Aggression and Violence - Health and Well-Being

The Psychology of Sex and Gender - Jennifer Katherine Bosson, Joseph Alan Vandello, Camille E. Buckner 2022

Aggression and Violence
Health and Well-Being

Passersby on the campus of the University of California at Los Angeles write messages to support survivors of sexual assault on June 4, 2015.

Source: Photo by Evelyn Hockstein / For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Test Your Knowledge: True or False?

· 14.1 Around the world, young men commit the vast majority of violent crimes.

· 14.2 Girls use indirect, relational forms of aggression, such as gossip and spreading rumors, much more often than boys do.

· 14.3 Approximately 20% of girls and 10% of boys worldwide experience some form of forced sexual activity before the age of consent.

· 14.4 False allegations of rape are common.

· 14.5 Women who embody ideals of femininity are most likely to be targeted for workplace sex-based harassment.


Are There Sex Differences in Aggression?

· Sex Differences in Perpetrating Aggression

o Violent Crime

o Physical Aggression

o Verbal Aggression

o Relational Aggression

o Bullying and Cyberbullying

· Sex Differences in Experiencing Aggression

· What’s the Big Picture?

What Are the Major Forms of Gender-Based Aggression and Violence?

· Sex-Based Harassment

· Intimate Partner Violence

o Debate: Do Men Perpetrate Intimate Partner Violence More Often Than Women?

o Situational Couple Violence Versus Intimate Terrorism

· Sexual Violence: Rape and Sexual Assault

o How Common Is Sexual Violence?

o Who Commits Sexual Violence?

o The Aftermath of Sexual Violence

· Aggression and Violence Against LGBTQ Populations

What Explains Gender-Based Aggression and Violence?

· Biological Factors

o Testosterone

o Evolved Jealousy

· Sociocultural Factors

o Honor Cultures

o Precarious Manhood

o Power and Structural Gender Inequality

o I3 Theory

What Is the Relationship Between Pornography and Sexual Aggression?

· Definitions and Prevalence

· Journey of Research: Science, Politics, and Pornography

· Pornography and Sexual Aggression


Students who read this chapter should be able to do the following:

· 14.1 Analyze research on sex differences and similarities across different types of aggression.

· 14.2 Evaluate the gender dynamics of sex-based harassment, intimate partner violence, and sexual assault.

· 14.3 Discuss biological and sociocultural factors that explain sex differences in gender-based aggression.

· 14.4 Use research findings on gender-based violence to understand the relationship between pornography and sexual aggression.


In 2019, the Association of American Universities (AAU) published the results of a massive study of sexual assault, which surveyed over 180,000 students on 33 U.S. college campuses (Cantor et al., 2020). Overall, 26% of female undergraduates reported experiencing some type of nonconsensual sexual contact perpetrated through incapacitation (by alcohol, drugs, or force) since entering college, and 20% reporting experiencing unwanted penetration, attempted penetration, or sexual touching. Less publicized were the results from men: 6.8% of male undergraduates reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact, and 5% reported unwanted penetration, attempted penetration, or sexual touching. Transgender, genderqueer, and gender nonbinary students had rates of assault comparable to those of cisgender female students: 22.8% reported nonconsensual sexual contact, and 20% experienced unwanted penetration, attempted penetration, or sexual touching. Furthermore, only a minority (30% of women, 18% of men, 43% of transgender/genderqueer/nonbinary) of students who were sexually assaulted reported the event to a law enforcement agency or campus victim assistance program.

When the AAU released the results of its first sexual assault survey in 2015, the report triggered controversy and mixed reactions. Some viewed the results as clear evidence of an epidemic of sexual violence on college campuses (Pérez-Peña, 2015). Others moved quickly to debunk the numbers. Some critics argued that studies like these inflate estimates of sexual assault by lumping together rape with less serious violations, such as groping and other unwanted touching. Furthermore, they cautioned that the low response rate (only 19.3% of students who received the survey returned it) raised questions about the validity of the numbers (Yoffe, 2015). With the Me Too movement intervening since the 2015 report, the 2019 AAU report generated less debate and controversy. Participating universities made their results easily and publicly available, and they are using the results to strengthen sexual assault prevention efforts on campus (Anderson, 2019).

Aggression Behavior intended to cause psychological or physical harm to a person or nonhuman animal.

Physical aggression Physical acts intended to injure or harm others.

Verbal aggression Communications intended to harm others.

Direct aggression Overt verbal or physical behavior aimed directly at another person, with the intention to harm.

The AAU survey highlights how reports of sexual violence can ignite debate. Although few would question the gravity of sexual assault, many disagree about its prevalence, both on and off of college campuses. Due to the sensitive nature of sexual assault, officially reported sexual assault rates are likely unreliable. However, relying on self-reports made by sexual assault survivors, as researchers often do, can also be problematic. On the one hand, if individuals who experience sexual assault respond to surveys (out of a motivation to share their experiences) more often than those who do not, this could lead to overinflated estimates of sexual assault prevalence. On the other hand, if sexual assault survivors avoid responding to surveys (due to trauma, shame, or fear of retaliation), this could lead to underestimates of prevalence. These and other issues make sexual assault a challenging topic of research study.

Indirect (relational) aggression Behavior intended to harm another person’s social relationships or status, often performed when the target is not physically present.

Bullying Aggression (direct or indirect) that is repeated over time and in which the perpetrator holds more power than the victim.

Cyberbullying Aggression committed via the Internet, mobile phones, or other types of electronic or digital technologies.

Violence Severe forms of physical aggression that have extreme harm as their goal.

This chapter will discuss gender and aggression in two ways. First, we will examine sex differences in the prevalence of various types of aggression. As you read in Chapter 5 (“The Contents and Origins of Gender Stereotypes”), men are stereotyped as being more aggressive than women, and here, we will evaluate the validity of this stereotype. Second, we will examine specific forms of aggression through the lens of gender. Sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, rape, and viewing aggressive pornography are gendered acts. To understand why these acts occur, we need to understand how gender contributes to power differences within relationships and in society. But first, we will cover some terminology.

Social psychologists define aggression as behavior that is intended to cause psychological or physical harm to a person or nonhuman animal. Note that aggression can—but does not have to—involve physical contact. While physical aggression involves physical acts intended to cause injury or harm (e.g., hitting, kicking, shoving), verbal aggression involves communications that intend to harm another person (e.g., yelling, teasing, or cyberbullying). Note here that intention to harm is key—throwing a book at someone’s head with the intention of hurting them is considered an act of physical violence even if you miss your target and hit the wall instead. Aggression can also be direct and “in your face” or less direct and subtle. Direct aggression involves overt verbal or physical behaviors aimed directly at another person. Indirect aggression, sometimes called relational aggression, involves acts intended to harm another person’s social relationships or status (e.g., spreading rumors, excluding someone), and these acts often occur when the victim is not physically present. Bullying refers to a repeated pattern of aggressive treatment over time, in which the perpetrator has more power than the victim. Bullying can take both direct and indirect forms, and it often occurs over digital media and social networks (i.e., cyberbullying). Finally, violence typically refers to severe forms of physical aggression, such as homicide, that have extreme harm as their goal. Violence is a subset of aggression because all violence is aggression, but not all aggression is violence. For instance, researchers do not typically consider verbal and indirect aggression—no matter how cruel—as forms of violence.


In the next section, we examine sex differences in aggression. Before reading further, try to make predictions about what the research shows. Do you think sex differences in aggression will differ by the type of aggression examined? Do you think society considers some forms of aggression to be more serious than others? If so, why?


Sex Differences in Perpetrating Aggression

Which sex do you think is more aggressive? Gender stereotypes clearly point to men. And in fact, if we examined only violent crime data recorded by law enforcement agencies, men would indeed emerge as the more aggressive sex. But this does not give a complete picture. In this section, we will examine sex differences in physical, verbal, and relational aggression as well as in bullying and cyberbullying. Research on sex differences in each of these types of aggression reveals a bit more nuance and complexity than gender stereotypes would suggest. Let’s examine some of these findings.

Violent Crime

Analyses of crime data reveal that men commit the majority of violent crimes. In 2018, men in the United States accounted for about 79% of overall violent crime arrests and about 88% of arrests for murder and manslaughter (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2018c). This pattern of greater male violence holds up across the globe, with men accounting for 91%—95% of homicide convictions from 2010 to 2017 in 74 countries (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2019). Moreover, although violent crime rates in the United States declined by 62% from 1994 to 2015, they increased from 2015 to 2018, with young adult men between 18 and 24 years old committing a disproportionate share of violent crimes (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2018b). Evolutionary psychologists Margo Wilson and Martin Daly (1985) labeled this phenomenon the young male syndrome. After examining homicides across many cultures and time periods, they find a consistent pattern: Men are much more likely to kill (and be killed) in their late teens and early 20s than at any other time in their lives (as an example of this pattern, see Figure 14.1). Of course, this does not mean that women are categorically nonviolent. Women account for 21% of violent crime arrests in the United States (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2018c), and this is not a negligible proportion. Of the approximately 225,000 incarcerated women in the United States, 38% are in prison for committing a violent crime (Sentencing Project, 2017).

Physical Aggression

Since extreme physical violence is not possible (or ethical) to measure in controlled laboratory settings or via surveys, psychologists often focus on less severe forms of physical aggression. Mirroring the violent crime data, boys and men are more physically aggressive than girls and women in both laboratory experiments and real-world settings (Archer, 2004; Knight, Fabes, & Higgins, 1996), and this is true across cultures (Nivette, Sutherland, Eisner, & Murray, 2019). Sex differences in physical aggression emerge early in life, by about ages 3 to 6, which corresponds with the age that children in most societies begin interacting in organized peer groups. However, the magnitude of the sex difference in physical aggression varies with contextual factors and seems to be decreasing over time. An early meta-analysis found a large effect size (d = 0.72) for the sex difference in physical aggression (Hyde, 1984b), but more recent meta-analyses found medium (d = 0.59; Knight, Guthrie, Page, & Fabes, 2002) and small (d = 0.22; Lansford et al., 2012) effect sizes.


Figure 14.1 Canadian Homicide Rates by Age and Sex of Offender

Source: Adapted from Statistics Canada (2016).

What contextual factors modify these sex differences in physical aggression? Sex differences tend to be larger in studies with younger compared with older participants and in studies done in real-world compared with laboratory settings (Knight et al., 2002). Sex differences in lab settings (favoring men) also tend to be bigger (d = 0.33) when the aggression is unprovoked than when it is provoked (d = 0.17; Bettencourt & Miller, 1996). People may also modify their physical aggression to conform to gender role norms. To illustrate, Jennifer Lightdale and Deborah Prentice (1994) had participants play a video game in which they could drop virtual bombs on an opponent under conditions that either drew attention to their identity (they were singled out and wore a name tag) or did not highlight their identity (they were not singled out and did not wear a name tag). When participants’ identity was highlighted, men dropped more bombs than women, presumably to conform to gender norms. However, when participants’ identity was not salient, the sex difference vanished.


Playing violent video games is linked with increased aggressive behavior immediately after playing. Does gender matter? Yes, but the character on the screen may matter more than the person playing the game. Researchers assigned college students to play a violent video game (Street Fighter IV or Virtual Fighter 5) as either a male or female avatar. After gameplay, the participants had an opportunity to aggress against another person in the experiment. Both male and female students who played as male avatars behaved more aggressively than those who played as female avatars (G. S. Yang, Huesmann, & Bushman, 2014).

College students behave more aggressively after playing violent video games as male avatars than as female avatars.

Source: imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo

Verbal Aggression

Given that boys and men tend to be physically stronger, on average, than girls and women, it is perhaps not surprising that they display more physical aggression. This does not mean, however, that girls get into fewer conflicts than boys or that girls do not express hostility. In fact, there are no sex differences in tendencies to express anger (d = −0.04; Archer, 2004). So when girls and women are motivated by anger to behave aggressively, they may simply rely on more nonphysical means of harming others. For instance, sex differences in verbal aggression—such as insults, taunts, or criticism—are smaller than sex differences in physical aggression (see Table 14.1). One meta-analysis found greater male than female verbal aggression, but the effect size was small (d = 0.19) for self-reported verbal aggression and even smaller (d = 0.09) for observations of verbal aggression (Archer, 2004).

Relational Aggression

Unlike other animals that rely primarily on direct, physical aggression, humans can use subtler methods to harm others. With indirect or relational aggression, an individual can harm others through ostracism or social rejection. Although we do not put people in jail for gossiping about others, indirect aggression can be quite damaging, leading to stress, depression, and even suicide, in some cases (Murray-Close, Nelson, Ostrov, Casas, & Crick, 2016).

As children get older, they tend to rely less on physical aggression and more on indirect means of aggression. Although some early research found that girls used more relational aggression than boys (Björkqvist, Österman, & Lagerspetz, 1994), recent meta-analyses report small or no sex differences in this type of aggression. When small sex differences (favoring women) emerge, they often occur in samples of older youths and adults and with methods other than self-report such as observation, peer report, and teacher report (Card, Stucky, Sawalani, & Little, 2008; Scheithauser, Haag, Mahlke, & Ittel, 2008). Thus, overall, the evidence does not point to large sex differences in relational aggression. Given the stereotype of “mean girls” who hurt each other with social exclusion and false rumors, does this finding surprise you?

Table 14.1

Researchers examine sex differences in physical aggression, verbal aggression, relational aggression, bullying, cyberbullying, and anger (which is strongly associated with aggression). Most sex differences are close-to-zero or small, with the exception of the medium effect sizes found for physical aggression and bullying.

Source: Adapted from a. Archer (2004); b. Barlett and Coyne (2014); c. Card, Stucky, Sawalani, and Little (2008); d. Cook, Williams, Guerra, Kim, and Sadek (2010); e. Knight, Guthrie, Page, and Fabes (2002).

Note: Positive d values indicate that boys and men score higher than girls and women; negative d values indicate that girls and women score higher than boys and men.

Bullying and Cyberbullying

Starting in the late 1990s, researchers grew increasingly interested in the topic of bullying, particularly in school contexts. As noted earlier, bullying is a repeated pattern of aggressive treatment that can involve physical, verbal, and relational aggression. Due to power differences between perpetrators and victims of bullying, victims of bullying tend to have difficulty defending themselves against aggression (Smith, López-Castro, Robinson, & Görzig, 2019). Around the world, boys tend to bully their peers more than girls do. One study reviewed self-reported bullying rates obtained in five large, cross-national surveys of school-aged children (ranging in age from 9 to 18 years). Findings revealed that boys were 2.02 times more likely than girls to bully in 38 countries, and they were 1.16 times more likely than girls to bully in 25 countries (Smith et al., 2019).

Despite the stereotype of socially dominant, cruel young women—depicted in films such as Mean Girls (2004)—sex differences in relational aggression are actually quite small.

Source: Getty Images / CBS Photo Archive / Contributor

With the rise of the digital age, a new way of bullying has emerged. Cyberbullying consists of aggression committed via the Internet, mobile phones, or other types of electronic or digital technologies. One review found that for younger children, girls engaged in more cyberbullying than boys; after about age 11, boys cyberbullied more than girls (with a small effect size, d = 0.08; Barlett & Coyne, 2014). A more recent meta-analysis of students in eight European countries replicated this sex difference, finding that boys were about twice as likely as girls to engage in various forms of cyberbullying, including flaming (cruel online fighting), denigrating (posting mean rumors or gossip), excluding (blocking an individual from groups or chats), and outing (revealing personal information about an individual without their consent; Sorrentino, Baldry, Farrington, & Blaya, 2019).

The mental health consequences of bullying and cyberbullying are severe. One study of 2,000 randomly selected middle schoolers found that children who experienced either type of bullying (e.g., in-person or digital) were almost twice as likely to attempt suicide as those who did not experience bullying (Hinduja & Patchin, 2010). Adolescents who experience more severe forms of school-based or online bullying—and those who experience bullying both at school and online—are also particularly vulnerable to suicide (Hinduja & Patchin, 2018). In addition, children who bully others are more likely to attempt suicide than those who do not bully (John et al., 2018). Given that these are correlational data, we cannot conclude that either bullying or being bullied causes negative mental health outcomes. Nonetheless, the take-home point is that any involvement in bullying, either as perpetrator or as victim, is associated with increased suicide risk.


Consider the differences between traditional bullying and cyberbullying, especially in terms of prevention. Which of these types of bullying is more difficult to address and decrease? Why? What specific strategies might be effective in reducing the rates of cyberbullying?

Sex Differences in Experiencing Aggression

Our attention so far has primarily been on the sex of aggressors, but which sex is more likely to be the target of aggression? The answer to this question is complex and depends on several factors. One important factor is the type of aggression in question. Boys are cross-culturally more likely than girls to report being bullied, although this sex difference is small (Smith et al., 2019). Men are also more likely than women to experience homicide, aggravated assault (attempts to cause serious bodily injury), and armed robbery; women are more likely than men to experience rape and sexual assault (Morgan & Oudekerk, 2018). However, men and women tend to experience roughly equal rates of certain types of intimate partner violence (Breiding, Chen, & Black, 2014). We will return to the topics of rape, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence later in this chapter.

What happens when we view aggressive victimization through an intersectional lens? How do factors such as sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, social class, and age contribute to sex differences in experiencing aggression? One meta-analysis found that male LGB individuals experience various forms of aggression (property damage, threats, verbal harassment) more often than female LGB individuals (Katz-Wise & Hyde, 2012). Gay and bisexual men are also more likely than lesbian and bisexual women to be targets of violent, sexual orientation—based hate crimes including murder and assault (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2017). When it comes to race, ethnicity, social class, and age, some data indicate that low-income, young (under age 35), Black men experience more violent victimization than low-income, young, Black women (Warnken & Lauritsen, 2019). In fact, low-income, young Black men have a higher risk of experiencing violent crime than do White and Latino men in the United States. This is likely due to the disproportionate impacts of systemic racism and poverty on young Black men. An intersectional perspective can thus highlight how factors such as race, age, and social class can alter sex differences in aggressive victimization.

What’s the Big Picture?

So, what do we conclude about sex differences in aggression? People of all sexes commit and are targets of aggressive acts, but the nature of sex differences in aggression depends on the type of aggression measured, the age of the sample, and the setting in which the aggression takes place. Boys and men generally exhibit more physical aggression and extreme violence than girls and women, although certain factors can increase or decrease these differences. However, studies of direct verbal and indirect relational aggression show smaller sex differences. When girls and women use aggression, they tend to use less physical forms of it. Finally, many forms of aggression—except sexual aggression and intimate partner violence—target boys and men more than girls and women, especially if they are young and low-income.


In this section, we consider several forms of aggression as gendered acts. These forms of aggression, best understood by considering gendered power structures, often reflect male violence against women: sexual harassment, rape, honor killings, and aggressive pornography. Others, such as intimate partner violence, may target men and women equally but still reflect gender dynamics. Still others target individuals specifically because they are members of the LGBTQ community. Note that some of this material may be difficult to read, particularly for those who have personal experiences with aggression and violence. On the upside, the research described here seeks to increase the knowledge necessary to address and reduce the problem of gender-based violence.

Sex-Based Harassment

One form of gendered aggression, sex-based harassment (or sexual harassment), refers to behavior that derogates or humiliates an individual based on the individual’s sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Sex-based harassment includes unwanted touching, sexual gestures, catcalls, comments, or jokes as well as bullying and insults. Also, related behaviors such as undermining, excluding, and being uncivil may not be what we traditionally think of as sex-based harassment, but they contribute to an atmosphere that makes harassment more likely (Chawla, Wong, & Gabriel, 2019). Sex-based harassment is not a new phenomenon; it first received a label in the 1970s (Rowe, 1981) and began to gain attention in organizations and courts in the United States in the 1980s. Although researchers originally used the term sexual harassment, we use sex-based harassment instead. As you may recall from Chapter 11 (“Work and Home”), Jennifer Berdahl (2007) recommends this label as a way of avoiding confusion because sex-based harassment does not always involve sexual comments or behavior.

Sex-based harassment (sexual harassment) Behavior that derogates or humiliates an individual based on the individual’s sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

Despite the psychological harm it causes, sex-based harassment is frequently tolerated as normal, even in countries where it is illegal, such as the United States. Federal law in the United States recognizes two types of sex-based harassment: quid pro quo and hostile environment. Quid pro quo harassment occurs when a person with power offers advantages (e.g., a promotion) in exchange for sexual contact. Hostile environment harassment refers to negative speech (e.g., sexist jokes) or behavior (e.g., gestures) that creates an intimidating or offensive environment, and it often occurs between individuals of equal status (Maass, Cadinu, & Galdi, 2013). In addition, psychologists typically divide sex-based harassment into three different types of gender harassment (making sexual or sexist remarks or gestures; displaying sexual or sexist materials), unwanted sexual attention (initiating unwanted sexual discussions or touching), and sexual coercion (compelling sexual contact through job threats or rewards). Note that sexual coercion aligns more with quid pro quo harassment, whereas gender harassment and unwanted sexual attention map more onto hostile environment harassment.

Sex-based harassment can occur anywhere but it is typically studied in workplace, school, and military settings, where it occurs fairly commonly. In the workplace, approximately 40%—60% of women experience sex-based harassment, compared to about 10%—20% of men. These rates vary based on the type of harassment, with sexual coercion being the least frequent type (Berdahl & Raver, 2011; Feldblum & Lipnic, 2016). In middle and high school settings in the United States, approximately 56% of girls and 40% of boys experience sex-based harassment per year, with the most frequent type being unwelcome comments, jokes, and gestures (C. Hill & Kearl, 2011). In the military, 22% of female and 7% of male active service members report experiencing sex-based harassment in the past year (Farris et al., 2016). Sexual jokes are the most common form of harassment of female service members, whereas being accused of not acting masculine enough is the most common harassment of male service members. Despite the higher rates of sex-based harassment reported by girls and women, men tend to underestimate the amount of harassment that the women in their lives experience, as shown in Figure 14.2 (PerryUndem, 2017).


Figure 14.2 Men’s Estimates of Women’s Sex-Based Harassment Experiences

Source: PerryUndem (2017).

Race and ethnicity can interact with sex to produce unique harassment experiences, such as racialized sex-based harassment, which involves incidents where race-based and sex-based harassment are simultaneously present. Consider the case of Bari-Ellen Roberts, a Black female employee at Texaco who was called “a smart-mouthed little colored girl” by three White male Texaco senior executives during a board meeting (B.-E. Roberts & White, 1998). As other examples, some Black women report that White male coworkers use phrases in their presence such as “sexy black ass” or “big, sexy, Black women” (Buchanan & Ormerod, 2002), while Latina women report coworkers’ use of inappropriate pet names for them, such as “mamacita” (Cortina, 2001). This type of racialized sex-based harassment predicts higher job stress, lower job satisfaction, and increased depression and anxiety among Black and Latina women (Buchanan & Fitzgerald, 2008; Cortina, Fitzgerald, & Drasgow, 2002).


Street harassment consists of uninvited sexual attention or harassment from a stranger in a public space. In 2014, a nationally representative survey of 2,000 U.S. adults revealed that 65% of women and 25% of men experienced street harassment in their lifetime (Kearl, 2014). Rates of street harassment were higher for Latinx and Black than White respondents, and they were higher for LGBTQ than heterosexual and cisgender respondents. The majority of respondents who experienced any street harassment experienced it more than once, and most (52%) reported that their first experience occurred by the age of 17. Many of those who experience street harassment fear that it will escalate, and this can prevent people from having equal and safe access to public spaces.


How do we determine which specific behaviors and comments constitute sex-based harassment? Some seem easy to identify as harassment (e.g., demanding sex from an employee), whereas others seem less clear-cut (e.g., commenting on how “gorgeous” a coworker looks). In defining harassment, how do we account for the fact that people differ in what they find offensive? What factors must be considered in developing a clear definition of sexual harassment?

Street harassment Uninvited sexual attention or harassment from a stranger in a public space.

Rates of sex-based harassment vary by culture. In a survey of women in 16 of the world’s largest cities, Bogota, Mexico City, Lima, and Delhi were rated as having the most dangerous public transportation systems for women (in terms of being able to travel safely without being verbally harassed or attacked), whereas New York, Tokyo, Beijing, and London were rated as having the safest public transportation systems for women (Thomson Reuters Foundation, 2014). Some research suggests that sex-based harassment is more common in cultures with greater power distance and higher levels of collectivism. Power distance is the extent to which a culture has and accepts unequal distributions of status and power among its members (Hofstede, 2001). Collectivism, as you may recall from Chapter 5 (“The Contents and Origins of Gender Stereotypes”), is a cultural orientation in which group needs are prioritized over individual needs. China and India are high in power distance and collectivism, and men in these countries report being more likely to commit sex-based harassment than are men in the United States (Luthar & Luthar, 2008). Furthermore, people from Pakistan, Ecuador, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Turkey (collectivistic, high-power-distance cultures) assign more blame to those who experience sex-based harassment and less blame to perpetrators than people from Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States (individualistic, low-power-distance cultures). This may reflect the greater tendency in individualistic cultures to protect individual rights, which contrasts with the greater tendency in collectivistic cultures to preserve social harmony (Sigal et al., 2005).

Bari-Ellen Roberts, a financial analyst at Texaco, experienced racialized sex-based harassment at work. She became the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against Texaco, and, in 1996, Texaco was forced to pay $176 million to 1,500 current and former Black employees for racial discrimination.

Source: Getty Images / Ted Thai / The LIFE Images Collection

Jennifer Berdahl (2007) proposes that the primary motivation for sex-based harassment is the desire to protect one’s own sex-based status and to punish people who deviate from traditional gender roles (recall our discussion of this topic in Chapter 11, “Work and Home”). Women who have more agentic traits, are less feminine, or identify as feminists have a heightened risk for sex-based harassment (Maass, Cadinu, Guarnieri, & Grasselli, 2003). Similarly, women in male-dominated organizations experience more harassment than women in female-dominated organizations. Why? Some researchers propose that women’s presence in male-dominated organizations challenges the legitimacy of men’s higher social status or threatens their gender status. In fact, in one experiment, men committed more sex-based harassment toward a woman after a threat to their masculinity (Maass et al., 2003). And, as noted, men who violate gender role norms more frequently experience sex-based harassment, typically by other men. For instance, fathers who are active caregivers report being harassed at work for not being “manly” enough (Berdahl & Moon, 2013).

Intimate Partner Violence

Intimate partner violence refers to any behavior intended to cause physical harm to a romantic partner. The earliest research on intimate partner violence framed it largely in terms of male violence against women, as reflected in language such as wife beating and battered wives. Even today, researchers direct most of their attention toward violence against women in heterosexual relationships. The World Health Organization reports that 30% of women around the world experience partner-perpetrated physical violence at some point in their lives (WHO, 2013), and intimate partners commit as many as 38% of all murders of women. In the United States, 33% of women and 28% of men are victims of intimate partner violence at some point in their lives (Breiding et al., 2014). These rates vary by race and ethnicity in the United States, with intimate partners perpetrating more violence against Black, multiracial, and Native American people than against Latinx, White, and Asian people (see Figure 14.3 for lifetime rates of experiencing intimate partner violence by sex and race/ethnicity).

Power distance The extent to which a culture has and accepts unequally distributed levels of status and power among its members.

Intimate partner violence Any behavior intended to cause physical harm to a romantic partner.

Intimate partner violence tends to occur with similar severity and prevalence in same-sex relationships—both female and male—as it does in heterosexual relationships (Ofreneo & Montiel, 2010). Moreover, as you read earlier, some data indicate that women and men are roughly equally likely to be victims of intimate partner violence. The issue of sex differences in intimate partner violence is hotly debated, however. For more on this, see the debate titled “Do Men Perpetrate Intimate Partner Violence More Often Than Women?”


Figure 14.3 Lifetime Rates of Experiencing Intimate Partner Violence by Sex and Ethnicity

Source: Breiding, Chen, and Black (2014).

Note: No data available for Asian or Pacific Islander males.


When you think about violence in intimate relationships, what do you picture? Many people think of the perpetrators as men and the targets as women. We have shelters for abused women, organizations dedicated to eradicating domestic violence against women, and federal laws such as the U.S. Violence Against Women Act (1994/2013). However, men and women (whether cisgender or transgender) and nonbinary individuals perpetrate and experience intimate partner violence. Nonetheless, there is a long-standing and unresolved debate about whether men commit more intimate partner violence than women. Let’s examine both sides.


Despite the stereotypes of male perpetrators and female victims, the gender symmetry perspective holds that women and men physically assault their partners in roughly equal numbers, with largely parallel risk factors and motivations (Straus, 2009). Research in the United States dating back to the 1970s confirms that women show as much, if not more, physical aggression in intimate relationships as men, with one national survey showing that women initiate intimate partner violence in 53% of cases, compared with men in 42% of cases (Straus, 2005).

To counter this evidence, some argue that women primarily commit aggression in self-defense, but this does not capture the complete picture. While approximately 25%—30% of women’s relationship violence is committed in self-defense (Straus, 2005), women report many other motivations as well, such as responding to verbal provocation, retaliating, and gaining control (Langhinrichsen-Rohling, 2010). Similarly, whereas mutual violence (committed by both partners) is a common pattern among U.S. couples, women were the perpetrators in 70% of nonreciprocal violence cases (committed by just one partner; Whitaker, Haileyesus, Swahn, & Saltzman, 2007). This clearly contradicts the perspective that intimate partner violence is an expression of male dominance.

The gender symmetry perspective argues that similar mechanisms drive the violence of men and women and that viewing intimate partner violence as a patriarchal form of control over women both ignores and trivializes violence against men. In fact, men who experience intimate partner violence are at increased risk for posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and suicidal ideation (Randle & Graham, 2011). Men’s rights advocates claim that focusing primarily on heterosexual women as victims of intimate partner violence unjustly misdirects policy efforts.


Proponents of the gender asymmetry perspective often frame intimate partner violence in terms of men’s domination and control of women. Because men tend to be larger and stronger than women and possess more societal power, it follows that they sometimes use violence as a tool of control in relationships. From this perspective, intimate partner violence is a gendered act that reinforces men’s power over women (Ali & Naylor, 2013; recall our discussion of these issues in Chapter 6, “Power, Sexism, and Discrimination”).

While survey research in Western, industrialized nations finds that women perpetrate slightly more aggression in heterosexual relationships than men (Archer, 2000), this partly reflects how researchers measure intimate partner violence. For example, studies that find gender symmetry in intimate partner violence often do not measure acts such as stalking and sexual violence, which are perpetrated more frequently by men (Saunders, 2002). Furthermore, simply tallying up how many people report intimate partner violence ignores information such as the severity of the aggression that people use (e.g., men tend to injure their partners more often than women do). One national U.S. survey found that although men and women reported similar rates of victimization overall, almost twice as many women as men (39% of women and 21% of men) experienced injury in their most recent incident of violence (I. Arias & Corso, 2005). Women also report more fear of their partners than men do (Caldwell, Swan, & Woodbrown, 2012), and women who experience intimate partner violence more frequently end up in emergency rooms and domestic violence shelters. In other words, the meanings and consequences of intimate partner violence differ across the sexes.

Proponents of the gender asymmetry perspective also note that men kill their spouses more than women do, particularly in countries outside of the United States (Dobash, Dobash, Wilson, & Daly, 1992). The motives for male and female spousal homicides differ as well. Men who kill their spouses typically do so after suspecting infidelity, perpetrating long periods of intimidation and abuse, and being left by their spouses. In contrast, wives are more likely to kill their husbands following years of abuse and out of self-defense or fear (Saunders, 2002).

Finally, the gender symmetry in partner violence found in Western nations may not generalize to other nations (Archer, 2006). In countries with less gender equality, women experience more—and men experience less—intimate partner violence. Proponents of the gender asymmetry position argue that it is therefore misguided and dangerous to view intimate partner violence as gender neutral. As long as power differences exist within relationships, women will bear the brunt of partner violence.

Now that you have read both sides of this debate, what do you think? Which evidence do you find most convincing? Why?

Situational Couple Violence Versus Intimate Terrorism

How can we resolve these conflicting estimates of the frequency of male and female partner violence raised in the debate? According to Michael Johnson (2008), the resolution involves recognizing two distinct forms of intimate partner violence. The more frequent type, called situational couple violence, occurs when heated conflicts get out of hand and escalate unpredictably into violence. This type of violence is relatively unlikely to result in serious injury to either partner and it is perpetrated at roughly similar rates by women and men. In contrast, intimate terrorism is relatively rarer and occurs when one partner consistently uses violence and fear to control the other. In intimate terrorism, aggression tends to escalate in severity over time, sometimes resulting in serious injury, and men tend to perpetrate this type of partner violence more frequently than women do (Eckstein, 2017). Unlike situational couple violence, intimate terrorism is often accompanied by control tactics, which are behaviors that people use in close relationships to maintain power over partners. These include things such as jealously guarding a partner’s behavior, controlling their access to money, demanding to know their whereabouts at all times, and limiting their contact with family and friends. Whether or not they are accompanied by physical abuse, these control tactics are maladaptive and may be warning signs that a partner—male or female—will become physically abusive in the future (Graham-Kevan & Archer, 2009). Moreover, many people experience these control tactics as a form of emotional abuse that damages their mental health (McCauley, Bonomi, Maas, Bogen, & O’Malley, 2018; see Sidebar 14.3).

Situational couple violence Intimate partner violence that results when heated conflicts escalate; committed by men and women about equally.

Intimate terrorism Intimate partner violence in which one partner (usually a man) repeatedly uses violence and fear to dominate and control the other.


How do you think of and define partner abuse? While much of the public discourse around partner abuse focuses exclusively on physical forms, many people experience emotional abuse without accompanying physical abuse. In 2016, the Twitter hashtag #MabyeHeDoesntHitYou began raising awareness of nonphysical partner abuse including control tactics such as isolation (“… but he makes you choose between your friends and him”), jealousy (“… but he accuses you of cheating because it took 7 minutes longer to get home from work”), and economic control (“… but he takes your paycheck and decides how the money will be spent”). Although this hashtag was initially shared primarily by heterosexual, cisgender women, others soon chimed in to describe their experiences as heterosexual male and LGBTQ targets of emotional abuse from intimate partners (McCauley et al., 2018).

While the distinction between situational couple violence and intimate terrorism is intuitively appealing, it does not always align with the data. For instance, one population-based study of U.S. women found that most women who reported physical abuse by their male partner (69%) also reported at least one control tactic by their partner (Frye, Manganello, Campbell, Walton-Moss, & Wilt, 2006). If situational couple violence is really both noncontrolling and more common than intimate terrorism, then most physically abused women should have reported no control tactics by their partners. This raises questions about whether situational couple violence and intimate terrorism are really different “types” of intimate abuse. Instead, Frye and colleagues suggest that perhaps intimate partner abuse falls along a continuum of severity depending on the presence and intensity of three key factors: controlling behaviors, violence escalation, and injury.

Sexual Violence: Rape and Sexual Assault

Sexual violence can take many forms, and addressing it can be challenging due to varying definitions and understandings of variables like force, consent, and coercion. Complicating matters further, legal definitions of rape and sexual assault differ from place to place. Sexual assault is usually used as a general term to mean unwanted sexual contact without the explicit consent of the victim, whereas rape tends to be defined more narrowly as the nonconsensual penetration of the mouth, vagina, or anus by a penis, finger, or object (Koss & Kilpatrick, 2001). Thus, rape is a form of sexual assault, but not all sexual assault is rape. Note, however, that cultures and subcultures differ widely in how readily they tolerate—or even normalize—acts that some would define as rape. For example, some sexual acts, although unwanted by their targets, may occur as part of long-standing cultural rituals. Such customs include arranged child marriages (which involve what many would consider child rape), forced prostitution, and forced virginity examinations (nonconsensual gynecological exams that assess whether a girl or woman has had vaginal intercourse). We will discuss some of these customs further in a later section (see “Power and Structural Gender Inequality”).

Sexual assault Unwanted sexual contact without the explicit consent of the victim.

Rape Nonconsensual penetration of the mouth, vagina, or anus by the penis, fingers, or objects.


Consent means that all parties have a clear and mutually understandable agreement, expressed outwardly in words or actions, to engage in sexual activity. Consent is thus about communication. To clarify what consent does and does not entail, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN, 2016) offers the following guidelines.

· A person must have the freedom and capacity to give consent.

· A person facing intimidation (a control tactic) or under pressure from a person in power does not have the freedom to give consent.

· A person who is incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, asleep, or unconscious does not have the capacity to give consent.

· Consent can be verbal or nonverbal.

· Consent can be withdrawn at any time.

· Consent to engage in one sexual activity does not mean consent to engage in different sexual activities, and past consent to engage in a sexual activity does not mean consent to engage in future sexual activities.

· Marriage does not automatically mean consent is given for sexual activity.

· Consent cannot be assumed by the way a person dresses, smiles, or flirts.

How Common Is Sexual Violence?

Due to its personal, distressing, and stigmatizing nature, sexual violence is among the most underreported crimes, which makes it challenging to estimate its prevalence accurately. Furthermore, many agencies focus solely on reporting sexual violence rates for women. The World Health Organization estimates that one in three women worldwide experiences some form of physical or sexual violence (WHO, 2016) and that 7% of women are sexually assaulted by someone other than a partner (WHO, 2013). The regions of the world with the highest rates of rape include North America, southern Africa, and Oceania, and the regions with the lowest rates of rape include South Asia, the Near and Middle East, and Central Asia (Harrendorf, Heiskanen, & Malby, 2010). Globally, rape rates have been increasing since 1996, and the countries with the highest rates of rape are South Africa, Australia, and Swaziland.

The lifetime risk of being raped varies according to race and ethnicity. In the United States, 18.3% of women (about 22 million women) and 1.4% of men (about 1.6 million men) report being raped at least once in their lifetime. Multiracial women in the United States are more likely to be raped (33.5%) than Native American women (26.9%), Black women (22.0%), White women (18.8%), and Latina women (14.6%; Black et al., 2011). The race of male perpetrators also differs with the race of rape victims: Native American women are most frequently sexually assaulted by White men, whereas Black and White women are most frequently assaulted by same-race men (Luna-Firebaugh, 2006). Latina women generally experience lower rates of sexual assault than White, Black, Asian, and Native American women, although U.S.-born Latina women experience higher rates of sexual assault in the United States than foreign-born immigrant or migrant worker Latina women (Hazen & Soriano, 2007).

Women’s status as empowered versus marginalized matters as well. Between 18% and 20% of girls and 8% and 10% of boys worldwide experience forced sexual activity before the age of consent (Collin-Vézina, Daigneault, & Hébert, 2013). Women with developmental disabilities report higher rates of rape than women without disabilities (Basile, Breiding, & Smith, 2016). Women who live in poverty or experience homelessness have higher rates of sexual assault (Abbey, Jacques-Tiura, & Parkhill, 2010). Sex workers are also at a heightened risk for sexual violence, partly because this work is illegal in many countries, giving workers little protection from the legal system (Deering et al., 2014). Vulnerable undocumented immigrants and refugees similarly experience a heightened risk of sexual violence (Freedman, 2016), often as they flee military conflicts at home, and legal and language barriers may prevent them from seeking or obtaining help. As discussed in Sidebar 14.5, people living in areas of military conflict become frequent targets as well because soldiers sometimes use rape as a strategy to undermine community bonds and weaken enemy resistance (D. K. Cohen, 2013). In sum, being young, female, marginalized, and disempowered places individuals at a higher risk of sexual assault.


Throughout history and to the present day, rape is often used in war as a weapon to terrorize and demoralize the enemy and as an instrument of ethnic cleansing. Before and during World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army forced “comfort women” from occupied East and Southeast Asian countries into prostitution. In the Kosovo war in the late 1990s, Serbian and Yugoslav forces frequently used rape to terrorize civilians and force ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo. While the Geneva Conventions of 1949 did not mention rape or sexual violence by name, they did classify torture and inhumane treatment as grave breaches (war crimes). It was not until the late 1990s, with the Yugoslav and Rwandan tribunals, that rape was explicitly codified as a crime against humanity, which resulted in more systematic enforcement of rules against rape as a war crime (Paterson, 2016).

Chinese and Malaysian girls forced to serve as sexual slaves (known as “comfort women”) for Japanese troops during World War II.

Source: Lemon A E (Sergeant), No 9 Army Film & Photographic Unit

Rates of sexual assault also differ across gendered social contexts. For example, military contexts are typically male-dominated settings characterized by strict hierarchies, strong loyalty ties, and values of toughness and aggressiveness (Turchik & Wilson, 2010). In such settings, sexual assault rates of both women and men tend to be relatively high, and powerful norms discourage victims from reporting assaults. One study of over 5,200 students at three U.S. military academies found that 24% of women and 8% of men were sexually assaulted in the past year, and 5% of women and 2% of men were raped in the past year (Snyder, Fisher, Scherer, & Daigle, 2012). Moreover, 45% of female and 12% of male sexual assault victims reported polyvictimization, meaning that they experienced more than one type of aggressive victimization (e.g., sexual assault, physical abuse, and bullying). Not surprisingly, polyvictimization predicts more severe trauma symptoms, even in comparison with repeated exposure to the same type of aggression (H. A. Turner, Finkelhor, & Ormrod, 2010).

Polyvictimization Experiencing more than one type of aggressive victimization.

Sexual assault is also quite common on college campuses, particularly for women. Recall from the beginning of the chapter that 26% of U.S. female undergraduates across 33 different universities reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact since entering college (Cantor et al., 2020). These numbers are comparable to those in a 2007 survey of over 6,800 students at two large U.S. universities in which 19% of women and 6% of men disclosed experiencing completed or attempted sexual assault while in college. Compared with other racial and ethnic groups in the 2007 survey, Black women were more likely to be sexually assaulted through physical force, whereas White women were more likely to be sexually assaulted when they were incapacitated with drugs or alcohol (Krebs, Lindquist, Warner, Fisher, & Martin, 2007). Moreover, as mentioned in the chapter opening, 22.8% of transgender, genderqueer, and gender nonbinary students reported nonconsensual sexual contact (Cantor et al., 2020).

Alcohol intoxication plays a role in the high rates of campus sexual assault. Research conducted in the 1980s and 1990s showed that approximately half of all sexual assaults on campus involved alcohol use by the victim and/or perpetrator (Abbey, Zawacki, Buck, Clinton, & McAuslan, 2004). In a more recent meta-analysis, 2%—14% of college women reported being raped while under the influence of alcohol or drugs (Fedina, Holmes, & Backes, 2018). Note that the association between alcohol consumption and rape does not mean that consuming alcohol causes rape. Since rape is a complexly determined crime based on an array of perpetrator characteristics, focusing prevention efforts too heavily on any one factor (e.g., alcohol consumption) is ineffective (Klein, Rizzo, Cherry, & Woofter, 2018).

Note that self-reports of rape underestimate its actual frequency for several reasons. For instance, unacknowledged rape is a phenomenon in which individuals have experiences that meet legal definitions of rape without labeling their experience as such. Consider an individual who was intoxicated during a rape, an individual who did not fight back or say “no” despite not giving consent, or an individual who was dating or married to the perpetrator at the time of the assault. Because these scenarios do not match stereotypical scripts for rape (e.g., a stranger forcefully attacking someone who fights back and says “No!”), people who experience them may not identify them as rape. Some estimates indicate that up to 73% of women and 76% of men who experience rape do not label their experiences as rape (Artime, McCallum, & Peterson, 2014; Littleton, Rhatigan, & Axsom, 2007). What accounts for unacknowledged rape? One predictor is endorsement of rape myths, or false beliefs about rape, rape victims, and rapists (Suarez & Gadalla, 2010). People who more strongly endorse rape myths tend to interpret sexual violence as “rape” less often, especially if it involves circumstances that do not match their typical scripts for rape (Sasson & Paul, 2014). See Table 14.2 for some common rape myths.

Unacknowledged rape An experience that meets the legal definition of rape but is not labeled as rape by the victim.

Rape myths Widely held false beliefs about rape, rape victims, and rapists.

Table 14.2

Rape myths are false beliefs about rape, rape victims, and rapists. People who more strongly endorse these beliefs are less likely to label acts as rape even when they meet legal definitions of rape, and they are also more likely to blame rape victims for their own assault.

Source: Adapted from M. R. Burt (1980) and Payne, Lonsway, and Fitzgerald (1999).


Why do you think that there is sometimes a discrepancy between legal definitions of rape and people’s tendency to label their own experiences as rape? What do you think this gap reflects? What steps could be taken to decrease this discrepancy?

Due to rape myths and stereotypes that overwhelmingly portray women as the victims of rape, people are less likely to acknowledge men as victims of rape. As noted, however, men do experience rape, and they are especially likely to be victims of rape in certain masculine environments, such as the military and prisons (O’Brien, Keith, & Shoemaker, 2015; Struckman-Johnson & Struckman-Johnson, 2006). Being a victim of sexual assault can be especially stigmatizing for men because it runs counter to prescriptive stereotypes that men should be tough protectors who stand up for themselves (Javaid, 2015). Because of this, men may be much less likely than women to report their rapes to police or other officials (Weiss, 2010).

Who Commits Sexual Violence?

As discussed, men and women can both be victims of rape, but who is more likely to commit sexual violence? In this case, the rape stereotype is true: Most rapists are men. In a nationally representative survey of U.S. residents, men committed 98.1% of rapes of girls and women and 93.3% of rapes of boys and men (Black et al., 2011). But unlike common scripts for rape, most sexual assaults do not involve an armed stranger who attacks a victim on a dark street late at night. Rapists use weapons in only about 11% of assaults, and rape victims typically know their offenders. In the United States, only 22% of sexual assaults are committed by strangers, in contrast to 38% committed by acquaintances, 34% by intimate partners, and 6% by relatives. Also in the United States, 48% of sexual assault perpetrators are age 30 or older, and 57% are White (Planty, Langton, Krebs, Berzofsky, & Smiley-McDonald, 2013). In a later section (“What Explains Gender-Based Aggression and Violence?”), we will dig deeper into some explanations for sexual violence and gender-based aggression.

The Aftermath of Sexual Violence

Experiencing sexual violence has serious impacts on psychological and physical health in both women and men. In a nationally representative sample of adults in the United States, sexual violence victimization predicted higher rates of depression, anxiety disorders, concentration problems, agitation, sleep problems, and energy loss among both women and men (Choudhary, Smith, & Bossarte, 2012). Another U.S. study of predominantly low-income, Black women veterans found that sexual and intimate partner violence victimization predicted physical symptoms, such as back pain, pelvic pain, fatigue, and nausea (R. Campbell, Greeson, Bybee, & Raja, 2008). In a study of rape in South Africa, a country with one of the highest sexual violence rates in the world, rural women reported elevated levels of depression following rape, which increased over time, especially if their social support systems became critical and disapproving after the rape (Wyatt et al., 2017).

A protest against sexual violence in Toronto. This sign draws attention to the practice of blaming rape victims based on their clothing or appearance.

Source: ©

As mentioned previously, sexual violence is an underreported crime. National surveys in both the United Kingdom and the United States reveal that only 20%—34% of people who experience sexual violence report their assaults to law enforcement authorities (Sinozich & Langton, 2014; Walby & Allen, 2004). A study of female college students in the United States showed that only 5% reported their assault to police or campus authorities, although almost 70% disclosed their victimization informally to someone else, usually a friend. When survivors do not report sexual assault to police, their reasons include fears that they lack adequate proof, police will not take them seriously, their families will find out, and the perpetrators will retaliate. One study showed that compared with Latina and White women, Black women were more likely to report their sexual victimization to the police (B. S. Fisher, Daigle, Cullen, & Turner, 2003). In addition, people reported stereotypical incidents of sexual assault (e.g., perpetrated by a stranger or with a weapon) to the police more often than less stereotypical incidents.

A culture of victim blaming also contributes to the underreporting of sexual assault crimes, and examples of victim blaming permeate the media. Consider this headline from a Montreal newspaper regarding a gang rape of a 15-year-old girl: “Presumed Gang-Rape Victim Had Consumed Too Much Alcohol” (Drimonis, 2017). Similarly, following a 2012 case in Steubenville, Ohio, in which two high school football players kidnapped and raped a 16-year-old girl, some members of the community blamed the girl for her assault because she had been drinking (Macur & Schweber, 2012). In fact, people judge female victims who were drinking alcohol at the time of their rape as more responsible for the assault compared with victims who were not drinking (Sims, Noel, & Maisto, 2007). Furthermore, men tend to assign more blame to rape victims than women do, and White men assign more blame to Black than to White female rape victims (Donovan, 2007). People also blame gay male rape victims more than heterosexual male rape victims for their assaults (White & Yamawaki, 2009).

What about false rape allegations, in which a person knowingly accuses an innocent individual of rape? How often does this occur? To determine the number of false rape allegations precisely, it is important to distinguish between mistaken reports of rape that the accuser believes to be true (e.g., involving mistaken identity) and false allegations that the accuser knows to be false. Best estimates from the results of a meta-analysis indicate that 5.2% of rape allegations are false (C. E. Ferguson & Malouff, 2016). Thus, false allegations of rape are quite rare and are comparable to rates of false allegations of other felonies, such as murder (Gross, 2008).

False rape allegations Accusations of rape that the accuser knows to be false.

Much more often, rapists get away with their crimes without facing an investigation, trial, or jail time. Only a minority of reported rape cases result in the successful prosecution of the offender (Morris, 2013). However, the race/ethnicity of the perpetrator makes a difference in rates of successful prosecution of rape cases. For example, although more than half of sexual assault perpetrators in the United States are White (Planty et al., 2013), White people are disproportionately less likely to be arrested for rape, whereas Black and Latinx people are disproportionately more likely to be arrested for rape (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2015b). Further, when socioeconomically privileged White people are arrested and even convicted of rape, they may receive more lenient sentences than racial and ethnic minority perpetrators. Consider the case of Brock Turner, a White Stanford University student who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman in 2015. Although Turner was convicted of three felony counts of sexual assault and his convictions carried a 2-year minimum sentence, the judge gave him 6 months in county jail out of concern (among other reasons) that his future would be negatively impacted by a prison sentence (“Stanford Sexual Assault,” 2016). The tendency to prosecute and sentence dominant versus subordinate group members differentially for sexual assault reflects a hierarchical social structure in which White people tend to have more power and privilege in the penal system than do people of color.

Given the gravity of the sexual assault problem in the United States and around the world, education and prevention efforts are critical. Positive steps are slowly being taken, with an increase in initiatives and organizations addressing sexual assault. For example, in 2005, the Department of Defense formally approved a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Policy and established the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office to oversee the policy. They also trained thousands of sexual assault response coordinators who act as first responders when dealing with sexual assault in the military. In 2014, the Obama-Biden administration launched the It’s On Us initiative, an awareness and education campaign to end sexual assault on college campuses. In addition to recruiting celebrities to make public service announcements, the campaign challenged college students across the United States to become active participants in preventing sexual assault. By 2015, over 250,000 college students had signed a pledge to do the following: (a) intervene to prevent sexual assault when it is happening, (b) recognize that if no consent is given, then the act is sexual assault, and (c) create a new culture that supports survivors and rejects sexual assault. Beyond the United States, UN Women, a United Nations organization dedicated to achieving gender equality and empowering women, specifically addresses the problem of sexual violence worldwide ( This group launched initiatives around the globe to increase survivors’ access to services, influence the adoption of laws and policies that protect survivors and punish perpetrators, and create safe spaces where women and girls can be free from sex-based harassment and violence.

Aggression and Violence Against LGBTQ Populations

LGBTQ populations are especially likely to be targeted for violence because of hostility to their sexual orientation or gender identity. This violence takes many forms, from bullying, sexual assault, harassment, and hate crimes, to murder. Bullying and harassment of LGBTQ people is pervasive in schools (Orue & Calvete, 2018), workplaces (Hollis & McCalla, 2013), and the military (Castro & Goldback, 2018). In a study of workplace climate for LGBTQ employees in the United States, the majority (58%) reported overhearing derogatory comments or jokes about LGBTQ individuals (Human Rights Campaign, 2009). Moreover, of transgender individuals who are open about their identity at work, 47% experience adverse job consequences (e.g., being fired or denied a promotion), and 78% experience other forms of discrimination or mistreatment due to their transgender or gender-nonconforming identities. This mistreatment is more pronounced for transgender people of color (Grant et al., 2011). Geographically, some neighborhoods may be more dangerous than others for LGBTQ individuals. One analysis in Boston found that LGBTQ youth who reported more relational aggression and online bullying tended to live in neighborhoods that had higher rates of LGBTQ-related hate crimes (Hatzenbuehler, Duncan, & Johnson, 2015).

Why are LGBTQ people so often targets of violence? Ironically, as societal attitudes toward LGBTQ people become more positive, this may trigger more acts of violence, as the perpetrators of these acts see shifting societal norms as a threat to their worldviews (Park & Mykhyalyshyn, 2016). More specifically, one theory proposes that heterosexual, cisgender people display more homophobia, transphobia and anti-LGBTQ aggression-proneness if they perceive LGBTQ people as threats to three different worldviews: social conventionalism (strong commitment to social conformity), hypermasculinity (strong commitment to traditional masculine norms), and benevolent sexism (beliefs that “good” women should uphold traditional gender norms; Nagoshi, Cloud, Lindley, Nagoshi, & Lothamer, 2019). Consistent with this theory, heterosexual cisgender women and men report more homophobia and transphobia when they are higher in right-wing authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism (components of social conventionalism). In turn, heterosexual, cisgender men higher in homophobia and transphobia report more aggression-proneness toward gay men and transwomen, presumably because they view these latter groups as violating traditional male norms. And among heterosexual, cisgender women, benevolent sexism correlates with transphobia, presumably because transgender people challenge gender roles and may therefore threaten the benefits that feminine, cisgender women gain from benevolent sexism. We explore different explanations for gender-based violence in the next section.


Violence against LGBTQ populations gained attention in the United States in the 1990s with two high-profile cases: the brutal murders of Brandon Teena, a transgender man, in 1993 and Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, in 1998. These cases brought widespread visibility to transphobic and antigay violence in the United States. In 1999, the film Boys Don’t Cry starring Hilary Swank depicted Brandon Teena’s life. In 1998, Shepard’s parents created the Matthew Shepard Foundation to support and advocate for LGBTQ youth and to decrease the hatred directed at the LGBTQ community ( In 2009, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded federal hate crime law to protect individuals on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability.

The murders of Matthew Shepard (pictured here) and Brandon Teena in the 1990s brought widespread visibility to transphobic and antigay violence in the United States.

Source: Getty Images / Steve Liss / Contributor


How can we make sense of various forms of gender-based aggression? To understand the causes of gender-based aggression, some researchers focus on person-level, individual factors. For example, individuals who experienced childhood abuse or witnessed domestic violence as children are more likely to perpetrate intimate partner violence as adults (Whitefield, Anda, Dube, & Felitti, 2003). Furthermore, individuals who have difficulty regulating their emotions tend to perpetrate more intimate partner violence (Shorey, Brasfield, Febres, & Stuart, 2011), as do men who abuse alcohol and who hold hostile, sexist attitudes about women (Renzetti, Lynch, & DeWall, 2018). Hostile attitudes toward women also play a role in men’s sexual assault tendencies. According to the confluence model of sexual aggression, two primary factors that predict men’s sexual aggression against women are hostile attitudes toward women and a preference for impersonal sex that lacks emotional closeness (Malamuth & Hald, 2016). These two factors jointly predict male-to-female sexual assault among college students, community samples, and convicted sex offenders (Forbes, Adams-Curtis, & White, 2004; Widman, Olson, & Bolen, 2013). Other risk factors for sexual assault perpetration among college men include having more adverse childhood events, having more antisocial personality traits, engaging in more risky behavior, and approving of the use of alcohol to gain sexual compliance (G. H. Burgess, 2007; Zinzow & Thompson, 2015). Finally, the greater average physical size and strength of men relative to women likely plays a role in their greater tendencies toward gender-based aggression. In general, the larger the person, the more likely he or she is to behave aggressively, both between and within the sexes (DeWall, Bushman, Giancola, & Webster, 2010).

Despite these individual risk factors, no single profile of a violent person can accurately describe all perpetrators of violence. With a phenomenon as complex as gender-based aggression, individual-level factors cannot provide a full explanation. Some researchers thus look beyond individual factors and take a more comprehensive view of interactive forces that underlie gender-based aggression. In this section, we consider factors ranging from the biological to the sociocultural.

Biological Factors


Men, compared with women, have higher average concentrations of testosterone, an androgen produced by both sexes (see Chapter 3, “The Nature and Nurture of Sex and Gender”). Boys and girls do not differ much in their testosterone levels until puberty, when testosterone levels increase greatly in boys. By adulthood, men’s testosterone levels are about 15 times higher, on average, than women’s, although there is within-sex variation in testosterone levels (Severson & Barclay, 2015). It is tempting to conclude that testosterone and aggression are linked. After all, men tend to be more aggressive than women, they tend to have higher testosterone, and both aggression and testosterone levels peak in young adulthood. This pattern holds true for nonhuman animals as well. Nearly all male mammals show more physical aggression than females of the same species. One exception, however, is the spotted hyena. Female spotted hyenas are more physically aggressive, muscular, and dominant than their male counterparts, and they also have relatively high testosterone levels compared with females of other mammalian species (Goymann, East, & Hofer, 2001).

We should be careful, however, in drawing links between nonhuman animal behavior and human behavior. The links between testosterone and aggression in humans are fairly weak (Book, Starzyk, & Quinsey, 2001) and weaker than those found among nonhuman animals (Benton, 1983). Moreover, links between testosterone and aggression in humans are correlational, and correlation does not equal causation. Testosterone may influence aggressive behavior, but certain social situations can cause changes in testosterone. For instance, testosterone levels rise and fall in response to winning or losing sports matches (Archer, 1991), and holding a gun briefly in a laboratory increases men’s testosterone levels (Klinesmith, Kasser, & McAndrew, 2006). In short, testosterone is a complex hormone, and its role in human aggression requires further study.

Evolved Jealousy

Evolutionary psychologists emphasize male jealousy as a primary motive for men’s violence against women (M. I. Wilson & Daly, 1996). Recall from Chapter 10 (“Interpersonal Relationships”) that male paternity was uncertain throughout most of humans’ evolutionary history. Because conception occurs inside a woman’s body, ancestral men—lacking the benefits of modern paternity-testing technology—could not be 100% certain that any given child belonged to them. Faced with this paternity uncertainty, men may have evolved heightened sensitivity to cues of a partner’s infidelity because a female partner who mates with other men may become impregnated by them. Thus, a man who remains indifferent to his partner’s infidelity risks two undesired outcomes: First, he may not pass on his own genes, and second, he may unwittingly invest resources to raise someone else’s offspring (a phenomenon referred to as cuckoldry). According to this perspective, men’s jealousy is an adaptive strategy that facilitates reproductive success. Note also that jealousy may motivate men to control their partners with mate retention tactics, including violence (Buss & Shackelford, 1997). In support of this theory, jealousy is the most frequent reason offered for male-initiated intimate partner violence (M. I. Wilson & Daly, 1996).

Sociocultural Factors

Although biology plays a role in gender-based aggression, biological factors do not make aggression inevitable. Cultural scripts about the way men and women are supposed to interact also shape people’s ideas about acceptable and unacceptable behavior. For example, the idea that men are “predators” and women are “prey” is a common metaphor in popular songs, movies, and books. This predator—prey metaphor can normalize sexual harassment and sexual assault. Just reading about a heterosexual dating scenario that uses predator—prey metaphors can make men more likely to accept rape myths (Bock & Burkley, 2019). More generally, cultures vary widely in aggressive tendencies, with aggression, violence, and warfare occurring frequently in some societies (e.g., Afghanistan, Chad, and Sudan) and almost never in others. Consider the Che Wong people of Malaysia, whose language lacks words for aggression, war, quarreling, and fighting (Bonta, 1993). In North America, contemporary nonaggressive cultures include the Amish, the Hutterites, and the Mennonites. This suggests that cultural norms can influence how people interpret and respond to conflict situations. In this section, we examine how honor, power, structural inequality, and other contextual factors impact gender-based aggression.

Honor Cultures

Honor cultures, typically found in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the southern United States, are reputation-based cultures in which norms dictate that men defend their own reputations and those of their family members, with violence if necessary (Nisbett & Cohen, 1996). Men in honor cultures police the behavior of their family members, and women are expected to avoid any behavior (e.g., sexual promiscuity and infidelity) that could dishonor or shame the family. In these cultures, people perceive men as less honorable and manly if their wives commit infidelity (Vandello & Cohen, 2003). Rates of male-to-female violence tend to be relatively high in honor cultures, and community members generally accept male violence that is committed against wives in retaliation for infidelity (Brown, Baughman, & Carvallo, 2018; Vandello, Cohen, Grandon, & Franiuk, 2009). For example, honor killings typically involve the murder of a female relative who has shamed the family by, for example, committing infidelity, refusing an arranged marriage, seeking a divorce, or being raped (Abu-Rabia, 2011). Consider the case of Gul Meena, a 12-year-old Pakistani girl who was married off to a 60-year-old man and survived regular beatings by him before she fled to Afghanistan with a boyfriend at age 17. Gul’s brother tracked and attacked them with an axe, killing Gul’s boyfriend and severely injuring her (A. J. Rubin, 2012). These attacks, which occur in the thousands every year around the world, stem from ingrained cultural beliefs that place personal and family honor at the center of all social life.

Honor culture A culture in which individual and family honor is at the center of all social life and men are expected to defend their own and their family’s honor with violence if necessary.

Honor killing The murder of a (typically female) family member who is perceived to have brought shame or dishonor to the family.

The same cultural emphasis on family honor can also motivate other forms of violence against intimate partners. In some South Asian countries, such as Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, it is not uncommon for women to experience dowry deaths or acid attacks. In dowry deaths, a bride’s husband or in-laws murder her after her family fails to provide an adequate dowry (goods provided by the bride’s family to the groom at marriage; Babu & Babu, 2011). In some cases of dowry deaths, brides commit suicide to escape the violent threats made by their husbands or in-laws. In acid attacks, rejected men throw sulfuric acid onto women or girls to punish them for refusing marriage proposals or denying sex (Patel, 2014). Despite being illegal in many countries, these violent practices are still sometimes tolerated or excused in the name of family honor.

Precarious Manhood

Even outside honor cultures, men may use aggression to “save face” following challenges to their gender status. As discussed in Chapter 4 (“Gender Development”), people in many cultures view manhood as a more precarious social status than womanhood (Vandello & Bosson, 2013). That is, people see manhood as something that must be proven and that can be lost through unmanly behaviors, and this may encourage some men to prove their manhood with aggression. To illustrate this idea, Bosson and colleagues had some men braid a mannequin’s hair, a stereotypically feminine task that was intended to challenge men’s gender status (Bosson, Vandello, Burnaford, Weaver, & Wasti, 2009). In a control group, men braided rope, which was a more gender-neutral version of the braiding task. All men were then given the option of either solving a “brainteaser” puzzle or punching a heavy bag. As predicted, more men in the hair-braiding group (50%) chose the punching activity, relative to the men in the control group (22%). In another experiment, all men punched a heavy bag after braiding either hair or rope, and the men who had braided hair punched harder than those who braided rope. Although these studies did not measure aggression toward another person, it is not difficult to imagine that men might use aggression against others to reestablish threatened manhood. In fact, men commit more violence against intimate partners to the extent that they are higher in male discrepancy stress, which is anxiety about not being masculine enough (Reidy, Berke, Gentile, & Zeichner, 2014). Of course, just because boys and men sometimes behave aggressively as a display of masculinity, it does not mean that others actually view them as masculine for doing so. One study found that women do not find men’s aggression as attractive and desirable as men assume they will (Vandello, Ransom, Hettinger, & Askew, 2009).

Male discrepancy stress Anxiety that boys and men feel about not living up to masculine expectations set by society.

Pakistani Sabira Sultana was burned as a teenager by her husband for not providing a dowry. She has since undergone 35 reconstructive surgeries, provided by a charitable medical foundation in Pakistan.

Source: Getty Images / Paula Bronstein / Staff

Power and Structural Gender Inequality

Some theoretical models focus on the role of patriarchal social structures in gender-based aggression and violence (Hunnicutt, 2009). On the one hand, the socioeconomic dependence perspective proposes that when men have more power and financial resources than women, they might be more likely to use intimate partner violence as a means of exerting and maintaining control. On the other hand, the status inconsistency perspective states that when men are in relationships with female partners who have greater status and financial power than they do, they may feel emasculated and thus use intimate partner violence to exert power (Atkinson, Greenstein, & Lang, 2005). While there is little evidence to support the socioeconomic dependence perspective in terms of intimate partner violence, you may recall from Chapter 6 (“Power, Sexism, and Discrimination”) that countries characterized by greater gender inequality also have higher national levels of male-to-female sexual violence in general (Yodanis, 2004). Thus, patriarchal power structures are associated with increases in some, but not all, types of gender-based aggression.

What about the status inconsistency perspective? A study of 42,000 randomly sampled women from the 28 European Union countries found that the three EU countries with the highest levels of male-to-female intimate partner violence were Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, and the three EU countries with the lowest levels were Poland, Austria, and Croatia (Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2014). This finding is called the Nordic paradox because Nordic countries simultaneously have the highest gender equality and the highest levels of male-to-female intimate partner violence in Europe. Consistent with the status inconsistency perspective, researchers explain the Nordic paradox in terms of backlash against Nordic women for occupying a relatively high status in society (Gracia & Merlo, 2016). Note, of course, that this pattern is correlational, which means that an unmeasured third variable might explain it. What third variables can you think of to explain the Nordic paradox?

Socioeconomic dependence perspective The hypothesis that men use violence as a means of maintaining control over partners who are economically dependent on them and thus unlikely to leave.

Beyond intimate partner violence, several systematic forms of aggression against women and girls around the world reflect issues of power. In cultures that are higher in hostile sexism, men may express dominance and reinforce the structural inequality of women and girls through ritualized forms of aggression. For example, female genital mutilation (sometimes called female genital cutting or female circumcision) is the practice of removing or injuring the female external genitalia for nonmedical reasons. This practice, which is most common in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, reflects the beliefs that it encourages modesty, reduces sexual libido, and increases girls’ and women’s desirability as marriage partners. Worldwide, over 200 million girls, most younger than age 15, have been injured in this manner (WHO, 2017). Despite leading to long-lasting negative health consequences and being condemned by the World Health Organization, genital mutilation persists because its proponents see it as a valued cultural ritual and an important part of cultural identity.


Is female genital mutilation unconditionally wrong? What about other cultural practices that surgically alter the genitals, such as male circumcision or surgery to “correct” the genitals of infants who are born intersex? How do we decide whether or not a cultural practice constitutes harmful aggression, particularly if it has wide cultural acceptance?

In some cultures, families arrange the marriage of girls younger than age 18 (and sometimes as young as 5) to much older men. Child marriage occurs around the world but predominates in South Asia, Africa, and Latin America (Nour, 2009). In most cases, child brides do not meet their future husbands before the wedding. Several organizations, including the United Nations Population Fund and the World Health Organization, call child marriages a violation of human rights and work to stop this practice. Similarly, many countries define this practice as child rape.

Status inconsistency perspective The hypothesis that men engage in partner violence more often when they feel threatened by partners who have greater economic status and power than they do.

Female genital mutilation Removing or injuring the external genitalia of girls or young women for nonmedical reasons; also known as female genital cutting or female circumcision.

Child marriage Arranged marriages of girls to much older men.

Given that female genital mutilation and child marriage occur in cultural contexts that value these practices, they complicate the use of the term aggression. Remember that social psychologists define aggression as behavior “intended to harm” a person or animal. But if a culture believes that female genital mutilation enhances girls’ desirability and value, then can we label this practice aggression? Although there is disagreement about this question, we cover these practices here because of their roots in structural gender inequalities. In cultural contexts in which girls and women systematically lack power, access to resources, and educational opportunities, they become especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. In these contexts, men (and sometimes women) use aggression against women and girls as a tool to reinforce power differences and maintain the gender hierarchy. Further, when the value of girls and women is tied largely to their ability to bear children or provide sexual gratification, it becomes more socially acceptable to target them with physical aggression and violence.

Finally, the trafficking of young women and children into prostitution remains widespread in many parts of the world (Hodge & Lietz, 2007). Sex trafficking refers to the forced, nonconsensual recruitment and retention of persons for sexual use and exploitation. Although it is difficult to know precisely how many people are victims of sex trafficking, the International Labour Organization (2014) estimates that there are about 4.5 million victims worldwide, with most being girls and women. Sex trafficking occurs throughout the world, with particularly high rates in Burma, Turkmenistan, Algeria, Belarus, and Venezuela (U.S. Department of State, 2016). In the United States, the cities with the largest child sex industries are Atlanta, Miami, and San Diego (Dank et al., 2014), with an estimate of over 100,000 victims of child sex trafficking across the United States (Kotrla, 2010). Many experts describe the sex trafficking industry in economic terms of supply, demand, costs, and benefits. As long as societies routinely encourage the commodification of sex, consumers will demand it, and sex trafficking will rise to meet that demand. Furthermore, sex trafficking will remain a serious problem as long as its profits outweigh the physical and criminal risks of traffickers (Wheaton, Schauer, & Galli, 2010). The International Labour Organization (2014) estimates that profits from sex trafficking worldwide are about $99 billion annually.

Sex trafficking Forced, nonconsensual recruitment and retention of persons for sexual use and exploitation.

I3 theory The theory that partner violence depends on the interplay of three factors: provocation by a partner (instigation), forces that create a strong urge to aggress (impellance), and forces that decrease the likelihood of aggression (inhibition).

I3 Theory

Note that explanations for gender-based aggression rooted in jealousy, honor, and patriarchy better explain heterosexual male-to-female violence than female-to-male, male-to-male, and female-to-female violence. In contrast, the I3 (pronounced I-cubed) theory, which examines intimate partner violence through the lens of self-regulation, can explain violence across relationship types. According to this theory, whether or not a conflict situation escalates into intimate partner violence depends on the interplay of three processes: instigation, impellance, and inhibition. Instigation refers to provocations by the partner in conflict situations. Impellance refers to dispositional or situational forces (e.g., an aggressive personality or intoxication) that increase the likelihood of aggression in response to instigation. Inhibition refers to dispositional or situational factors (e.g., self-control or the presence of a police officer) that decrease the likelihood of aggression. Thus, I5 theory conceptualizes intimate partner violence as a product of competing urges to aggress and to inhibit aggression following partner provocation. In support of I5 theory, a combination of strong provocation and weak inhibitory control does, in fact, predict intimate partner violence (Finkel et al., 2012).

In the Chukri System in India and Bangladesh, young adolescent girls are forced into prostitution to pay off debts.

Source: Alexander Johns / Alamy Stock Photo


Definitions and Prevalence

Now that we have considered some explanations for gender-based aggression, let’s turn to a more applied area: the relationship between pornography and sexual aggression. Pornography is among the most frequently viewed material on the Internet, more popular than other commonly viewed material such as maps, weather forecasts, dictionaries, and games. From 2009 to 2010, about 4% of the top million visited websites were sex related and about 13% of all Web searches were for erotic content (Ogas & Gaddam, 2011). Perhaps not surprisingly, pornography is very profitable, typically generating more revenue annually than all mainstream Hollywood studios combined (Bridges, Wosnitzer, Scharrer, Sun, & Liberman, 2010). Given the popularity of pornography, sexuality researchers have long been interested in the connection between pornography use and sexual aggression.

There are many types of pornography, but here we will focus primarily on aggressive pornography, or sexually explicit material that is meant to arouse and that contains acts of physical or verbal aggression, degradation, or humiliation. In contrast, erotica is sexually explicit material that is meant to arouse but that is nonaggressive.

Aggressive pornography Sexually explicit material that is meant to arouse and that contains acts of physical or verbal aggression, degradation, or humiliation.

Erotica Sexually explicit nonaggressive material that is meant to arouse.


Pornography, or at least the graphic display of human sexuality, has existed for millennia around the world. Ancient Greek and Roman frescos depicted graphic sex acts. In the second century, India gave us the Kama Sutra, a love manual that included descriptions of creative sexual positions. For centuries, Japanese artists created erotic woodblock prints called shunga. And filmmakers began making sexually explicit movies almost as soon as motion pictures were invented.

Politicians, religious leaders, and feminist scholars have voiced concern about pornography for decades, but scientific research on pornography—and its effects on aggression and violence toward women—did not begin until the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1969, President Lyndon Johnson set up the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. Based on the finding that sexual crimes did not increase in Denmark after the country legalized pornography in 1969 (Kutchinsky, 1970), the commission concluded that there was no evidence that pornography was a serious social problem.

Pornography briefly entered a period of mainstream acceptance in the early 1970s with the release of films such as Deep Throat, which was a box office hit. While some praised pornography as a sign of increased sexual freedom, religious leaders criticized it as an indication of moral decay, and feminist scholars argued that pornography exploits women and encourages sexual violence against them (Brownmiller, 1975). As pornography made its way into homes on videocassette tapes in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan set up a commission in 1985 to investigate its effects. The commission, which consisted of a majority of antipornography activists, concluded that pornography had harmful effects on its users, although several psychologists immediately criticized the report as biased and inaccurate (Wilcox, 1987).

Scientific research on pornography grew during the 1980s. During this decade, researchers began to distinguish between nonviolent erotica and aggressive pornography (Malamuth, 1984), a distinction that proved important in predicting sexual aggression. However, in the early 1990s, the growth of the Internet made public access to pornography so easy that it became difficult for researchers to locate adequate numbers of “control” participants, or people who had no exposure to pornography (Liew, 2009).

Despite increasing research on pornography and aggression over the past four decades, the research community remains divided about whether exposure to pornography causes sexually violent attitudes and behavior. Some meta-analyses of experimental studies show that pornography exposure increases aggressive behavior (M. Allen, D’Alessio, & Brezgel, 1995), but research findings are inconsistent. This led Neil Malamuth and his colleagues to conclude that some individuals are both more likely to seek out pornography and more likely to be impacted by it negatively. That is, the individuals who show the greatest negative effects from watching aggressive pornography are men who are already predisposed toward sexual aggression and who watch pornography frequently (Malamuth, Hald, & Koss, 2012).

Researching pornography remains challenging. Pornography researchers face complex ethical considerations and a lack of federal research funds. In addition, pornography consumption is now so common that its meaning has changed from something private and stigmatized to something more mainstream and normative. Given the increasing acceptance and use of pornography in many Western cultures, understanding its effects is more important than ever.

Pornography and Sexual Aggression

What percentage of pornographic material contains images of violence, degradation, or humiliation of women? To answer this question, Ana Bridges and her colleagues randomly selected scenes from the 50 top-selling pornographic videos from December 2004 to June 2005 (Bridges et al., 2010). They found that 88% of scenes contained physical aggression (mostly spanking, gagging, and slapping) and about 49% of scenes contained verbal aggression such as name-calling (see Table 14.3). The perpetrators of aggression in these videos were overwhelmingly men, while the targets were women. Notably, targets of aggression in these videos usually reacted with pleasure or responded neutrally to their aggressive treatment. A more recent analysis of 400 videos from top pornography websites found lower rates of aggression, with 40% of scenes containing physical violence, most all of which portrayed women as the targets (Klaassen & Peter, 2015). Not all pornography is equally violent: Videos featuring Asian and Latina women may be more likely to contain aggression than videos featuring Black or White women (Shor & Golriz, 2019).

Table 14.3

These values are the percentages of total pornographic scenes (in best-selling pornography videos) that contain each type of aggression. As indicated, men are most often portrayed as the aggressor in these scenes, while women are most often portrayed as the targets of the aggression.

Source: Based on a content analysis of best-selling pornographic videos from 2004 to 2005 (Bridges, Wosnitzer, Scharrer, Sun, & Liberman, 2010).

Given the frequent depictions of aggression and degradation in pornography, some scholars view pornography as dangerous because it represents women as objects who exist for the pleasure of others (Dines, 2010). In contrast, other scholars view pornography as a healthy form of sexual expression. One study of over 800 adult pornography users found that 75% of them were “recreational users” who watch pornography occasionally, have low levels of distress or guilt associated with pornography viewing, and report relatively high levels of sexual satisfaction and functioning (Vaillancourt-Morel et al., 2017).

So, who is correct? As noted, not all pornography is the same, nor do all individuals engage with and react to it in the same way. Many factors predict whether pornography is healthy or harmful. The sexual callousness model attempts to account for the harmful effects of pornography (Zillmann & Weaver, 2012). This model argues that repeated exposure to pornography can desensitize and habituate viewers, leading to callous attitudes toward sex. Ultimately, this desensitization can disinhibit viewers’ sexually aggressive tendencies. In addition, pornography that portrays aggressors being rewarded for sexual aggression (e.g., female partners responding positively to victimization) may undermine men’s inhibitions against acting on rape desires (Malamuth, 1984). Finally, aggressive pornography may skew viewers’ perceptions of normal or typical sexual encounters, leading to the perception that sexual aggression is normative and expected (Häggström-Nordin, 2005).

Sexual callousness model A model proposing that repeated exposure to pornography desensitizes and habituates viewers, leading to callous sexual attitudes toward women.

The evidence supporting this theoretical model is mixed. Some (but not all) correlational research finds an association between pornography consumption and sexual aggression, but the effect sizes are small. A meta-analysis of correlational studies found that greater exposure to pornography predicted more real-life sexual aggression among both men (r = .29) and women (r = .26; P. J. Wright, Tokunga, & Kraus, 2016). In contrast, studies that examine associations on the cultural level find that as pornography becomes more widely available in cultures, rape rates do not tend to increase and sometimes they decrease (Kutchinsky, 1991). For instance, sexual assault rates in the United States have been decreasing for at least 20 years, just as pornography has become more readily available via the Internet (C. J. Ferguson & Hartley, 2009).

Reviews of experimental studies similarly draw mixed conclusions. Some reviews find causal relationships between exposure to pornography and both aggressive behavior and acceptance of sexual violence (M. Allen et al., 1995; Malamuth, Addison, & Koss, 2000). In contrast, other reviews find slim evidence for a causal effect of pornography on aggression (C. J. Ferguson & Hartley, 2009). These inconsistencies may reflect differences in the types of pornography being viewed and the features of the people viewing it. Exposure to erotica is typically not associated with aggression, but aggressive pornography exposure can cause harmful outcomes (Malamuth et al., 2000). Also, regular exposure to pornography is most likely to activate and reinforce aggressive tendencies among men who are already at high risk for sexual aggression (Malamuth et al., 2012). For these men, aggressive pornography exposure may intensify already existing desires or lower inhibitions against acting on their aggressive impulses. Moreover, only a small subset (about 12%) of people who consume pornography use it compulsively, meaning that they view it quite frequently, go to great lengths to obtain it, and feel addicted to it. These viewers, who are mostly men, experience intrusive sexual thoughts that they cannot control and report less satisfaction in their sex lives (Vaillancourt-Morel et al., 2017).

Questions about the effects of aggressive pornography on sexual violence are especially important because children and young adolescents in the United States are increasingly exposed to Internet pornography. In one nationally representative sample of Internet users ages 10—17, 42% reported being exposed to online pornography at least once in the past year, and most of the exposure occurred unintentionally, by accidentally landing on a pornographic site (Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhour, 2007). In short, young people today have far greater exposure to pornographic images than in past generations. What consequences do you think this might have on the development of young people’s sexual attitudes, beliefs, and experiences? This question merits further consideration.


· 14.1 Analyze research on sex differences and similarities across different types of aggression.

Aggression refers to behavior intended to harm another person or nonhuman animal. Unlike most other animals that rely primarily on physical aggression, humans have a wide repertoire of aggressive behaviors—some direct and physical and others more covert. Physical aggression includes behaviors such as hitting, kicking, shoving, or biting. Verbal aggression includes behaviors such as yelling or teasing. Indirect or relational aggression includes behaviors such as spreading rumors or excluding someone socially. Violence, defined as extreme physical aggression, is relatively rare, especially among women; verbal and indirect aggression occur more frequently.

Compared with women, men commit more physical violence, such as homicides and serious physical assaults, in most cultures. Men are also more often victims of violence, with the exception of sexual assault and intimate partner violence. Sexual, gender, and racial/ethnic minority individuals face disproportionate rates of aggression. Sex differences in physical aggression are larger in studies that include younger participants, occur in natural settings, and examine unprovoked aggression. Members of all sexes use verbal and indirect aggression with roughly the same frequency. Cyberbullying is becoming more common but shows only small sex differences. Children who both perpetrate and experience cyberbullying are more likely to attempt suicide.

· 14.2 Evaluate the gender dynamics of sex-based harassment, intimate partner violence, and sexual assault.

Sex-based harassment is behavior that derogates or humiliates an individual based on the individual’s sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Sex-based harassment occurs frequently in workplace, school, and military settings as well as in public spaces. Approximately 40%—60% of women and 10%—20% of men report workplace sex-based harassment in the United States, and rates of harassment are higher for racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender minority individuals. Women of color may experience racialized sex-based harassment, in which race-based and sex-based harassment are both present. Individuals who deviate from traditional gender role expectations have a heightened risk of sex-based harassment likely because they threaten the status quo.

Rates of intimate partner violence vary across cultures, but nearly a third of women around the world experience this form of aggression in their lifetime. Intimate partner violence occurs with similar frequency in same-sex and heterosexual relationships. By some metrics, men and women report roughly equal amounts of partner violence, at least in cultures where women have more status and power, but women more often experience severe injury from intimate partner violence. Women and men perpetrate situational couple violence at similar rates, whereas men perpetrate intimate terrorism more frequently than women.

Sexual assault refers to nonconsensual sexual contact. Consent means that all parties have an agreement, expressed through clear words or actions, to engage in sexual activity. In one large survey of college students in the United States, 19% of women and 6% of men disclosed experiencing completed or attempted sexual assault while in college. Rates of rape in the U.S. population vary by race and ethnicity, with higher rates for Native American and Black women than for Latina and White women. Higher rates of sexual assault occur among the disempowered, including young people, individuals with developmental disabilities, sex workers, people experiencing poverty and homelessness, undocumented immigrants, refugees, and prisoners. Rape survivors experience elevated rates of PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Most rapes are committed by men (regardless of victim sex) and by familiar individuals (acquaintances, relationship partners, or relatives). Rape myths—false beliefs about rape, rape survivors, and rapists—contribute to a culture of blaming survivors for their assaults. False accusations of rape are rare, and most perpetrators of rape escape prosecution and punishment, though this varies by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

· 14.3 Discuss biological and sociocultural factors that explain sex differences in gender-based aggression.

Both biological and sociocultural factors contribute to gender-based aggression. Testosterone, which is linked to aggression and dominance across species, may partly explain greater male physical aggression because men have higher concentrations of testosterone than women, particularly in puberty and young adulthood. However, testosterone can both produce and result from aggression, so testosterone cannot necessarily explain greater male aggression. The I5 theory argues that partner violence emerges from a combination of strong provocation and weak inhibitory control in the aggressor. Cultural concepts of honor and precarious manhood may also play roles. In honor cultures, men often use physical aggression to defend their honor (their personal and family reputation). Manhood is a relatively precarious social status, and men may restore their threatened gender status by using aggression. Systemic gender inequality in society can help explain specific forms of aggression such as sex trafficking, female genital mutilation, child marriage, and honor killing, which all victimize girls and women more than boys and men. The status inconsistency perspective states that men engage in partner violence more often when women challenge men’s greater status and power.

· 14.4 Use research findings on gender-based violence to understand the relationship between pornography and sexual aggression.

While erotica is sexually explicit nonaggressive material, aggressive pornography is sexually explicit material that contains acts of physical or verbal aggression, degradation, or humiliation. Aggression occurs frequently in pornography, with women most often the targets of the aggression. Feminist scholars view pornography as dangerous because it objectifies women and desensitizes viewers to aggression against women. Inconsistent findings leave researchers divided about whether pornography exposure causes sexually violent attitudes and behavior. Pornography varies in type, and not all individuals react to it the same way. Men who are predisposed toward sexual aggression tend to show the greatest negative effects from watching pornography, and only about 12% of people who consume pornography use it compulsively. Though debate continues on the harm caused by pornography, the majority of pornography users do not seem to suffer from negative consequences as a result of pornography.

Test Your Knowledge: True or False?

· 14.1. Around the world, young men commit the vast majority of violent crimes. (True: About 85% of all homicides and serious assaults are committed by young men.) [p. 510]

· 14.2. Girls use indirect, relational forms of aggression, such as gossip and spreading rumors, much more often than boys do. (False: Although early research suggested that girls were more likely than boys to use indirect aggression, recent reviews suggest sex differences that are close to zero.) [p. 513]

· 14.3. Approximately 20% of girls and 10% of boys worldwide experience some form of forced sexual activity before the age of consent. (True: Due to their lack of power, minors are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault.) [p. 515]

· 14.4. False allegations of rape are common. (False: Scholars estimate that only 5.2% of rape allegations are false, which is comparable to the percentage of false allegations of other felony crimes.) [p. 529]

· 14.5. Women who embody ideals of femininity are most likely to be targeted for workplace sex-based harassment. (False: Women who have more agentic traits, who are low in femininity, or who identify as feminists are most likely to be targeted for sex-based harassment.) [p. 519]

Descriptions of Images and Figures

Back to Figure

The graph is described as follows:

The horizontal axis shows the age range of male and female offenders.

The vertical axis shows the frequency of offending from 0 to 160 in increments of 20.

The given percentages are:

1. 0—11years:

1. Males: 0%

2. Females: 0%

2. 12 to 17 years:

1. Males: 33%

2. Females: 2%

3. 18 to 24 years:

1. Males: 152%

2. Females: 12%

4. 25 to 29 years:

1. Males: 85%

2. Females: 14%

5. 30 to 39 years:

1. Males: 94%

2. Females: 15%

6. 40 to 49 years:

1. Males: 48%

2. Females: 10%

7. 50 to 59 years:

1. Males: 38%

2. Females: 5%

8. 60 and older:

1. Males: 14%

2. Females: 3%

Back to Figure

The graph is described as follows:

The vertical axis shows various questions asked to men and women.

The horizontal axis shows the percentage from 0 to 60 in increments of 10.

The given percentages are:

1. Have you been touched by a man in an inappropriate way without consent?

1. Married Women’s Experiences: 54%

2. Men’s Estimates of their Wives’ Experiences: 31%

2. Do you frequently or sometimes hear sexist language?

1. Married Women’s Experiences: 41%

2. Men’s Estimates of their Wives’ Experiences: 26%

3. Do you frequently or sometimes feel judged as a sexual object?

1. Married Women’s Experiences: 30%

2. Men’s Estimates of their Wives’ Experiences: 21%

Back to Figure

The graph is described as follows:

The horizontal axis shows the different racial ethnic types of men and women.

The vertical axis shows the percentage experiencing Intimate Partner Violence from 0 to 60 in increments of 10.

The given percentages are:

1. Latinx:

1. Women: 37.1%

2. Men: 26.6%

2. Black:

1. Women: 43.7%

2. Men: 38.6%

3. White:

1. Women: 34.6%

2. Men: 28.2%

4. Asian or Pacific islander:

1. Women: 19.6%

2. Men: 0%

5. American Indian or Alaska Native:

1. Women: 46.6%

2. Men: 45.3%

6. Multiracial:

1. Women: 53.8%

2. Men: 39.3%