Religiosity linked to reduced sexual aggression and coercion in college men, study finds

New research provides evidence that college men who frequently participant in religious activities are less likely to engage in sexually aggressive and coercive behaviors. The findings appear in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

“Sexual aggression is a problem on college campuses, as is the use of electronic communication tools to try to coerce others into performing unwanted sexual acts,” explained study author Timothy Hagen of Epoka University.

“In examining the literature on religiosity and sexual aggression, we found that religiosity may reduce sexual aggression by college males by reducing alcohol consumption, which is a strong predictor of sexual aggression. Seeing hints that there may be other possible paths by which religiosity impacted sexual aggression (SA) and technology-based sexually coercive behavior (TBC) by college males, we wanted to explore whether social norms, pornography consumption, and promiscuity were paths by which religiosity might impact SA and TBC.”

For their study, the researchers surveyed 795 men at a large public university in their first, second, third, and fourth years of college. They found that religiosity had an influence on peer norms, pornography consumption, and promiscuity, which in turn had an influence on sexual aggression and sexually coercive behavior.

College men who reported participating in religious activities more often were less likely to say their current set of friends approved of forcing a woman to have sex. They were also less likely to report viewing sexually explicit material and tended to have a lower number of sexual partners.

“We thought that having friends who approved of sexual aggression would in turn encourage individuals to perpetrate sexual aggression and technology-based coercive behavior because peer norms have been found to powerfully impact norms and behavior,” Hagen told PsyPost. “Likewise, we hypothesized that pornography, which can provide depictions of violent sexual acts, may encourage sexual aggression and, as it is often provided via electronic means, may habituate consumers to seek satisfaction of their sexual impulses online, perhaps extending also to technology-based coercive behavior.”

“Furthermore, we thought that people who are promiscuous would habituate themselves to sexual encounters with less emotional intimacy and therefore be more likely to engage in sexual aggression or technology-based coercive behavior, as both behaviors are devoid of love, if we define love as concern and action for the well-being of the other.”

In short, “religiosity offers a protective effect against sexual aggression by college men through the indirect pathway of reducing associations with peers who approve of sexual aggression and by reducing promiscuity,” Hagen said. “Religiosity offers a protective effect against technology-based sexually coercive behavior by college men by reducing association with peers who approve of sexual aggression, by reducing consumption of pornography, and by reducing promiscuity.”

The study — like all research — has some limitations. For instance, it is unclear if trying to increase religiosity in college students would be effective in decreasing unwanted sexual behaviors on campus.

“While it may seem that we should recommend college men and those around them to participate in religious activities in order to prevent sexual aggression and technology-based coercive behavior, we must offer a few words of caution,” Hagen explained. “First, the pathways we found are indirect. We did not find a direct, significant pathway from religiosity to reduced sexual aggression or technology-based coercive behavior.”

“Rather, it seems that religiosity reduces the propensity to engage in behaviors that more directly predict these harmful outcomes. Also, a recent study by Renzetti, DeWall, Messer, and Pond, indicates that religiosity that is not intrinsically motivated is actually a positive predictor of intimate partner violence.”

“Thus we cannot recommend that individuals engage in religious behavior for extrinsic reasons,” Hagen continued. “We would hypothesize, in light of our study and literature, that only religious behavior that is intrinsically motivated would offer the protective effects we found. This is something we need to untangle through further research.”

“Another limitation to our study is that it was limited to one cohort on campus and it is therefore not generalizable to the larger population. Nonetheless, it is a prospective cohort study, that is, one that starts with and follows a cohort over time to find the impact of initial differences on later outcomes, and thus benefits from a relatively strong study design.”

“Nonetheless, it would seem that our findings would suggest that colleges and policy-makers be open to allowing students to participate in religious groups and activities, as hostility to such groups may be counter-productive to reducing sexual violence on campuses,” Hagen said. “Creating spaces for evidence-based discussions on the role of religiosity in protecting against sexual aggression and technology-based coercive behavior might be something colleges wish to explore.”

“Likewise, college campuses may also wish to make space for more careful, evidence-based discussion on the role of social norms in protecting against or encouraging sexual aggression—e.g. through social groups that discourage or encourage sexual aggression—or the harmful role of pornography and promiscuity in encouraging sexual aggression and technology-based coercive behavior.”

“We hope that this research will ultimately contribute to the safety and well-being of men and women on college campuses around the world,” Hagen concluded.

The study, “Religiosity Reduces Sexual Aggression and Coercion in a Longitudinal Cohort of College Men: Mediating Roles of Peer Norms, Promiscuity, and Pornography“, was authored by Timothy Hagen, Martie P. Thompson, and Janelle Williams.