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Americans' Slightly Shifting Attitudes About Rape Victims

The proportion of young American adults who hold untrue and harmful beliefs about rape victims has declined since the 1970s, but not by as much as you might think.
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P.J. Masten with Bill Cosby in 1979. (Photo: CNN)

P.J. Masten with Bill Cosby in 1979. (Photo: CNN)

It's been 10 years since Andrea Constand brought a lawsuit against Bill Cosby, alleging that the comedian drugged and assaulted her, and 40 years since some of the assaults Cosby is now accused of allegedly transpired. Yet it seems it was only in the last year that news stories about the accusations against Cosby have attracted sustained and widespread attention. The latest comes from New York magazine, which yesterday published portraits and quotes from 35 women who say Cosby drugged and assaulted them.

Why now? Surely there are many explanations as to the delay in public attention, but New York points to an interesting one: a change in how Americans think and talk about rape, linked to protests such as "Take Back the Night" on college campuses in the 1970s and '80s. But how well did those movements really work? One of the demonstrations' major goals was to discredit untrue beliefs, such as the idea that victims' clothing or behavior leads to rape, or that women frequently "cry rape" falsely. Yet decades of surveys have found that, while the proportion of young American adults who hold such beliefs about rape has declined in the past generation, they're still a significant minority.

In one poll of college students conducted in 1977, more than a third believed "a woman should be responsible for preventing their victimization in a rape."

Psychologist Colleen Ward's 1995 book Attitudes Toward Rape: Feminist and Social Psychological Perspectives summarizes results from the first few decades of "attitudes about rape" surveys. In one poll of college students conducted in 1977, more than a third believed "a woman should be responsible for preventing their victimization in a rape" and almost half agreed that "women provoke rape by their appearance and behavior." Thirteen percent believed "most women secretly desire to be raped." This was the time period during which women such as former Playboy bunny PJ Masten and then-model Tamara Green say Cosby assaulted them (though the accusations weren't made public until decades later).

In 1986, researchers found that 18 percent of surveyed students thought "the victims of rape are usually a little to blame for the crime." Meanwhile, a 1991 survey found that 22 percent of respondents believed "rape is often provoked by the victim." Both sets of results represent a decline from the 34 percent who told researchers in the '70s that "a woman should be responsible for preventing their victimization," but that’s still a lot of people—about one in five—who think rape victims are in part to blame for what they've gone through. In addition, the 1986 study found that 32 percent of survey-takers said "normal males do not commit rape," a belief belied by American college students' feeling that date rape is common (44 percent of college survey-takers in 1987 thought so).

More recently, such straightforward surveys seem to have fallen out of favor among researchers, so it’s hard to make a direct comparison between today's attitudes and the old data. The new data that do exist don't seem that different from the results that came out of the '80s and '90s. One survey of more than 700 college athletes, conducted in 2000, found that nearly 50 percent thought "about half" of rape accusations were lies. The first of the accusations against Cosby became public a few years after that survey.

So where does that leave us today? The New York story doesn't linger on it much, but in its description of how, "among younger women, and particularly online, there is a strong sense now that speaking up is the only thing to do," Noreen Malone hits the issue on the head. It's only through the larger voice these women have online that they're able to make room for their stories, against a public atmosphere that continues to be more conservative than it may seem at first blush.