Do ‘real men’ tell? Study explores masculinity, heterosexuality and the decision to report rape

An image of a person's profile made up of puzzle piecesEven in cases where a rape has clearly taken place, traditional beliefs and assumptions about masculinity can cause both witnesses and victims to be uncertain about reporting it, according to new research conducted by Binghamton University and SUNY Broome.

SUNY Broome Nursing Chair Susan M. Seibold-Simpson is the first author on the paper, “Person- and Incident-Level Predictors of Blame, Disclosure, and Reporting to Authorities in Rape Scenarios,” which was published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence. The Binghamton University team included corresponding author and Associate Professor of Psychology Richard Mattson, graduate students Allison M. McKinnon and Edwin Ortiz, Lecturer in Psychology and Human Development Ann Merriwether, Associate Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Sean G. Massey, and nursing student Ian Chiu.

In a study exploring possible reasons for the underreporting of rape, researchers had both male and female college students read a series of vignettes describing a clear incident of rape. In the different vignettes, which were randomly assigned, the rape was perpetrated by either a man against a woman, a man against a man or a woman against a man. Afterward, participants were asked to indicate how much blame they felt was attributable to the perpetrator or the victim and then to consider, if they were the victim, how likely they would be to (1) tell people they know that the rape happened, or (2) to report it to authorities.

Even in situations that were clearly rape, individuals often appeared on the fence about whether or not they would disclose the rape to others.

“In general, participants were ambivalent about disclosing that they had been sexually assaulted, even though they identified the attack as a definite rape,” said Dr. Mattson. “The participants’ gender role beliefs and sexual orientation, together with the sex of the perpetrator, seems to affect their attributions of blame, which could influence this tenuous decisional balance in ways that map onto patterns of underreporting in actual rapes.”

The researchers also found that male and heterosexual participants were more likely to blame victims and less likely to blame perpetrators, and were less likely to disclose the rape if they were the victim.  Endorsement of traditional beliefs and assumptions about men and masculinity seemed to be driving these associations.

As a healthcare provider, Professor Seibold-Simpson was deeply troubled by the potential adverse outcomes for men who are victims of sexual assault and who isolate themselves rather than seeking help.

Dr. Susan Seibold-Simpson

Dr. Susan Seibold-Simpson

“The very heart of this issue is how we socialize our boys and girls as to what are valued male gender characteristics. It begins early in childhood and is continued and reinforced by families, friends, schools and especially the media,” Dr. Seibold-Simpson said.

Comprehensive sexuality education must address the role of these negative gender stereotypes and the underlying issues of power and control that occur regardless of gender, she said. Such conversations need to be held in a variety of settings — including healthcare, education and recreation – and reinforced across development.

“We have come a long way promoting healthy female gender roles, but a lot of work needs to occur regarding male gender roles,” she said.

The impact of sexual orientation in perceptions of sexual harassment and assault may warrant further study, she said, as well as the impact of the media, now that male celebrities – prompted by the #MeToo movement – have come forward to disclose unwanted sexual assault and harassment.