Rape myths are prevalent among young Danes

by Sarah van Mastrigt

11,800 women are subjected to rape or attempted rape annually, according to Danish victim surveys. A new analysis from Aarhus University shows that among young people, and especially 16-20-year-old males, stereotypes and erroneous notions about rape abound. That’s a problem, as previous research suggests that rape myth acceptance can contribute to both increased risk of sexual assault and secondary victimization of survivors. Addressing rape myths and equipping young people with the skills needed to intervene as effective bystanders should be a priority for future crime prevention efforts.

Sarah van Mastrigt. Photo: Private

These were the take-home messages that Associate Professor Sarah van Mastrigt from the Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences at Aarhus University, presented for participants at the May 2022 NSfK research seminar in Hveragerði, Iceland. Outlining findings from a recent survey study carried out in collaboration with the Danish Crime Prevention Council, van Mastrigt highlighted the fact that while most young people report low levels of rape myth acceptance, a considerable minority expresses problematic attitudes regarding rape situations, rape victims, and rape perpetrators. For example, one in five of the surveyed youths agreed or strongly agreed that “if a woman does not say ‘no,’ she cannot claim rape,” a belief that stands in stark contrast to current (consent-based) legal statues and psychological evidence that some victims are unable to speak up and/or physically resist during sexual assault.

On average, rape myth acceptance was found to be highest among young men aged 16-20, identifying this group as an especially important target for intervention: 46% of the young men surveyed agree that rape allegations are often used as revenge against men, and more than one in ten believe that pressuring one’s partner into sex is not rape.

In addition to investigating rape myth acceptance, the study also explored respondents’ bystander intentions and perceived barriers to intervening to prevent sexual assault. While 78% of respondents found it likely or very likely that they would intervene if they observed a situation that could develop into a sexual assault, they reported several barriers to doing so, including not knowing what characterizes a risk situation and not knowing how to intervene in practice (i.e., what they could say or do).

In line with international research, these results point to crime prevention potential in launching initiatives that aim to dispel rape myths and provide potential bystanders with concrete tools to intervene. Drawing on these insights, van Mastrigt and colleagues are now working towards evidence-based development, targeting, and evaluation of such initiatives for Danish youths.

About the report ‘Young people’s stereotypical attitudes towards rape’

  • Co-authored by Sarah van Mastrigt and Terese Hartmann from Aarhus University in collaboration with the Danish Crime Prevention Council.
  • Based on survey responses from 2,202 young people aged 16-30 collected by MEGAFON A/S for the Danish Crime Prevention Council between December 2020 and January 2021.
  • Presents weighted results using a validated Danish rape myth acceptance scale (IRMA-DK, Skov & van Mastrigt) and items querying bystander intentions and barriers inspired by Burn (2009).
  • Outlines several recommendations to improve Danish sexual assault prevention
  • Read the report here (in Danish)

Sarah van Mastrigt is a criminologist and applied social psychologist with a primary research interest in sexual assault, restorative justice, and crime prevention. Sarah leads a number of interdisciplinary projects carried out in collaboration with the police and other community organizations, aimed at promoting evidence-based social policy and practice. Email: vanmastrigt@psy.au.dk.