|Images like these can perpetuate rape myths|
In one set of studies, researchers found that social norms about others' acceptance of rape myths may increase rape proclivity. When college students were led to believe that other students scored high (vs. low) on a measure of rape myth acceptance, they consequently reported greater personal rape myth acceptance and, in turn, greater rape proclivity. In these studies, rape proclivity was measured by having participants imagine a series of acquaintance rape scenarios and report whether they would have behaved in that way themselves and whether they would have enjoyed it. The scenarios vary in terms of the victim's level of physical resistance, but all are clearly instances of rape.
For example [paraphrased from the original]:
"You have a women over after going on a date. She says she's had too much to drink to drive home, so you tell her she can stay over. You want to take advantage of this opportunity to sleep with her, but she says no, saying that you are rushing things and she's too drunk. You sleep with her anyway."
If you are disturbed that anyone would report being likely to behave in this way, rest assured that the mean response fell between "certainly no" and the adjacent response, presumably "no," regardless of what condition participants were assigned to, though the endorsement of anything but "certainly no" is troubling. The researchers recommend interventions that draw on the power of social influence, such as having fellow students speak out against rape myths to their peers. Acceptance of rape myths is not just a product of a sick mind, but an unfortunate response to subtle and not-so-subtle messages from social groups, family, and media that communicate the legitimacy of these beliefs.
Importantly, this research does not suggest that anyone who holds erroneous beliefs about the causes of rape will go on to commit rape. But these beliefs can nonetheless contribute to a culture where rape victims are more likely to be questioned and blamed (and to question and blame themselves), and perpetrators are more likely to be excused or even encouraged. The congressman's "legitimate rape" comment may seem isolated and extreme, a case of a bad apple or just a bad use of words, but the belief system that it reflects seems much more deeply rooted in our culture.