The last year has seen a torrent of allegations of sexual misconduct by men toward women in the United States. The floodgates seemed to have been opened when Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was brought down by allegations from dozens of actresses, many of them quite well-known, all claiming that he had molested or harassed them over the years. Multiple politicians and would-be-politicians followed in Weinstein’s wake soon after, with new, high-status figures unmasked by multiple accusers almost weekly since then.
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For most of us, these accusations against the rich and famous can seem far away from our daily lives. Unfortunately, sexually coercive behaviors by people—particularly men, it seems—in positions of power are all too common, affecting millions of Americans every year. The most extreme forms of such behaviors include what social scientists refer to as “intimate partner violence,” or IPV, acts perpetrated by current or former romantic partners, such as boyfriends or ex-husbands. IPV can include groping and mild forms of physical assault as well as stalking, rape, and even murder.
New research reveals that these acts of IPV have an important cultural component and that where a woman lives in the U.S. can increase her chances of experiencing sexually coercive behaviors.
This new research,1 which I conducted with my colleagues Kiersten Baughman and Mauricio Carvallo, links IPV to the social dynamics of what social scientists call honor cultures.2 Honor cultures are societies that put the defense of reputation at the center of social life, insisting that men build and defend reputations for strength, bravery, and an intolerance of disrespect, and that women build and defend reputations for loyalty and sexual purity. Such cultures have probably been the norm throughout human history and exist in various forms all over the world, particularly in the Middle East, around the Mediterranean, and in Central and South America. For reasons related to historical immigration patterns of Scots-Irish herders,3 social scientists have argued that states in the southern and western U.S. have a tendency to embrace many of the beliefs and values typical of honor cultures, including the reputational mandates for men and women that I already described.
Because of these reputational mandates, men in honor cultures tend to react with greater aggression than do men in non-honor cultures when their honor is threatened. Research in the U.S., for instance, has shown that when honor-oriented men from southern states feel their masculinity has been challenged by another man, they experience spikes in their testosterone and cortisol levels and respond with greater hostility and aggression compared to men from northern states.4 These laboratory findings are complemented by data outside the controlled environment of the lab showing higher rates of argument-related homicide in honor states compared to non-honor states,5 as well as higher rates of suicide.6 These regional patterns of violence tend to occur only among white Americans, among whom the social norms of honor are regionally distributed in a predictable way, and also tend to be largely isolated to men, especially men living in non-metropolitan areas (which researchers sometimes refer to as the “small town effect”).
Our new studies extend these patterns into close romantic relationships. Social psychologists Joseph Vandello and Dov Cohen previously found evidence7, 8 that people from honor cultures tend to view male aggression toward their female romantic partners as being justifiable when it represents a response to an honor-related threat, such as his suspicion of her unfaithfulness. Our own research found that these culturally-based attitudes toward IPV are not the end of the story. Although IPV can be found everywhere, we found that rates of IPV are substantially higher in the honor-oriented states of the U.S. South and West than they are in the North, controlling for a host of other ways in which these states might differ, such as poverty, religiosity, and rurality.
In one study, using data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, we found that both rape and domestic homicide rates perpetrated by white males were significantly higher in honor states than they were in non-honor states, paralleling the “honor killings” that occur throughout the Middle East. In another study, we examined self-reported experiences of relationship violence and sexual assault by teenaged girls from a national survey of high school students conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Disturbingly, these anonymous survey results closely paralleled the violent crime trends found in the general population. Specifically, white teenaged girls living in honor states reporting experiencing significantly higher rates of sexual assault and physical aggression by someone they had gone out with compared to their counterparts in non-honor states. Overall, the percentage of respondents who said they had experienced either form of IPV hovered around 10% of respondents.
Sexual misconduct—from verbal harassment to even more extreme acts of physical violence—is not limited to the rich and famous. It is an all-too-common element of the human experience. But its prevalence appears to be greater in communities characterized by the beliefs and values typical of honor cultures.