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Linking General Television Viewing to the Acceptance of Rape Myths
LeeAnn Kahlor, Ph.D.
Department of Advertising
University of Texas at Austin
1 University Station
Austin, Texas 78712
Department of Communication Studies
University of Texas at Austin
1 University Station
Austin, Texas 78712
April 1, 2005
This manuscript was prepared for submission to the Entertainment
Studies Interest Group of the Association for Education in Journalism
and Mass Communication.
The authors would like to thank Laura Prividera for her assistance on
an earlier version of the manuscript.
Linking television general viewing to the acceptance of rape myths
There exists today a notable amount of research that looks at
sexual assault in America. This body of research represents
contributions from multiple disciplines among them: social
psychology, psychology, public health, women's studies, and mass
communication studies. The resulting literature covers myriad sexual
assault-related topics ranging from the social construction of rape
myths to the effectiveness of specific interventions within targeted
populations (for an annotated bibliography, see Ward, 1993).
Within this burgeoning body of research, however, there is
one area that remains relatively understudied: media effects. There
is a moderate number of studies that look at sex-related content in
the mainstream mass media (for a summary, see Greenberg and
Hofschire, 2000), but only a handful of studies have looked
specifically at sexual assault-related content in the mainstream
media and even fewer have successfully linked such content to
audience beliefs about sexual assault. This manuscript seeks to fill
this relative void within the sexual assault literature; the goal is
to attempt to link beliefs about sexual assault to television viewing.
Sexual assault-related content on television
Rape myths refer to false beliefs and perpetual stereotypes
regarding rape, rape victims and rape perpetrators (Burt, 1980). One
of the more common rape myths is that women who dress and behave in a
sexually provocative manner are "asking" for it (Cuklanz, 1998;
Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1994).
These myths are believed to contribute to the public
consciousness in myriad unproductive, damaging ways. They serve to
demoralize victims, bolster perpetrators and, ultimately, shift the
"blame for the crime from the rapist to his victim" (Lonsway &
Fitzgerald, 1994, 136). They also perpetuate what some call the "just
world" phenomena, which is that good things happen to good people and
bad things happen (deservedly so) to bad people (Lerner, 1980;
Gilmartin-Zena, 1987; Kelley, 1967; Nisbett , Borgida, Crandall &
Reed, 1982). In addition, such beliefs bolster the pervasive error in
attribution of responsibility such that good outcomes are perceived
to be the result of one's own efforts, while bad outcomes are
attributed to external factors (Gray, Palileo & Johnson, 1993).
Brinson (1992) analyzed 26 prime time television storylines,
all of which contained references to rape, and found that the average
storyline contained at least one reference to a rape myth. For
example, she found that 42 percent of the storylines suggested the
rape victim wanted to be raped; 38 percent of the storylines
suggested the victim lied about the assault; and 46 percent of the
storylines suggested the victim "asked for it" in the way that she
dressed or acted (male and female characters were equally likely to
make this accusation). Only 38 percent of the storylines contained
any opposition to the myth that the victim "asked for it."
Cuklanz (1999) echoes these findings; prime time depictions
of rape have consistently, over the course of nearly 15 years,
perpetuated these rape myths. However, Cuklanz also points out that
there is an increasing trend in the entertainment media to portray
rape with more complexity, infusing plots with proactive female
characters and more ambiguous rape situations.
Although rape depictions are becoming increasingly complex,
they are also occurring with more frequency. In their review of the
literature on television sex, Greenberg and Hofschire (2000) report
that in soap operas, references to rape have grown from one per 10
episodes in the mid-eighties to one every episode in the mid-nineties.
Rape and Sexual Assault in America: Fact and Myth
Ultimately, rape myths are believed to downplay the
significance of a crime that affects a substantial portion of
society's women. Research conducted jointly by the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Justice
in the mid-1990s indicated that, of the 8,000 women surveyed, about
one in six (17.6 percent) had been the victim of a completed or
attempted rape at some time in their life (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000).
The National Institute of Justice published another report
(Fisher, Cullen, & Turner, 2001) that suggests that between one
fourth and one fifth of college women may become the victim of rape
or attempted rape during four years of college. Yet another report
(National Institute of Justice, 2004) indicated that by the end of
four years of college, 79 percent of women had experienced at least
one incident of sexual victimization. Sexual victimization captures
experiences ranging from coerced sexual contact to rape.
Unfortunately, myths such as the ones mentioned above for
example, that only certain types of women are raped serve to
"obscure and deny the personal vulnerability of all women by
suggesting that only other women are raped" (Lonsway & Fitzgerald,
1994, 136). As the research indicates, around one in six "other"
women will be raped in her lifetime.
The prevalence of rape myths, a clear distortion of reality
concerning violence towards women, can influence public perceptions.
This in turn can affect public priorities and legislative agendas. It
can also facilitate the internalization of rape myths, which can lead
to men and women placing themselves in risky situations (Nirius,
Norris, Dimeff & Graham, 1996) or misinterpreting situations that are
likely to become risky (Rozee, Bateman & Gilmore, 1991).
Men are significantly more accepting of rape myths; however,
mythical rape perceptions are held by both men and women (Brady et
al, 1991; Field, 1978; Check & Malamuth, 1983; Malamuth, 1986;
Malamuth & Check, 1984; Russell, 1990).
Race and ethnicity are also believed to influence the
acceptance of rape myths, if only as a function of "cultural history,
religious tradition, sex role expectations, and sexual mores for
different groups" (Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1994, 143). For example,
African-American and Hispanic college students appear to be more
accepting of rape myths than whites (Dull & Giacopassi, 1987; Fischer, 1987).
Linking Media Content to Audience Effects
Cultivation theory (Gerbner, 1969; Gerbner & Gross, 1976)
posits that heavy consumption of mass media leads to the cultivation
of distorted, media-influenced perceptions of reality. For example,
heavy consumers of television estimate their own likelihood of
becoming a victim of violent crime to be ten times higher than light
consumers; put simply, heavy consumers view the world as a more
violent place (c.f., Gerbner, et al., 1994; Gerbner, 1998; Morgan &
Shanahan, 1997; Romer, Hall-Jamieson & Aday, 2003; Signorielli,
Gerbner & Morgan, 1995; Signorielli & Morgan, 1996).
In addition to crime and violence, cultivation research has
suggested a relationship between media consumption and perceptions
related to such topics as sex roles (Holbert, Shah & Kwak, 2003;
Morgan, 1982; Signorielli, 1989; Signorielli & Lears, 1992), marriage
(Signorielli, 1991), aging (Signorielli, 2004), the environment
(Shanahan, Morgan & Madsen, 1997), nutrition (Signorielli & Lears,
1992) and race (Armstrong, Neuendorf & Brentar, 1992). To date, it
appears that cultivation researchers have not explored the
relationship between media consumption and the cultivation of
perceptions about rape.
However, media effects regarding rape-related media content have
emerged outside of the cultivation research approach. During the
1980s, several notable experimental studies emerged that focused on
the effects of exposure to printed rape depictions (Check & Malamuth,
1983), audiotaped rape depictions (Malamuth & Check, 1983), and
depictions of nonconsensual sex and rape in films released in
mainstream theatres (Malamuth & Check, 1981). These experiments found
positive relationships between exposure to, and males' acceptance of,
violence against women and between exposure to such depictions and
self-reported likelihood of raping. For a review of this body of
literature, see Malamuth, Addison & Koss (2001).
Survey research has also provided some support for such media
effects. For example, Malamuth and Check (1985) found a relationship
between exposure to sexually explicit magazines, such as Penthouse
and Playboy, and men's and women's acceptance of rape myths.
Likewise, Perse (1994) found that self-reported exposure to sexually
explicit materials such as X-rated magazines, movies and books
was directly and positively related to rape myth acceptance.
Although informative for this current research effort, none
of these studies speaks directly about exposure to televised images
of rape and the acceptance of rape myths or violence towards
women. However, there is a substantial body of research that links
exposure to violent television content and audience impact (c.f.,
Anderson, Berkowitz, Donnerstein, et al., 2003) and exposure to
sexual television content and audience impact (c.f., Greenberg and
Hofschire, 2000). Attitude and behavioral effects surfaced in both
bodies of literature.
H1: Television use predicts positively to the acceptance of rape myths.
H2: Television use predicts positively to the estimation of rape in society.
H3: Television use predicts negatively to the perceived personal
relevance of sexual assault.
H4: Television use predicts positively to perceptions that rape
accusations are false.
One hundred and twenty three undergraduates were surveyed in
a journalism class at a large Midwestern university. Students
participated in the survey voluntarily and received extra credit for
participation. An alternate extra credit option was offered. Survey
participants were told the study was designed to help the researchers
learn more about "general media use among undergraduates, as well as
their knowledge of and beliefs about sensitive campus topics." They
were asked to answer all questions thoughtfully and honestly and they
were repeatedly assured of their anonymity, which was of the utmost
importance given the sensitivity of the topics. After completing the
survey, each student was directed to place it into an unmarked
envelope and then into a secured box.
The surveys consisted of 162 questions, open- and
closed-ended, which accessed the participants backgrounds, media use
habits, sex role beliefs, and their perceptions of and attitudes
towards several "sensitive campus topics," including cheating on
exams, underage alcohol consumption, sexual assault, personal
violence, and driving under the influence of alcohol.
This research effort focused on a subset of that data. Specifically,
we focused on the respondents' backgrounds, media use and sexual
The sample consisted of 96 women and 27 men. Due to the
confounding potential of this disparity, the males were dropped from
our analyses. Among the females, ages ranged from 18 to 21, with a
mean age of 19. About 80 percent of the sample indicated that they
were college sophomores. Nearly four percent of the sample indicated
their country of origin was outside of the United States and five
percent of the sample identified themselves as nonwhite. In terms of
political ideologies, when it came to economic issues, 24 percent of
the sample described themselves as conservative, 40 percent as
neither conservative nor liberal, 31 percent as liberal and three
percent as very liberal. When it came to social issues, 19 percent of
the sample described themselves as conservative, 25 percent as
neither conservative nor liberal, 46 percent as liberal and 10
percent as very liberal.
Rape Myth Acceptance. Ten items intended to capture rape myth
acceptance were subjected to principle component factor analysis
(varimax rotation). These items were similar to those developed by
Burt (1980) and Field (1978) and replicated in dozens of other
studies (for a summary, see Lonsway and Fitzgerald, 1994). Seven
items emerged on one factor (see Table 1). The Cronbach's alpha for
this index was .64. Alphas reported in Lonsway and Fitzgerald's
review of the rape myth literature (1994) ranged from .62 to .88.
Estimation of rape in society. This variable was captured
with the item, "On a scale of 0 to 100, (with 0 = not at all and 100
= extremely) how common do you think it is to go ahead and have
intercourse with another person, when that person does not want to or
is too intoxicated to give consent?" Responses ranged from 1 to 100,
with a mean of 39 (SD = 21.98).
Perceived personal relevance of sexual assault. This variable
was captured with the item, "How relevant is the topic of sexual
assault to you?" Responses ranged from zero to 100, with a mean of
60.73 (SD = 32.39).
Perception that rape accusations are false. This variable was
captured with the item, "In your opinion, what percentage of rape
accusations are false?" Responses ranged from 1 to 90 percent, with a
mean of 18.6 (SD = 15.98).
Television Use. Three items captured television use: TV
entertainment, TV news and music video programming. These items were
subjected to principle component factor analysis (varimax rotation)
and all three loaded onto one factor (see Table 2). The Cronbach's
alpha for this index was .67. On a typical weekday, the average
respondent watched between one and two hours of entertainment
television, up to one of hour television news and up to one hour of
Cultural Identification. Two items captured cultural
identification: race/ethnicity and country of origin. These items
were subjected to principle component factor analysis (varimax
rotation) and both loaded onto one factor. The Cronbach's alpha for
this index was .85.
Political Idealogy. Two items captured political ideology.
These items read: "How would you describe yourself when it comes to
economic issues," and, "How would you describe yourself when in comes
to social issues?" Response choices were "very conservative,"
"conservative," "neither conservative nor liberal," "liberal," and
"very liberal." These items were subjected to principle component
factor analysis (varimax rotation) and both loaded onto one factor.
The Cronbach's alpha for this index was .78.
Knowledge of Rape Victim. This variable was captured with the
item, "Do you know someone who has had intercourse with another
person involuntarily or when he/she was too intoxicated to give
consent?" Fifty-two percent of the sample reported that they knew
someone who had been raped.
A series of four multiple regressions were performed. Each of
the dependent variables
rape myth acceptance, estimation of rape in society, personal
relevance of sexual assault, and perception that rape accusations are
false were regressed on the following independent variables: age,
cultural identity, political ideology, experience with rape, and
Hypothesis 1 predicted a positive relationship between
television use and rape myth acceptance. This relationship was found
to be significant (beta = .22, p < .05). As Table 3 indicates, the
more one watches television, the more one is likely to accept rape
myths. Thus, hypothesis 1 was supported.
Hypothesis 2 predicted a positive relationship between
television use and estimation of prevalence of rape in U.S. society.
The relationship was found to be negative and did not achieve a level
of significance. Hypothesis 2 was not supported.
Hypothesis 3 predicted a negative relationship between
television use and the perceived personal relevance of sexual
assault. The relationship was in the right direction and approached
significance (beta = -.19. p = .07); therefore, hypothesis 3 was not supported.
Hypothesis 4 predicted a positive relationship between
television use and perceptions that rape accusations are false. This
relationship was found to be positive and significant (beta = .29, p
< .01). And thus hypothesis 4 was fully supported.
Several unpredicted relationships also surfaced in the
analyses. There was a positive and significant relationship between
cultural identification and rape myth acceptance (beta = .31, p <
.01). There was a significant negative relationship between political
ideology and rape myth acceptance (beta = -.20, p < .05) and a
positive relationship between political ideology and perceived
personal relevance of sexual assault (beta = .24, p < .05). A
significant positive relationship also was found between knowing a
victim of rape and perceived personal relevance of sexual assault
(beta = .15, p < .05) and a significant negative relationship was
found between knowing a victim of rape and the perception that rape
accusations are false (beta = -.26, p < .01).
The contribution of this study is that it establishes a link
between television veiwing and rape myth acceptance. While prior
research has established a relationship between the consumption of
"pornographic" and "erotic" media and rape myth acceptance, what
really sets this effort apart is its generalizability. This study
successfully linked general, daily television use to the acceptance
of rape myths.
The findings of this study are consistent with research on
television's impact on the construction of social reality. Hawkins
and Pingree (1982) explain that despite its convincing realism, the
television world "contains systematic distortions and biases" (224).
From a social learning perspective, these distortions, if left
un-refuted, can lead to shared misconceptualizations of reality
(Bandura, 1994). Content analyses of television programs depicting
rape confirm such systematic distortions; for example, prime time
depictions of rape have, over the course of nearly 15 years,
consistently perpetuated rape myths (Cuklanz, 1999).
The acceptance of these myths for instance, only women who
are more promiscuous are raped is particularly notable because such
beliefs may influence perceptions of self efficacy and outcome
expectations (Bandura, 1994). In other words, the acceptance of rape
myths may lead individuals to put themselves in risky situations;
after all, bad things only happen to bad people. Further research is
needed to see if this is the case.
The relationship between television use and belief in rape
myths is particularly problematic from a health communication
perspective; it suggests that television use has the potential to
erase, over time, the already limited effects (c.f., Lonsway, 1996)
that rape education campaigns have on audiences. For example, it is
unlikely that one education effort can offer long-term influence when
contrary information continues to be disseminated through television
content. Educators interested in overcoming these barriers may wish
to build some media literacy training into their rape prevention efforts.
Additionally, because the literature indicates that, in order
to be successful, an information campaign must be perceived as
personally relevant (c.f., Biek, Wood and Chaiken 1996; Liberman and
Chaiken 1992; Markova and Power 1992; Stockdale, Dockrell and Wells
1989), it matters whether television content is effecting audience
member's likelihoods to see rape as personally relevant. Rape victims
are, after all, the "other" women. Thus, we expected television use
to negatively predict to perceptions that rape is personally
relevant. This was not supported. However, it is important to note
that the relationship was approaching significance. This suggests the
need for further research.
Interestingly, this study did not support the cultivation
hypothesis; that is, television use did not predict to the estimation
(or overestimation) of rape in society. This could be an artifact of
methodology. One criticism of cultivation research (c.f., Holbert,
Shah & Kwak, 2003; Hughes, 1980; Potter, 1994) is that Gerbner and
colleagues employ the universal term television and do not
differentiate between genres. We followed the lead of Gerbner and
looked at general television use. It may well be that by using the
universal term television, cultivation effects may not surface among
relatively homogeneous audiences who share similarities in viewing
habits. For example, if audiences primarily watch situation comedies,
such programming is not likely to perpetuate the mean world syndrome
(Rubin, Perse & Taylor, 1988). Research has shown that situation
comedies are one of the most watched genres of television among
college undergraduates (Hawkins, Pingree, Hitchon, et al., 2001).
In addition, our methodology differed slightly from those
traditionally employed by cultivation researchers. For example, we
did not utilize a forced choice response when examining perceptions
of vulnerability to violence. As Hughes (1980) notes, Gerbner et al.,
typically ask respondents to rate their chances of being involved in
violence and offer only two choices one in ten (10%) or one in 100
(100%). We offered the full range from zero to 100 (0% - 100%).
This study also established a relationship between television
use and perceptions that rape accusations are false. That is, people
who watched more television were more likely to believe that rape
accusations are false. However because there does not exist today a
consistent, reliable estimation of how many rape accusations are
indeed false, it is difficult to interpret these findings. Estimates
of false accusations range from two to 50 percent and the validity of
each of these estimates proves to be elusive (for a discussion, see
Haws, 1997). Regardless, this finding further bolsters the claim that
television usage does in fact influence perceptions of social
reality. Further research is needed to determine whether this reality
is distorted or accurate. Similarly, the finding that knowing a
victim of rape makes one significantly less likely to believe that
rape accusations are false seems encouraging, yet it is difficult to
draw any solid conclusions from these results.
Our findings regarding political ideology and rape myth
acceptance echo the findings of Holbert, et al., (2003) in that we
found the more liberal one's political ideology, the more likely one
is to support women's rights. In addition, our findings regarding the
relationship between cultural identification (race/ethnicity and
country of origin) revealed that people not of U.S. origin and people
of color were more accepting of rape myths. This too is consistent
with previous research (Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1994). Our findings
suggest that education campaigns that are intended to reduce rape
myth acceptance should consider that people who self-identify as
being conservative and/or of color may be more resistant.
Table 1: Rape Myth Acceptance Factor Analysis (Principal component analysis)
The degree of a woman's resistance should be the major factor in
determining if a rape has occurred.
In the majority of rapes, the victim is promiscuous or has a bad reputation.
In order to protect men, it should be very difficult to prove that a
rape has occurred.
Women who make it a habit of getting drunk at parties should expect
to eventually end up in a situation where a man will have sexual
intercourse with her while she is passed out.
Having sex with someone when they really don't want to or when they
are too drunk to really talk about it is not rape.
Any female can get raped. (Reverse coded)
A woman who goes to the home or apartment of a man on their first
date implies that she is willing to have sex.
Scale: (1) Strongly Disagree, (2) Disagree, (3) Neither Disagree or
Agree, (4) Agree, (5) Strongly Agree
Table 2: Television Use Factor Analysis (Principle Component Analysis)
On a typical weekday, how much time do you spend with
Scale: (1) none, (2) 0-59 minutes, (3) 1-2 hours, (4) 2-4 hours, (5) 4+ hours
Table 3: Hierarchical Multiple Regression Analyses (standardized
Estimation of Rape
p< .05, ** p< .01, *** p< .001, 1p = .07
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