How a Kinsey Institute expert is using her research to improve sexual assault prevention

Zoe Peterson wants to know what motivates someone to sexually assault or coerce someone else. So the associate research scientist and director of the sexual assault research initiative at the Kinsey Institute decided to study men and women both as perpetrators and as victims.

Zoe PetersonView print quality image
Zoe Peterson is an associate research scientist and director of the sexual assault research initiative at the Kinsey Institute. Photo by Eric Rudd, Indiana University

Knowing more about perpetrators' motivations can help develop better prevention, she said. Plus, "studying both genders helps to clarify the role of gendered power relations in sexual assault and undermines some of our gender stereotypes about sexuality."

Take this example: the idea that men want more sex than women do, so men are responsible for initiating sex because they are sexually assertive, or even aggressive, and women are more passive.

Even though that's not true -- a recent study by Peterson and her students showed that on average, women initiated sex about half of the time in heterosexual couples -- that idea contributes to the belief that men can't be victims of sexual assault.

"Recognizing and acknowledging that men can be victims and women can be perpetrators of sexual assault is an important reminder that these are just stereotypes, not realities," said Peterson, who also has a dual appointment as an associate professor of counseling and educational psychology in the School of Education.

Inside IU spoke to Peterson about her research, new ways to identify risk factors and how the current attention on sexual assault affects research:

Q: Why is it important to study the perspectives of both victims and perpetrators of sexual assault?

A: Research with victims can reveal the extent of the problem as well as the physical and mental health consequences associated with experiencing sexual assault. It can also provide crucial information about how individuals recover following sexual assault.

Ultimately, though, the primary goal is prevention. Most of the current sexual assault prevention efforts teach potential victims strategies to avoid sexual assault or teach bystanders to intervene to stop perpetrators, but we need more interventions that are aimed at changing the behavior of actual or potential perpetrators.

To design those interventions, though, we need more information about those individuals.

Q: How do you get that information?

A: One way that researchers learn about the risk factors for sexual aggression is to ask men -- and less often, women -- whether they have ever engaged in behavior that would legally qualify as sexual assault.

For example, we might ask a series of questions like, "Have you ever had sex with someone when they were too intoxicated to consent?" Based on their answers, we would classify them as sexually aggressive or non-aggressive and then identify risk factors that distinguish the aggressive individuals from the non-aggressive individuals.

The problem is, my students and I have done a number of studies showing that people's responses to those questions are not reliable, and in many cases, individuals may knowingly lie on those measures.

I'm working to develop a new measure that I hope will do a better job.

Q: Can you tell me more about this new approach?

A: It attempts to use less harsh and less legalistic language -- avoiding terms like "consent" -- so individuals feel more willing to admit to past sexual aggression.

In the instructions of the measure, we specifically acknowledge that we are aware that the behaviors that we are asking about might have occurred a long time ago, only once, or just in the context of a specific sexual relationship. This acknowledgment might make research participants more willing to admit to these behaviors.

In addition to the less blaming language, the measure also assesses a wider range of coercive and aggressive behavior -- everything from mild verbal pressure through physical force -- and different types of coercion than other measures.

Q: How have the conversations around sexual assault and consent changed since you started your work?

A: The problem of sexual assault is definitely not new, but the amount of media attention on and public awareness of the problem has expanded tremendously in the last decade. People are much more interested in this topic than they were when I started researching sexual assault and consent as a graduate student about 20 years ago.

The goal is to use this increased attention on sexual assault to promote the importance of developing and empirically testing prevention strategies to actually reduce rates of sexual assault.

Q: Does the attention help or hinder your research?

A: There is greater awareness of sexual assault, so if in a research study, we ask a question like, "Have you ever had sex with someone who did not agree to it?" it is possible that research participants may be more likely now than in the past to say, "Oh, that's 'sexual assault' that they are asking about. I'm not going to admit to that."

It would be very hard to determine whether that is occurring, though.

If the increased attention on sexual assault does make perpetrators less likely to admit to their behavior, that is potentially bad for research, but it might not be bad in a larger cultural sense. Ultimately, we want to create a culture in which sexual aggression is seen as socially unacceptable.

Most importantly, though, the increased attention on sexual assault is encouraging more research on the topic. That is important for advancing knowledge, and it is valuable for me because it means more opportunities for research collaboration on campus and nationally and internationally.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.