David M/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed

The shocking reason 1 in 3 men say they’d commit rape

And here's what it means for the Bill Cosby case.


S.E. Smith

Internet Culture

Published Jan 13, 2015   Updated May 29, 2021, 6:59 pm CDT

A recent study from the University of North Dakota reveals that one in three men would rape—as long as you don’t call it that. If you use the “R-word” to describe their actions, everything changes. Only 14 percent of the participants—still an alarming number—said they’d rape in a situation without consequences. Maybe this is about how we raise men and boys or how relatively few people are willing to openly admit that they would commit such a violating crime, but it’s also about the fact that we’re so reluctant to say that dreaded word to begin with. When so many people are reluctant to face the Bill Cosby‘s allegations—his recent jokes on the subject were greeted with applause—this might help us understand why. 

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This isn’t the first study of its kind, which is good, because this one has some substantial flaws in terms of methodology. Only 73 survey responses from heterosexual and mostly white college-aged men were analyzed, drawing upon an extremely small and not very diverse sample. Limited samples result in limited results, making it difficult to generalize to larger populations. Not for nothing do researchers point out that sociology and social psychology experiments like this one are “college student biased.”

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A 2013 study conducted by the UN took on a much larger sample size of approximately 10,000 Southeast Asian men. The study also refrained from using the “R-word” outright, in order to get a better sense of how people related to the idea of rape and sexual assault. One in four of the men surveyed admitted that he had committed sexual assault. In the real world, approximately seven percent of college men report attempted assaults, and many of them indicated multiple attempts—and other studies put this number as high as 15 percent, with many men also not understanding that force and coercion are rape if they’re not explicitly labeled as such. 

Similar studies looking at victims instead of perpetrators illustrate that many victims don’t identify what happened to them as rape, illustrating that this is a two-way street. Men don’t think they’re raping, and women don’t think they’re being raped.

The media handling of rape cases may be a significant contributor to the confusion over what rape is and whether an act of “sex” is really rape. Rape is often shrouded in the same kinds of euphemisms that men who rape use without realizing that what they are actually committing is rape. As a society that takes our cues in part from media, which plays a key role in our socialization, it’s perhaps not surprising to see so many people struggling when it comes to understanding rape in their own lives.

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The old canard of “forcible rape” often rears its ugly head, suggesting that there isn’t any other kind of rape, or that “non-forcible” rape isn’t as valid. “Coerced sex” is rape, but often isn’t defined as such by the media. Instead of being involved in rape and sexual assault cases, men are accused of misconduct, sexual impropriety, forced sex, bad hookups, theft of services (raping sex workers), and taking advantage of women. Amazingly, one judge even banned the use of “rape” at a rape trial. Colleges and universities are also fond of deploying euphemisms to hide their rape crisis.

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At Role Reboot, Soraya Chemaly lists an entire glossary of words we say when we don’t want to say rape.

‘Had his way with her’
‘Forced himself on her’
‘Inappropriate behavior’
‘Offensive behavior’
‘Indecent assault’
‘Carnal knowledge’
“Domestic dispute’
‘Family matter’
Defiled her
Sexual misconduct
And, my all time personal favorite: ‘Took liberties.’

It’s not just about euphemisms, though. While visiting The View in 2009, Whoopi Goldberg stood up for accused rapist Roman Polanski with the argument that “it wasn’t rape-rape.” In 2012, Sen. Todd Akin attracted widespread attention and controversy with his “legitimate rape” comments, but he inadvertently raised an important point. The widespread use of qualifiers like “legitimate” and “forcible” makes it hard for people to understand that rape is rape—and the media perpetuates these issues. When rape isn’t clearly defined for what it is, we have no cue for understanding the sexual violence that happens every day.

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In this study, the respondents didn’t just express a willingness to rape when euphemisms were used instead of the actual term. Those who were most likely to rape also reported an increased level of hostile attitudes towards women, underscoring the fact that such attitudes underlie the motivations of rapists. Rape is not a crime committed by men who simply can’t control themselves, nor is it an innate male trait that can’t be avoided—it’s a trait exhibited by men who view women as property and with a sense of ownership. 

These social attitudes come in part from socialization, which in turn interplays directly with culture. Men learn about women through the media, and they internalize depictions of women as weaker, less valuable, and more vulnerable from pop culture, news reporting, and other forms of media.

Studies like this one are horrifying but also revelatory. They alert us to the fact that men who rape don’t necessarily understand the crime they’re committing—which doesn’t make it any less of a crime—and force us to examine why many rapists have difficulty comprehending that what they are doing is wrong, and about more than just pushing personal boundaries. In some cases, it certainly does stem from misogynistic attitudes and the belief that women are sexually available objects. But there’s also a fundamental disconnect when it comes to understanding sexuality and consent for men who commit sexual assault.

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If we weren’t afraid to use the “R-word,” perhaps socially we’d come to have a greater understanding of what rape is, and of the extent of the rape epidemic in the United States, where an estimated one in six women has been the victim of sexual assault. There’s a reason men and women alike struggle with the “yes means yes” model of sexuality, in which consent is actively obtained rather than passively assumed.

In a society where so many women experience sexual assault, many factors are responsible for the cultural conditioning that surrounds rape—but our understanding of how the that influences boys and men may be imperfect. It’s not just that our culture demeans and exploits women or that it blames rape victims for the violence they experience, but that we specifically refuse to call out rape when it happens, leaving it shrouded in a veil of secrecy that provides little to no information to readers. 

A story about a high school student “coerced” into “sex” or a with a football team sounds very different than a story about a high school student raped by a football team, just like a famous celebrity allegedly “forcing oral sex” reads differently than “he might have raped someone.” Until the media learns the difference, many of us won’t either.

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Photo via David M/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location where this study was conducted. 

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*First Published: Jan 13, 2015, 12:30 pm CST