Rape and other forms of sexual aggression are a sad reality in our society. Most sexually violent acts are committed by one person, but the act itself may be influenced by many. Aggression is a behavior that has been linked to peer association. For instance, high school students who associate with violent teens are more likely to engage in violence than those whose friends are nonviolent people. Likewise, sexual aggression may be heavily influenced by the attitudes of peers. Because many college-aged women will be victims of sexual violence at the hands of their classmates, it is important to understand how peer association shapes sexual attitudes among college men. To explore this in depth, Kevin M. Swartout of the Department of Psychology at Georgia State University interviewed 341 young adult men and asked them about their attitudes toward sexual aggression and women. They also were asked about their peer group and the attitudes peers held about sexual violence and women.
Swartout discovered that the men who supported sexual aggression were often in peer groups with men who held the same beliefs. Also, men who had looser peer networks tended to endorse hostility and sexual aggression more than men in more tightly woven peer groups. Specifically, the men who had close relationships with their friends had less violent attitudes than the men with more casual peer friendships. Swartout does not believe that men who endorse sexual violence wind up becoming friends because of their attitudes toward women and aggression. Rather, he believes these men hold higher masculine beliefs and may be attracted to one another through a demonstration of their masculine behaviors, such as risk taking and drug/alcohol consumption. Future research might attempt to extend this theory.
Clinically, these findings may shed light on some existing barriers to lowering sexually violent beliefs. Targeting men individually may be futile because when they return to their peers, men may be pressured into going along with the aggressive attitudes of their friends. Swartout suggests that efforts may be more successful if directed at a collective attitude toward sexual behavior. “These ﬁndings could be implemented into bystander intervention programs and social norms campaigns aimed at reducing sexual aggression,” he said.
Swartout, K. M. (2012). The company they keep: How peer networks influence male sexual aggression. Psychology of Violence. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029997
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