Impulsivity and Sexual Coercion

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What kind of man is more likely to commit sexual assault?

One possibility is that men who are impulsive — who seek to gratify their immediate desires without thought for the long-term consequences — may be more willing to coerce women into sex.

Young men, who are responsible for the majority of sexual assaults, tend to act rashly in all manner of circumstances. But is a man who drives dangerously, gambles, or is quick to lose his temper also more likely to sexually coerce? Or is sexual coercion linked specifically to impulsivity in the sexual domain?

A team of psychologists from Canada, led by Fannie Carrier Emond of the University of Montreal, decided to find out.

Around 100 men under the age of 35 completed a survey about sexual experiences, with questions about sexual coercion. For example, respondents were asked to indicate whether they had made unwanted sexual contact, or attempted or committed rape, and to identify the tactic they used to perpetrate the act (e.g. taking advantage of a position of authority or of the victim’s intoxication, or by physical force). Carrier Emond and her colleagues classified the men as perpetrators if they admitted to any form of coercion, or as non-perpetrators if they admitted to none. Forty-five of the men were classified as perpetrators, mostly because they had attempted to verbally pressure a woman into sex.

All the volunteers then took part in two discounting tasks. A discounting task is a measure of delayed gratification. A respondent is given a choice: receive a small reward now, or wait a while before receiving a larger reward. You may have heard of the marshmallow test — a type of discounting task often used with children. The child is shown a marshmallow and told that they can eat it now, or wait for 15 minutes after which they will receive two marshmallows. Only one third of young children are able to go the distance, and many gobble up the lone marshmallow as soon as the psychologist’s back is turned.

Carrier Emond’s discounting tasks worked on the same principle. In the first, a money discounting task, the men were asked whether they would prefer to receive a smaller amount of money now or a larger amount after a delay. In the second discounting task, the volunteers were asked to imagine preferred sexual acts. If offered the opportunity to engage in their preferred sexual act for a short time now, or a longer time later, what would they choose?

Both groups of men — the perpetrators of sexual coercion and the non-perpetrators — were less willing to delay gratification in the sexual task than in the money task. In general, men can wait for money longer than they can wait for sex. However, the non-perpetrators’s responses to the two types of task were fairly similar, while sexually coercive men’s preferences for immediate sexual rewards were much stronger than their preferences for immediate monetary rewards.

A further impulsivity survey revealed that reckless behavior in response to strong negative and positive emotions was stronger among perpetrators than non-perpetrators.

Carrier Emond and her colleagues conclude that there are different types of impulsivity. We shouldn’t expect men who are impulsive when it comes to money to be impulsive when it comes to sex, and sexually coercive men find it especially difficult to resist the temptation to behave impulsively when emotions are riding high.

Of course, this study was conducted in the laboratory and depended on self-reports. We can’t be sure the men were being truthful when they described their history of sexual coercion, or that their responses on the hypothetical discounting tasks would mirror their responses in the real world.

Nevertheless, the researchers contend that their results:

emphasize the importance of evaluating different facets of impulsivity, using self-report and behavioral measures, in order to fully understand its links with sexual assault.

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