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Sexual assault in social settings can take many different forms
A new study provides insight into the different ways that sexual assault can occur amongst teenagers and young adults.
Perhaps you or someone you know has experienced it – a night involving alcohol that went terribly wrong and resulted in sexual assault.
Research Professor Kari Stefansen at Oslo Metropolitan Unviersity (OsloMet) describes her surprise when reading through young people’s descriptions of their own experiences with assault.
“In previous studies of sexual assault occurring at parties, researchers have often emphasised that these kinds of assaults take place in a planned and calculated manner. One example is when someone deliberately gets their victim very drunk. Many of the young people in our study described completely different and less clear-cut situations,” she explains.
Based on these descriptions, researchers found three different ways in which sexual assault can occur at parties:
- Situations in the grey area
- Situations where one person takes the initiative
- Situations involving clear manipulation, force, or violence
1. The grey area
These are assaults that can take place when both people are very drunk and no one really has control over the situation. This can, for example, occur when the party spins out of control. In this scenario, it is not because anyone wants to or has planned to do it, but because one thing lead to another.
As one young male writes: “Well, I wouldn’t really say I was taken advantage of—we both regretted it. But then again, I was way too drunk, so I couldn’t object.”
“This is an example of the grey area between rape and consensual sex. Young people describe the situation without a clear assaulter, but it is nonetheless clear that one of the parties feels they have been taken advantage of,” Stefansen says.
Stefansen and her colleagues found situations like these to be the most surprising.
“We're not used to thinking about assault without an assaulter. Someone has to be responsible for what happened," she says.
2. One person takes the initiative
In the second scenario, it is still a bit unclear what has actually happened, but it is clearer in these types of situations that one person has taken the initiative. The other is often more or less in a state of intoxication.
As one girl explains: “I was too drunk to say no. He took that as a ‘yes’.”
“In some situations, our bodies can be ‘in on it’ and react like you want to have sex with the other person, but it is nonetheless not a fully-present state of awareness and does not mean that you consented to sex,” Stefansen says.
Stefansen points out that both of the first two scenarios have the same dynamics.
“In both cases, the situation spins out of control," she says.
3. Assault involving clear manipulation, force, or violence
The third scenario is entirely different from the previous two. Here, someone either gets a person drunk and assaults them when they are so drunk that they have either thrown up, are unable to talk or move normally, or someone physically forces someone into having sex.
One young female describes such an assault: “I was extremely drunk and could hardly speak, and I’d also just thrown up. Then he started to shag me. [I] was in my underwear in my friend’s bed since I’d gone to bed. He locked the door when the others tried to get in. Don’t remember much; this is what I’ve been told.”
“In these situations, it is very clearly a matter of sexual assault, which, in many cases, will mean rape in the legal sense,” Stefansen says.
Most of the descriptions in this category involved exploitation and manipulation, as opposed to out-and-out violence.
How common is sexual assault at parties?
These researchers found that, in the course of the last 12 months, five per cent of the girls and two per cent of the boys had experienced sexual assault at a party.
The gender difference was even more distinct when researchers asked about the young people’s experiences throughout their youth: seven per cent of girls and two per cent of boys mentioned an assault.
Clear gender differences
Researchers in this study noticed clear gender differences in young people’s descriptions of sexual assault at parties.
The girls describe situations that fall under all three scenarios. The majority of the girls’ experiences are situations where someone else is the initiator.
Among the boys, however, most describe situations in the grey area—chaotic situations where it is unclear what has actually happened. The boys do not describe the third scenario of assault involving manipulation, force, or violence.
“One of the most important gender differences is that it is only the girls who describe this kind of assault. This is clearly a gendered form of sexual violence in situations where there is absolutely no doubt that that is what's happening, where boys take advantage of the situation and force themselves onto the other person,” Stefansen says. "This form of assault is probably related to a problematic understanding of male sexuality, whereby men have some kind of right to take advantage of women’s bodies.”
Boys do not describe themselves as victims
Another gendered difference is that boys find it difficult to describe themselves as victims in the situation.
“The boys described themselves as victims of a strong masculine sex drive. Without it, they would have managed to get away from the girls who took advantage of them, even though they were very drunk when it happened. The girls were not someone they would otherwise have voluntarily had sex with," Stefansen says. “To make this clear, they sometimes described the girls using degrading terms, for example by saying they'd been wearing ‘beer goggles’. We have understood this as a kind of overcompensation in a situation where their masculinity has been threatened.”
How to prevent sexual assault at parties
Stefansen says that much of the information aimed at young people is about why sexual assault occurs at parties and how to protect yourself from people who are manipulative or particularly insistent when drinking.
“However, I think it could also be wise to emphasise how these assault situations play out. Something that was not intended to violate someone’s boundaries or take advantage of them can still be an assault and have major consequences for the person affected," she says.
Stefansen hopes that this study can change how we talk about sexual assault at parties.
“Maybe this can help shift the focus away from how young people can protect themselves against sexual assault and assaulters and more towards how boys and girls must take care not to take advantage of someone,” she concludes.
About the study
This study is based on the survey UngVold 2015 (YoungViolence 2015) - a nationwide school-based survey conducted among students graduating from upper secondary school, i.e., 18–19 year-olds, as the sample population.
The researchers combine qualitative and quantitative data about the young people’s experiences of assault and sexual exploitation that are connected with partying and alcohol.
The study is part of The Domestic Violence Research Programme at NOVA, a ten-year research programme with funding from the Ministry of Justice and Public Security and the Ministry of Education and Research.
The programme studies time trends in the prevalence of violence and assault, violence as phenomenon, and how violence is approached by the welfare- and justice systems.
Stefansen et al. 'Incapacitated sexual assault among youths: beyond the perpetrator tactics framework', Journal of Youth Studies, 2020. DOI: 10.1080/13676261.2020.1844172 Abstract.
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