therefore, for this discrepancy in rape myth acceptance may be difficult to explain. Does the type of sport help shape the individual or do pre-existing traits influence the person’s choice of sport? Despite a lack of empirical evidence, there exists a notion that male athletes involved in physically aggressive team sports who are trained to think and play as one, present a high risk for sexual aggression. Somehow, the team element supposedly reinforces “traditional” values that may normalize rape myths and encourage sexual aggression. Arriving at a definitive conclusion on such a complicated issue is outside the scope of our preliminary study but this finding can still be useful when developing programs. Although workshops are a typical means for athletic departments to educate their students about issues of sexual violence, planning workshops for all athletic teams can be a scheduling impossibility, and rather than failing to implement educational programs because some teams have time conflicts, this study would certainly suggest the priority targeting of team-sport athletes.

This study examined institutions from two separate athletic divisions and reported higher rape myth acceptance among female athletes from division one schools versus division two. The fact that this finding was significant for women but not for men is intriguing. One could conjecture that in a society which has for years socialized men to be athletically aggressive and competitive, the resulting cultural norm has simply transcended the varying levels of athletic endeavor, that is, males are equally competitive regardless of the athletic level. Perhaps women in general, whose foray into the world of athletics has been much more recent, are less likely to have been influenced into subscribing to traditionally male rape myth attitudes, except, perhaps, those extremely competitive female athletes who participate at the highest levels of their sport. The implications for Division I female athletes is not that they represent a potentially higher risk to be sexual aggressors, but being more accepting of rape myth they may be less likely to recognize and/or report incidents of sexual violence and may ultimately be more tolerant of abuse and aggression directed at themselves. The need for future in-depth research focusing on the female athlete is essential.

The responses related to perceived athlete involvement in date rape and unfair targeting were inconclusive suggesting a degree of uncertainty among the athletes. Once again, gender proved to be a strong predictor of position with males more likely than females to deny involvement and claim unfair targeting. The fact that the athletes were not uniformly dismissive of involvement perhaps provides at least a small level of optimism that positive and considered programming might not be rejected out of hand.

Although this study has confirmed the predictable, that men subscribe to higher rape myth acceptance than women, the findings clearly establish that the notion of the college athlete being part of an homogenous group with regard to rape myth acceptance is inaccurate. The implications of a student athlete community being more diverse will no doubt provide a greater challenge for athletic administrators, but could ultimately lead to more precise and effective prevention programming. This study was preliminary in nature and should be followed by additional research that includes a larger, randomized sample reflecting all three divisions of collegiate athletic competition and over-samples women. Like any group or community, student athletes should not be lumped together as a single entity with presumed identical attitudes and behaviors. Although the students are united by their athletic affiliation, this study suggests that there exist among athletes some important differences that should be considered when developing sexual assault prevention programming.


Responsibility IV: Evaluating Effectiveness of Health Education Programs

Competency D: Infer implications from findings for future program planning.

Subcompetency 2: Recommend strategies for implementing results of evaluation.

Table 1. Gender Differences in Selected Items from the Burt Rape Myth

Acceptance Scale


Men Women of Differences

Mean Mean in Mean

What proportion of women who report a

rape would you say are lying because

they are angry and want to get

back at the man they accuse? 2.59 2.21 .000

What proportion of reported rapes

would you guess were merely invented

by women who wanted to protect

their own reputations? 2.60 2.28 .000

Any healthy woman can successfully

resist a rape if she really wants to. 2.94 2.49 .000

When women go around braless or wearing

short skirts & tight tops, they are

just asking for trouble. 4.25 3.42 .000

In the majority of rapes, the victim is

promiscuous or has a bad reputation. 3.34 2.24 .000

If a girl engages in necking or petting

and she lets things get out of hand,

it is her own fault if her partner

forces sex on her. 2.88 1.87 .000

Table 2. Burt Rape Myth Scale Regressed on Demographic and Sport

Characteristics by Gender

Independent Variables Men Women

Freshmen/Sophomores vs. “Juniors and above” 3.973 *** 1.847

Whites vs. “Minorities” .279 .015

Individual Sports vs. “Team sports” -5.787 *** -.611

Division I vs. “Division II” 1.774 2.417 *

Model Statistics

F-statistic 7.419 *** 2.447 *

[R.sup.2] .07 .03

* p [less than or equal to] .05, ** p [less than or equal to] .01,

*** p [less than or equal to] .001


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Robin G. Sawyer, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Public and Community Health at University of Maryland. Estina E. Thompson, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Public and Community Health at The University of Maryland. Anne Marie Chicorelli, MPH is a Graduate Student in the Department of Public and Community Health at The University of Maryland. Address all correspondence to Robin G. Sawyer, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Public and Community Health, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742; PHONE: 301.405.2517; E-MAIL: rs12@umail.umd.edu.

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