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It’s not normal for men to commit sexual violence. It is normal for women to experience it.

Reuters/ Gary Hershorn
Far too many women experience sexual assault.
  • Olivia Goldhill
By Olivia Goldhill

Science reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Of the myriad arguments used to defend Brett Kavanaugh, the most disturbing is that what he did—if he did it—simply isn’t that bad. This “boys will be boys” attitude, which underlies the more apathetic responses to the Kavanaugh hearings, was explicitly articulated by Lance Morrow in the Wall Street Journal:

The thing happened—if it happened—an awfully long time ago, back in Ronald Reagan’s time, when the actors in the drama were minors and (the boys, anyway) under the blurring influence of alcohol and adolescent hormones. No clothes were removed, and no sexual penetration occurred. The sin, if there was one, was not one of those that Catholic theology calls peccata clamantia—sins that cry to heaven for vengeance. The offense alleged is not nothing, by any means. It is ugly, and stupid more than evil, one might think, but trauma is subjective and hard to parse legally.

The plethora of weak excuses that have been given on behalf of Kavanaugh’s defense (alcohol doesn’t make someone a rapist, and the notion that minors should be excused of all wrongdoing is especially problematic given that Kavanaugh intends to lead a judicial system that punishes minors) reflects a misogynistic dismissal of women. If you argue that it’s not a serious offense to assault a teenage girl, then you’re saying you don’t consider her a valuable human.

But this attitude also demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of what constitutes sexual violence, and a willingness to believe that it’s standard behavior among rowdy young men. In reality, it is not typical behavior: though far too many women experience sexual violence, most men are not sexual criminals.

This discrepancy occurs because not only are women twice as likely to experience sexual violence as men, they are also more likely to experience sexual assault than men are to commit it. As a 2002 study of 1,882 male college students showed, men who commit sexual violence are likely to do so repeatedly. The study found that 120 men self-reported acts that met the legal definition of rape or attempted rape, and that these 120 men were collectively responsible for 1,225 acts of violence. Men who committed rape more than once averaged 5.8 rapes each.

Other studies over the decades have found similar results. One of the earliest, from 1987 (around the time Kavanaugh graduated from university), found that 27.5% of college women reported experiencing rape, while 7.7% of men reporting perpetrating it.

These studies found that more men admitted to sexual assault when they were asked questions about behaviors that constitute rape—for example, “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?”—than if they were straightforwardly asked if they’d committed rape. This shows that even men who commit sexual violence are unwilling to recognize their behavior for what it is.

Women are also more likely to say they’ve experienced behaviors that constitute rape, such as having sex against their wishes because a man used physical force to make them, rather than rape itself. Just as many men are unwilling to see themselves as a criminal, many women struggle to acknowledge that they were a victim of a serious crime. Both men and women’s reluctance to recognize rape reflect a societal tendency to dismiss sexual violence as just something that happens when young adults are drunk, or as a result of misunderstandings.

Studies show this is not the case: Sexual violence is a horrifyingly common experience among women, even while it’s a relatively unusual crime for men to commit, because those who assault others tend to do so repeatedly. The data definitively disprove the “boys will be boys” notion that it’s quite normal for young men to sexually assault women. Sexual violence is a disgusting crime that a minority of men perpetuate repeatedly, typically assaulting multiple women over a lifetime. It’s not a right of passage for boisterous young men.

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