In 2015, according to a survey from the Association of American Universities, out of 150,000 women at 27 schools, one in four said they had been sexually assaulted (a broad term that includes a spectrum of offenses ranging from unwelcome touching to forced penetration) before finishing college.
A new study out of the University of Georgia, published in the journal Violence Against Women, may have some insight into why. Researchers surveyed 234 non-incarcerated male college students at a southeastern US university and found strong links between displays of pathological narcissism in their subjects and self-reported perpetration of sexual assault.
But while new evidence that strengthens arguments for what we already know—sexual crimes against women on college campuses are rampant, underreported, and often ignored by administrators—can be helpful, studies like this, when no longer viewed in a vacuum, can be used to perpetuate victim-blaming rhetoric and obscure the very real factors that contribute to college rape culture.
This isn't the first time that researchers have attempted to link the psychological disorder with the proclivity for sexual assault, the study notes. But this is the first time that college-age men have made up 100 percent of the sample pool, rather than, for example, incarcerated sex offenders, who wouldn't necessarily tell researchers a whole lot about unreported sexual assault that's endemic to college campuses.
What the authors set out to investigate were shared narcissistic personality traits between non-incarcerated sexual offenders (such as the male college students surveyed) and incarcerated ones.
"One of the things we tried to undermine was the idea that there's something fundamentally different about people who perpetrate sex assault and do get caught versus people who don't get caught," the study's lead author Emily Mouilso, a clinical assistant professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences' psychology department, told me. "Once you're incarcerated there's this idea that you're a dangerous maniac, yet non-incarcerated people who report similar behavior may be more likely to be excused. So one of the things I've been interested in is trying to test the assumption that personality traits and behavior patterns are radically different between college undergraduates and people convicted of sexual assault."
Narcissism isn't a singular disorder. It can be more or less broken down into two variants: pathological and non-pathological.
Non-pathological narcissism is frequently recognized as a "healthy" form of narcissism, the study says, and "can be somewhat beneficial because it manifests in high self-esteem and makes it easier for people to shake off failures." These types of people are often highly motivated and more self-assured than their peers.
Pathological narcissism (sometimes called "narcissistic personality disorder"), on the other hand, causes sufferers to feel inferior to others, but also project themselves as "arrogant, disparaging and self-absorbed." Those who experience it often display little compassion and more intense feelings of entitlement to things they desire, which according to researchers, makes it easier for them to rationalize aggressive and violent behavior as a means to get what they want.
"As we predicted, the aspects of narcissism that we thought would be related were [related]—the lack of empathy, the entitlement aspects of narcissism," said Mouilso in a statement.
In the survey of college men, those who reported having committed acts of sexual assault not only scored higher on narcissistic personality disorder traits, they also exhibited more willingness to use alcohol or date-rape drugs to incapacitate their victims, the study found.
To show the connection between narcissism and sexual assault, the study's authors employed a behavioral theory that posits many different pathways can lead to assault. In this case, researchers identified a significant overlap in the traits of pathological narcissism with two specific pathways.
The first they noted was promiscuity. If "people who have higher levels of sexual interest and more frequent sexual partners, they're more OK with impersonal sex. That's one stream of risk factors," said Mouilso.
The second was "the hostile masculinity path." This was defined as men holding adversarial opinions toward women and interactions with them. Typified by a lack of empathy, men who exhibited hostile masculinity were preoccupied by what they could get out of a woman and showed relatively little consideration for how she might feel about their relationship.
Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations at the American Association of University Women, advised that readers and other researchers hesitate before generalizing sexual assault as a byproduct of psychological disorders.
"I think that we need to understand that campus sexual assault is a complex problem. It comes down to misogyny and rape culture and stereotypes about both women and men. I would not want to see this study overly weighted in how we address campus sexual assault as a whole," she told me.
In terms of prevention and treatment programs, Maatz added, instead of focusing on the psychological catalysts for why some men commit sexual offenses against women, colleges and communities would be better off focusing on breaking down gender roles and stereotypes that keep women in powerless positions and enable violence toward them.
While the authors' findings highlighted important risk factors for sexual assault perpetrators, and in combination with other prevention programs could help to combat campus assault, it would be unfortunate if their study—and others like it—were ever used as an excuse for sexual violence, which is ultimately a matter of choice, and not a symptom of biology.