Interpersonal Violence on College Campuses: Understanding Risk Factors and Working to Find Solutions
This commentary discusses the contributions of Drs. Antonia Abbey and Catherine Kaukinen to our understanding of risk factors for sexual and physical aggression among college students. Major contributions of their work are outlined. These include Abbey’s contributions to our understanding of trajectories of sexually aggressive behavior among college men, risk factors for engaging in sexual aggression among men, and the role of alcohol in sexual aggression. In addition, Kaukinen’s work has increased our understanding of the frequency of violence in college dating relationships as well as the association of violent relationships with health risk behaviors. Directions for future research are also outlined including a need to identify trajectories of violence risk as well as a need to understand the complex interrelationships among health risk behaviors and interpersonal violence. Finally, implications for practice and university policy are discussed, including a focus on the development of effective preventive strategies and proactive responses to violence.
1. sexual aggression
2. college students
3. dating violence
4. violence prevention
5. alcohol use
1Department of Psychology, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC, USA
Heather Littleton, Department of Psychology, East Carolina University, 104 Rawl Building, Greenville, NC 27858, USA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Drs. Abbey and Kaukinen have compiled impressive programs of research that have increased our understanding of sexual and physical violence on college campuses. They both have applied unique research methodologies and perspectives toward these problems. In addition, each has focused on understanding individuals who perpetrate these behaviors rather than evaluating the problem solely from the perspective of individuals who have been victimized. In my commentary, I will discuss the contributions of their work to our understanding of interpersonal violence on college campuses as well as identify where more work needs to be done to continue to make progress on this entrenched problem.
Response to Dr. Abbey’s Presentation
Abbey’s work has contributed immensely to our understanding of the role that alcohol plays in sexual violence perpetration. In her work, she has utilized both experimental and observational research methodologies to elucidate the myriad ways that alcohol can affect individuals’ perceptions and behaviors and thus contribute to sexual assault. In addition, she has studied the behavior of sexually assaultive men longitudinally, which has led to the identification of different patterns in men’s sexual assault perpetration behaviors over time.
One key contribution of Abbey’s work is the identification of a group of men who engage in one incident of sexually aggressive or coercive behavior but who then later desist in doing so (e.g., Abbey & McAuslan, 2004). Indeed, these men frequently report strong feelings of remorse and regret for their actions. As Abbey noted, this finding of a developmentally limited pattern of sexually aggressive behavior suggests that at least some instances of sexual violence are strongly influenced by social and cultural factors. Thus, there is a need to fully identify the social and cultural factors that, in addition to alcohol use, contribute to sexual assault perpetration. One such factor not explicitly described by Abbey is the persistence of a sexual double standard in Western society, where engaging in casual and noncommitted sex is regarded as enhancing men’s sexual reputation, whereas women who do so risk being negatively labeled (e.g., as a “slut;” Grello, Welsh, & Harper, 2006; Metts & Spitzberg, 1996; Paul, 2006; Paul & Hayes, 2003; Paul, McManus, & Hayes, 2000).
This double standard can clearly contribute to young adult and adolescent men who are relatively inexperienced in dating and sexual negotiation, utilizing coercive tactics to obtain sex or taking advantage of a woman who is intoxicated. For example, young men may perceive tremendous pressure to “score” as a means to enhance their own reputation. They may also perceive women’s sexual refusals as not genuine or as token resistance—saying no but meaning yes—in order to maintain their own sexual reputations (Muehlenhard, 2011). In addition, as noted by Abbey, negative stereotypes about women who drink alcohol, wear revealing clothing, or who have previously engaged in casual sex can contribute to the belief that such women are acceptable targets for sexual advances and that any sexual refusal they engage in is not genuine (Abbey, 2011a; Ullman, 2003).
Additionally, as highlighted by Abbey’s work other social factors are likely highly important in increasing some men’s risk of perpetrating sexually coercive and assaultive behaviors. One of the most important of these is how often young men frequent heavy drinking contexts (e.g., settings such as parties or bars where heavy alcohol use commonly occurs). In these settings there is frequently a strong emphasis on engaging in casual sexual encounters. In addition, heavy alcohol use while in these settings increases the likelihood of men engaging in sexual aggression, due in part to the stress response dampening effects of alcohol and alcohol myopia. Specifically, alcohol consumption reduces physiological arousal and interferes with one’s ability to attend to less central and ambiguous cues in a situation (Sher, 1987; Steele & Josephs, 1990).
As a result, a man may be less likely to attend to cues from a woman which suggest she is not interested in sex and he may experience a weaker physiological response to a woman’s sexual refusal behaviors. In other words, a man may be less likely to experience aversive physiological sensations and the concomitant thoughts and feelings (e.g., shame, embarrassment) in response to a woman’s sexual refusal, increasing the likelihood that he persists in coercive strategies. Additionally, as previously mentioned, women who frequent these settings and drink heavily are also perceived as more sexual and as more appropriate targets for advances (e.g., Ullman, 2003). Engaging in sexual advances is also considered an acceptable behavior in these settings (e.g., Littleton, Tabernik, Canales, & Backstrom, 2009; Paul & Hayes, 2002; Paul et al., 2000). Further supporting the importance of heavy drinking contexts in contributing to sexual aggression, prior research has shown that how often women frequented bars was more strongly associated with risk of sexual victimization than the level of drinking (Ullman, 2003). Finally, as noted by Abbey, peer influences/norms are also likely important contributing factors. Among some groups of adolescent and young men there is an emphasis on frequenting bars and/or parties in order to engage in casual sex as well as an emphasis on bragging about sexual conquests or “hook-ups” to one’s peers (Littleton, Tabernik et al., 2009; Paul & Hayes, 2002; Regan & Dreyer, 1999). Within these peer groups, there may also be a normalization of engaging in coercive strategies to obtain sex (Schwartz, DeKeseredy, Tait, & Alvi, 2001).
Abbey’s work also highlights the interactions among victimization history, personality variables, attitudes toward women and sex, and, often, alcohol use, in leading to sexually coercive and assaultive behavior among many male perpetrators, particularly those who repeatedly engage in sexually coercive and assaultive behavior. In essence, there appears to be a “perfect storm” of factors that contribute to these men’s sexually coercive and violent behaviors. These include having a childhood history of some form or forms of abuse, holding hostile attitudes toward women, holding positive attitudes toward casual sex, and having aggressive and narcissistic personality traits (e.g., Parkhill & Abbey, 2008). As highlighted in Abbey’s work, these men are more likely than others to misperceive women’s behavior as indicative of sexual interest and to thus make unwanted sexual advances (Abbey, Jacques-Tiura, & LeBreton, 2011; Abbey, Zawacki, & Buck, 2005). In addition, they are far more likely than men without these factors to use coercive or violent tactics to obtain sex in response to a sexual refusal. Across situations, they also are be more likely than other men to actively pursue sexual activity with women who appear to be available (Abbey et al., 2005). Finally, these men are more likely to engage in other (nonsexual) aggressive and delinquent acts (Abbey, 2011a). Overall, Abbey has found strong evidence for her model, which postulates that these men’s personality traits and early experiences (both as a victim during childhood and as a perpetrator of adolescent delinquent acts) make them more likely to internalize highly stereotyped notions of masculinity as well as develop hostile attitudes toward women. These attitudes and beliefs then increase their likelihood of pursuing women for sexual encounters and of engaging in sexual aggression in response to a sexual refusal.
Abbey’s work in this research line has also demonstrated that men who commit sexual assault while sober and those who do so after drinking are highly similar to each other in their attitudes, personality traits, and early experiences, with the exception that men who commit sexual assaults following alcohol use are heavier drinkers overall (Abbey, 2011b). I believe that Abbey’s work in this area has highlighted the possibility, at least for some men who engage in sexually aggressive behavior following alcohol use, that this aggressive behavior is one aspect of their overall sexual repertoire. Specifically, these men may seek out casual sexual partners and therefore frequent settings where heavy alcohol use is occurring in order to find partners. Although in many cases they engage in sexual activity with willing partners, due to their hostile attitudes toward women, these men also feel justified in having sex with nonwilling partners, including women who are impaired by alcohol or too intoxicated to consent. In addition, because the women are likely intoxicated or impaired in these settings, they are less likely to successfully resist the perpetrator’s sexual advances or to receive supportive responses if they disclose (Littleton, Grills-Taquechel, & Axsom, 2009; Ullman, 2003; Ullman & Najdowski, 2010). Thus, the perpetrators are both more likely to successfully commit the sexual assault and less likely to face legal or social consequences (e.g., being ostracized by peers) for their actions. Finally, perpetrators can use their own alcohol intoxication as a source of justification for their behavior (e.g., stating that the alcohol made them unable to stop their sexual advances). This suggests the possibility that men who commit alcohol-related assaults may be particularly likely to become persistent offenders, a possibility that has not been previously investigated. This is in stark contrast to the notion promulgated in popular culture that alcohol-involved assaults are highly situationally influenced, that is the idea that they are due to the perpetrator’s alcohol intoxication fueling his sexually aggressive behavior in response to victim provocation (e.g., the victim engaging in consensual sexual activity or flirting with the perpetrator).
Response to Dr. Kaukinen’s Presentation
Kaukinen’s work has examined the prevalence of physically aggressive behaviors in the dating relationships of college students. She has taken a public health approach to this problem, viewing dating violence among college students as a risk behavior that often occurs concurrently with other risk behaviors, including substance use (e.g., marijuana, alcohol) and sexual risk taking. In addition, her work has highlighted how early experiences of any form or forms of childhood abuse or witnessing domestic violence increase college students’ risk of being involved in a dating relationship in which aggression occurs.
One of Kaukinen’s key findings (e.g., Gover, Kaukinen, & Fox, 2008; Kaukinen, Gover, & Hartman, 2012), which has been replicated by other researchers (e.g., Kaura & Lohman, 2009; Miller, 2011; Milletich, Kelley, Doane, & Pearson, 2010; Shorey, Brasfield, Febres, & Stuart, 2011), is that dating violence among college students is not uncommon, and it is often mutual. That is, within these heterosexual dating relationships, both the man and the woman engage in physical aggression (e.g., shoving, threatening, throwing an object, slapping). As noted by Kaukinen, this finding of high levels of aggressive behaviors in the dating relationships of college students is not too unexpected, given that college-aged individuals are still learning negotiation and conflict resolution skills. Furthermore, this is likely to be a particular developmental challenge to students whose own family members modeled using physically aggressive or coercive strategies to manage conflicts.
Looking at what is known about violence in dating relationships among college students, many students report engaging in violent behaviors but overall fairly infrequently (i.e., once or twice in the past year; Kaukinen et al., 2012). In addition, as noted by Kaukinen, while in many of these relationships both individuals perpetrate the behaviors, in some only the man perpetrates and in some only the woman does (Kaukinen et al., 2012). This certainly suggests that there are multiple patterns of aggressive behavior in the dating relationships of college students. One of the most frequent of these patterns appears to be one in which both the man and the woman engage in less severe physically aggressive behavior (most often pushing, slapping, or threatening to throw an object or hit the other person) on a fairly infrequent basis (Kaukinen et al., 2012).
It is possible that this pattern represents a developmentally limited behavior where individuals engage in this behavior during adolescence or early adulthood but do not persist in engaging in physically aggressive behaviors later in life. However, in some cases, there may be a pattern of more frequent, severe, or escalating aggressive behavior. For example, between 1% and 7% of college students report that more severe physical violence (e.g., being burned, shoved against a wall) ever occurred in their relationship (Kaukinen et al., 2012; Kaura & Lohman, 2009; Kendra, Bell, & Guimond, 2012). In addition, Milletich, Kelley, Doane, and Pearson (2010) found that 4% of women who engaged in physical aggression in their relationship reported that they frequently did so, as did 11% of men who engaged in physical aggression.
Finally, in one of the few longitudinal studies of dating violence among college students, Testa, Hoffman, and Leonard (2011) found overall stability in the level of physical aggression in dating relationships over time. However, in relationships in which only the female engaged in physical aggression, the most common pattern was a desistance in physical aggression. Their results also suggested that relationships with high levels of psychological aggression were the most likely to be associated with either the persistence of physical aggression or an increase in physical aggression over time. It is likely that these different patterns of aggressive behavior are related to different risk factors, are conceptualized differently by victims and perpetrators, and likely have very different outcomes for the individuals involved. However, research examining different patterns of aggressive behavior as well as different types of aggression (e.g., psychological aggression), particularly over time, is largely lacking (e.g., Gover et al., 2008).
As also noted by Kaukinen, there is a dearth of research focused on how young adults conceptualize these experiences, the context in which they are occurring, and how these incidents affect the individuals involved, including the extent to which they lead to psychological distress or further relationship problems (Demaris & Kaukinen, 2005; Kaukinen et al., 2012). Such work is critically necessary to fully understand the nature of these aggressive behaviors and what engaging in these behaviors means for college students. Work that has been conducted to date supports that the vast majority of college students whose relationships involve physical violence do not view themselves as being in a physically abusive dating relationship (Miller, 2011)
. In addition, research supports that many college women expect to experience physical aggression in their dating relationships and that personal experience with physical violence strengthens these expectancies (Stein, Tran, & Fisher, 2009). These findings support that interventions with individuals who are engaging in these behaviors or being victimized (or both) will likely be highly challenging as these behaviors are often conceptualized as normative rather than as dating violence. This minimization of the seriousness of violence within relationships could also result in clinicians, law enforcement, or others overlooking situations where there is potential for an escalation in violence to occur. Finally, it is apparent that we need a better understanding of the contexts in which these behaviors are occurring in order to develop appropriate interventions.
Indeed, there is at least some research suggesting that there may be different motivations for engaging in these behaviors for men and women, as well as different risk factors. For example, Shorey, Brasfield, Febres, and Stuart (2011) found that college women who engaged in physical aggression had overall greater emotion regulation difficulties than women who did not, whereas men who engaged in physical aggression had more difficulties with impulse control than nonaggressive men but were not more likely to have other emotion regulation difficulties. In another study, Shorey, Meltzer, and Cornelius (2010) found that male students reported using physical aggression in their relationship self-defensively as well as in response to jealousy, concerns about their partner leaving, concerns that their partner did not care, and to try to obtain sex, more often than female students. In contrast, women’s physical aggression appeared to be more related to emotional abuse than men’s aggression. Specifically, women reported using aggression to stop a partner’s emotional abuse and to retaliate for being emotionally hurt more often than men did. It is clear that individuals who use physical aggression for these very different motivations would likely respond to different interventions.
Finally, Kaukinen’s work highlights that college students who are in relationships that involve physical aggression are more likely to be engaging in a number of health risk behaviors, including hazardous drinking, substance use, and risky sexual behavior (Gover et al., 2008). However, a better understanding of the relationships among these various risk behaviors is needed. It is likely that a number of students are at risk of these outcomes prior to their arrival at college. These students may also have a personal history of being a victim of abuse or other trauma (e.g., sexual assault) as well as come from households where there were high levels of instability and/or violence (Gover et al., 2008).
They may also already be engaging in a number of risky behaviors prior to initiating college. In addition, they may have mental health issues that they are trying to manage (e.g., depression, posttraumatic stress disorder). A number of aspects of the college environment then could likely serve to increase these risk behaviors, such as the frequency with which binge drinking and casual sexual behavior occurs on campus as well as perceived peer support for engaging in aggressive behaviors. It is also likely that engaging in certain risk behaviors may increase students’ risk of other risk behaviors or victimization experiences. For example, drinking alcohol or using other substances likely elevates students’ risk of perpetrating violence as well as being a victim of such violence (Gover et al., 2008). Finally, engaging in certain risk behaviors may represent a response to experiences of violence or increases in distress that result from these experiences.