Nonconsensual nudes are a problem on college campuses. Frats and sports teams are making it worse.

February 24, 2021
Male students involved in fraternities and sports teams were more likely to report viewing photos posted without the subject's knowledge. (Unsplash/Simon Abrams)

Male students involved in fraternities and sports teams were more likely to report viewing photos posted without the subject's knowledge. (Unsplash/Simon Abrams)

In contrast with the stereotypical image of the lone male sexual predator, a study in Archives of Sexual Behavior provides new evidence that men perpetrate sexual harm with the support of their male friends, which could change the way colleges attempt to prevent sexual abuse.

Specifically, researchers found that male college students who were in fraternities or on sports teams were far more likely than other men to visit semi-secret online groups in which members post nudes nonconsensually. 

In the first study to look at these photo collections, or “slutpages,” 1,867 18- to 24-year-old students at a large Midwestern university answered questions about their sexual behavior, including how often they had visited “a secret page … or a website of nude images or video that were posted without the knowledge of those in the images/videos.” 

While 33.6% of all respondents reported visiting "slutpages" at least once, 274 of the 679 male students — 40.3% — said they had visited them. Strikingly, 58.7% of the 138 fraternity members and half of the 74 men on sports teams visited "slutpages." Conversely, female athletes were far less likely than other women to report that they had visited a "slutpage."

This strong correlation suggests that men in all-male groups are supporting and inducing the behavior among their peers, which has implications for combating image-based sexual abuse, the researchers said. 

Moreover, the proportion of men who actually reported posting the images — 44 men, 6.5% of all the male respondents — was far smaller than the 40.3% who reported viewing these images, indicating that some men may be excusing their participation as "just looking," said Megan K. Maas, an assistant professor at Michigan State University and the lead author of the study. 

The problem is far bigger than individual men with harmful ideas about women and consent, Maas told The Academic Times

“There’s a lot of emphasis on trying to get girls to not send nudes, and I think there needs to be more emphasis on not sharing images that are sent to you,” she said. “Yeah, we can talk about the judgment issues of girls who have crushes on somebody … but the ill intent to post these images is really the social problem.” 

Additionally, Maas said, because people tend to underreport their participation in sensitive activities, her data is “probably more of a conservative estimate of how common this is.” Her survey was administered online to students recruited through a mass email.

The evidence she uncovered in the study bolstered her belief that sexual violence prevention on college campuses should focus far more on perpetrators and far less on victims. Simply telling young women not to send nudes “goes along with this idea of, ‘She was asking for it’ or, ‘She deserves it,’” Maas said, which creates an environment where women are held accountable for men’s bad behavior. 

“We don’t spend enough attention on the dynamic of male friendships, and the different types of power issues within those friendships,” she said.

Maas currently has another study under review that asked about respondents’ motivations for visiting "slutpages," which could open up new avenues for violence intervention. More empirical and qualitative studies of the contents of "slutpages" are needed to better understand this phenomenon, beyond anecdotal stories that periodically make the news — and inspire studies like Maas'.

As a Ph.D. student at Pennsylvania State University in 2015, Maas learned that members of a fraternity, Kappa Delta Rho, had operated a semi-secret Facebook page where members posted and discussed nude images of women, including photos of women who were naked and unconscious. When she talked about the story with her female research assistants, the young women casually told her, “‘Every fraternity has one, in one form or another,’” Maas said. “I was, of course, this older person who was shocked!” 

But when Maas searched for empirical research on the topic, she found nothing. 

“I just thought, why isn’t there research on this?” she said. “Do people actually use this, or are these a coincidence? I might as well ask college students about it." 

It's critical work, she said, because, "We have to understand how men bond over their sexual conquests in these negative, more violent or exploitative ways in order to be effective at actually reducing sexual violence on college campuses."

The study “Slutpage Use Among U.S. College Students: The Secret and Social Platforms of Image‐Based Sexual Abuse,” set to be published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, was authored by Megan K. Maas, Kyla M. Cary and Heather L. McCauley, Michigan State University; Elizabeth M. Clancy and Bianca Klettke, Deakin University; and Jeff R. Temple, Center for Violence Prevention, University of Texas Medical Branch.

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