nextgenforensic

Evaluations of sexual aggression and sexually aggressive behavior against adults

Chantal A. Hermann

It seems like such a simple idea, how you evaluate something, in part, determines your behavior towards that ‘something’. For example, people who think coffee is delicious, probably tend to drink more coffee than people who think coffee is disgusting. Social psychology theory and research support this idea; evaluations, in part, predict behavior. Empirical evidence suggests this is true whether the evaluations are immediate (implicit evaluations) or deliberative (explicit evaluations), and that both the automatic and deliberative evaluations are important in understanding behavior. From this research, Dr. Kevin Nunes, myself, and our colleagues hypothesized that how someone evaluates sexual aggression would predict, in part whether or not they would engage in sexually aggressive behavior.

In the forensic psychology literature, there has been a lot of research exploring how people think about crime and whether thoughts that seem to support crime do in fact predict criminal behavior. For example, if someone agrees with statements like “Sometimes you have to fight to keep your self-respect” or “It’s not wrong to hit someone who puts you down” does this predict criminal behavior (items from the Measure of Criminal Attitudes and Associates)? Researchers have found that agreeing with thoughts like this is one of the strongest predictors of reoffending. As a result, criminal thinking is typically assessed and targeted in correctional interventions designed to reduce reoffending.

[We] hypothesized that how someone evaluates sexual aggression would predict, in part whether or not they would engage in sexually aggressive behavior.

Looking at the literature exploring the causes of sexual offending, the evidence surrounding criminal thinking is more mixed. Some researchers have found that thoughts that seem to support sexual offending predict subsequent sexually aggressive behavior, but others have not. Different explanations have been offered for these mixed findings; some researchers have suggested that our typical self-report measures may not adequately capture the latent cognitive processing that informs behavior (see here for some of this discussion). Others have suggested that the criminal thinking may actually consist of distinct types of thoughts that may have different relationships–some causal and some non-causal–with sexual aggression (for overviews see here, here, and here). This latter view is where we think evaluations come into play; as I noted above, there is a strong body of social psychology research that suggests evaluations influence behavior. We think that this type of criminal thinking (evaluations) specifically, may be a causal factor for sexual aggression. Outlined below are our primary research questions, the evidence we have generated so far, and our next steps.

Are evaluations distinct from other cognitions about sexual offending?

This research question is fundamental to our perspective–if there are not distinct types of thinking about sexual offending, then we can’t expect there to be different relationships between types of cognition and sexually aggressive behavior. To explore this idea, we have conducted exploratory factor analyses on items from measures that assess evaluations of sexual aggression (e.g., Rape is positive vs. negative) and items from measures of cognitions about sexual aggression (e.g., Women who get raped probably deserved it). Exploratory factor analysis is a statistical method for uncovering the underlying constructs assessed by a group of items and/or measures. We hypothesized that evaluations would be distinct from other cognitions about rape; we expected to see all of the evaluation items form one factor (latent construct) and the items from measures of cognitions about rape to form different factor(s) (latent construct[s]). In the two studies we have conducted so far, our results support this hypothesis (study 1, study 2). In both studies, the evaluation items formed one factor that was distinct from the factor containing items assessing cognitions about sexual aggression. These results are consistent with our hypothesis that evaluations are unique and are relevant to understanding sexual aggression.

In both studies, the evaluation items formed one factor that was distinct from the factor containing items assessing cognitions about sexual aggression. These results are consistent with our hypothesis that evaluations are unique and are relevant to understanding sexual aggression.

Are evaluations associated with sexual offending?

Another fundamental research question for us is whether evaluations of sexual aggression are related to sexually aggressive behavior. As I noted above, we hypothesized that they would be, but this hadn’t really been explored in research. We have examined this research question in several unpublished and published research studies. Of these studies, some have found more positive implicit evaluations of rape are associated with self-reported sexually aggressive behavior and self-reported likelihood to rape (see here), and all have found more positive explicit evaluations of rape are associated with self-reported sexually aggressive behavior and self-reported likelihood to rape (see here, here, and here). Furthermore, in the two studies described in the section above, we found that both evaluations and cognitions about sexual aggression had independent relationships with self-reported past sexually aggressive behavior, and self-reported likelihood of sexually aggressive behavior (study 1, study 2). These studies provide preliminary evidence that evaluations are related to sexual offending.

We found implicit and explicit evaluations of sexual aggression independently predicted whether community men engaged in future sexually aggressive behavior.

Do evaluations predict sexual offending?

Of particular interest is whether evaluations of sexual aggression predict future sexually aggressive behavior. If evaluations are a causal factor for this type of behavior, then we would expect that they would predict whether or not people engage in future sexually aggressive behavior. To the best of our knowledge, we are the first to explore this research question. In our study, we found implicit and explicit evaluations of sexual aggression independently predicted whether community men engaged in future sexually aggressive behavior. These results are noteworthy as they provide new evidence about the direction of potential influence between evaluations and sexually aggressive behavior. Furthermore, our results are consistent with the idea—but of course do not demonstrate—that implicit and explicit evaluations of sexual aggression play a causal role in sexually aggressive behavior.

Conclusion and Next steps

So far our research suggests that evaluations of sexual aggression are: (1) a unique type of thinking (cognition) about sexual offending, (2) they are positively correlated with self-reported past sexually aggressive behavior and self-reported likelihood to engage in sexually aggressive behavior, and (3) that they predict future sexually aggressive behavior. The results of these studies are just the first step in understanding the relationship between evaluations and sexual offending. These studies need to be replicated and expanded upon in research using different samples (students, community men, men in the criminal justice system), validated measures of evaluations, and different research designs (e.g., experimental, longitudinal, etc.). If the results of future research continue to support the notion that evaluations may play a causal role in sexual aggression, then evaluations could be considered in risk assessment and correctional intervention.

For more information about our work, see:

Suggested citation:
Hermann, C. A. (2017, March 12). Evaluations of sexual aggression and sexually aggressive behavior against adults [Weblog post]. Retrieved from  https://nextgenforensic.wordpress.com/2017/03/12/evaluations-of-sexual-aggression-and-sexually-aggressive-behavior-against-adults/


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