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Are Men Who Are Ashamed of Their Bodies More Prone to Rape?

UPDATE 5/26/14: I wrote this post before Elliot Rodger’s killing spree. The study I describe is, strictly speaking, about rape, but its notion of a connection between male shame and hostility toward women strike me as worth discussing in trying to understand that crime and its underlying causes. I recognize that we should not be reasoning about vast populations with evidence from the case of one very troubled man. But I also recognize that when it comes to gender relations, no one “acts alone.” What even the weirdest of us feels entitled to think and do is shaped in part by the way gender is experienced by all—and by the fact that male advantages (and male advantage-taking) are everywhere. We’d all do well to think about our own participation in the larger patterns, as many of the people using #yesallwomen on Twitter are pointing out.

Feeling shame about part or all of one’s body is a source of misery for millions of women (and a source of profit for industries that live off these feelings). More recently it has become apparent that a lot of men feel ashamed of their bodies too. But hold off on the schadenfreude, ladies. Unfortunately, this paper, out recently in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, suggests this male unease creates its own burdens for female humanity. Men who felt more ashamed of their bodies, the authors found, were more hostile to women. And when a sample of men were rejected as a partner by a woman in a lab experiment, those who scored higher on body shame were also more willing to force sexual acts on another person.

In the course of other research, Kris Mescher and Laurie A. Rudman noticed that men who scored higher on a measure of body shame also scored higher on measures of hostile sexism and “proclivity to rape” women. (I put the latter in quotes because it’s not some sort of Minority Report predictor of future crimes. But it’s a survey that asks questions about whether the responder is aroused by, attracted to or even willing to commit sexual violence if he could get away with it. Surprisingly, men apparently answer such questions honestly, and Mescher and Rudman write, the answers have been shown to correlate with the degree to which a responder is aroused by pictures of rape.)

Why might men who feel shame about their bodies be more open to the notion of sexually assaulting a woman? According to a set of ideas memorably named “precarious manhood theory,” when straight men experience a threat to their masculine identity, they become aggressive. Perhaps, Mescher and Rudman thought, men who feel ashamed of their bodies feel their masculinity threatened constantly. If that were true, they thought, it could mean that body-shamed men pose a particular threat to women. This is because any particular acute threat (like being rejected by a woman) would get a stronger aggressive response from these men, as they are already at a higher set point of aggression before they’re insulted.

To test this, the researchers devised a college freshman’s nightmare of an experiment. They told 121 male undergrads (working for Intro Psych credit) that they were taking part in a study on “the factors that built effective teamwork.” Step 1, the men learned, was to sit at a computer and be paired with a partner elsewhere, via a network connection. Each man had his picture taken, then sat in a cubicle where he filled out a bogus personality profile. Then he learned he had been assigned to a young woman as a partner and shown her photo (which, in reality, was a picture of a fairly hot woman that the researchers had taken from a photo archive). But there was a hitch: His partner had to approve the choice.

While he sat, waiting to hear if he’d been accepted as a partner, the young man filled out some bogus questionnaires and one real measure, which asked him to describe whether he felt hurt, insulted, offended, ashamed, angry, disgusted, sad, or hostile “right now.” Then, if he happened to be in the control group, he was told that the computer network had gone down and couldn’t relay the partner’s decision. If he happened to be in the experiment’s other group, though, he was told that she had rejected him. The supposed reason? “Looking at this photo, I’m not really attracted to this guy.” Oh, well, the experimenter then said. We’ll put you on a different study, about relationships and technology.

Thinking they were now doing that, each man once again filled out a report about just how hurt, insulted, offended, ashamed, angry, disgusted, sad, or hostile he felt “right now.” (20 guesses how that turned out, compared to the first one.) Each man also completed a survey aimed at eliciting how easily he felt ashamed in general. Then there was a specific measure of sexual shame (with questions like “I sometimes feel ashamed of my own sexual inclinations”). Then there were questions about the likelihood that feeling shame would make him withdraw from contact with others (“You take office supplies home for personal use and are caught by your boss. What is the likelihood that this would lead you to quit your job?”).

We are now well past the point where we can imagine some of these guys wishing they had taken Physics for Poets that semester instead of Psych 101. But there was one more survey: The same Attraction to Sexual Aggression (rape proclivity) survey that I’ve mentioned above.

Analyzing all these answers, Mescher and Rudman found that higher scores on body shame predicted higher scores on the rape-proclivity measure—for the men told that a woman had rejected them. For those who had been told the problem was a computer glitch, there was no relationship between the two measures. Another interesting connection: Men who reported themselves feeling more hurt, distressed or otherwise bad after rejection scored higher on the rape-proclivity measure only if they also scored higher on the body shame measure. Men who were upset by the rejection but low on body shame tended to score lower on the sexual-aggression measure. In other words, it was body shame, not the sting of rejection alone, that seemed to predict sexual hostility.

Now, you could argue that the use of photos in this experiment might have primed the men to think in terms of appearance, and made them more prone to think about their bodies than they normally would. Moreover, since every one thought he’d been rejected by a woman, the anti-female aggressiveness of some of the men might have been triggered by the experimental set-up itself. To address these caveats, the researchers did a second experiment in which no photos were used, and in which some men were told they’d been rejected by other men.

This time, 214 straight men went through a procedure much like the first study’s, except without photos. Once again, one group of men was told a network outage prevented them from knowing what their partners had decided. Once again, the other group was told they had been rejected. This time, though, some were told the rejector was a man, and others that it had been a woman. And the reason, this time, was this: “”Looking at his profile, I get the impression he is gay. We won’t work well together if he likes men.”

Once again, men with a higher score on the body-shame measure, who were more upset about the rejection, showed a higher degree of sexual aggression. (The measure this time was a process where men selected pictures they thought would then be shown to women in another experiment. The men had 17 different choices, each of which pitted a picture of male-on-male violence against a picture of male-on-female sexual assault. Those who chose the latter are assumed to be more sexually hostile to women.) But there is an important caveat: This effect, linking body shame and emotional turmoil over rejection, turned up only in the men who thought they had been rejected by a woman. Those who thought they’d been turned away by a man showed no such link. That suggests, Mescher and Rudman write, that “body-ashamed men may be particularly vulnerable to masculinity threats from women, which promotes sexual aggression.”

At first glance, it’s not obvious what might connect body shame and intensity of feeling about rejection. But Mescher and Rudman think there might indeed by a link. A man who is ashamed of his body might reasonably be expected to pay less attention to it. Perhaps, the authors speculate, that lack of connection to their own bodies makes these man unable to accept and manage the bad feelings that come with rejection.

In any event, the connection, if it holds up, opens up some new avenues in thinking about male-on-female sexual assault. While a lot of research has looked at the dangers posed to women by larger, more aggressive, more stereotypically “masculine” men, these experiments suggest that another type of man may also pose a higher risk of sexual violence.

Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby


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