Roethlisberger Redux: Asking Why

A post on this blog last Thursday detailed recent media apologies for pro football quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after he was accused of committing sexual assault a second time. Annie Shields pointed out how various commentators didn’t so much blame the newly alleged victim as ignore her altogether. Then they focused on Roethlisberger: How and why could he get himself into this situation again?

This narrow focus shows more concern for the image and reputation of the famous football player than for a woman who was injured, thus minimizing the offense. But I’m not sure the question of “why he put himself in this situation…again” is as fundamentally ridiculous as it might seem at first glance. This is a question we all should be asking, though not quite in the same manner.

A recent four-part series on NPR examined the epidemic of sexual assault, specifically rape on college campuses. One segment focused on the work of David Lisak from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who interviewed college-age men to find what he calls “undetected rapists” (those who admit to sexual assault but were never accused or charged).

In his research, one in 16 men admitted to questionable behavior that would imply sexual assault. For example, they answered yes to questions like: “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated [on alcohol or drugs] to resist your sexual advances?” These “undetected rapists” are often serial offenders who, according to Lisak, are responsible for nine out of 10 sexual assaults on college campuses. And, Lisak found, they weren’t ashamed to admit their behavior to a researcher:

In fact, they are eager to talk about their experiences. They’re quite narcissistic as a group—the offenders—and they view this as an opportunity, essentially, to brag.

This is just one study from one researcher, but the high number of repeat predators should be a warning flag. We’re well acquainted with the nebulous area of “he said/she said” in cases of acquaintance rape, but  I suspect this gray area has led us to wrongly assume that such assaults–especially when alcohol is involved–may be unintentional or one-time mistakes. In light of Lisak’s findings, we should/must/need to challenge the validity of these widespread assumptions. Though Lisak focused on college students, it isn’t hard to imagine what happens after these undetected rapists graduate.

When we find privileged men such as Roethlisberger alleged to be assaultive more than once, it is the right time to ask why. Maybe then we can better understand the nature of sexual assault and challenge false assumptions. We can only hope that asking such difficult questions now–and broadcasting the truth–will somehow be a preventative measure for the future.

ABOVE: Ben Roethlisberger in the Steelers’ 2006 Superbowl victory parade.

Photo courtesy of / CC BY-SA 2.0


  1. Excellent article! There are really a lot of good points here. Right now we have the opportunity to openly examine the phenomenon of acquaintance rape, and I hope we will take it. To question Roethlisberger’s actions with the implication that he was making himself vulnerable to false accusations of sexual assault is wrong, but you are right to suggest that there is another context in which the question might be appropriate. Unfortunately, most commentators don’t seem to be prepared to participate in open, honest dialogue about the complex reality of sexual assault. This is unfortunate, because dealing with issues like the ones you bring up in the mainstream media could really change things.

  2. I wouldn’t be so hard on yourself about victim blaming. It is a natural response to try to control the uncontrollable. Even victims of clear cut accidents (i.e. ski accidents) would rather blame themselves than the mountain slope. In the case of accidental injury it is actually functional: spinal injury victims who blame themselves generally adjust better than those who do not.

    However, when it comes to violent crime, victim blaming is ultimately dysfunctional and we really need to think hard about how to push for more discussion of this issue and not just sit back and fret.

    Last fall, CBS aired an investigation into unpublished rape kits ( David Lisak told CBS that 71% of rapists are repeat offenders. In non-stranger cases he estimates the average rapist commits 3-8 offenses. NYC is now testing every rape kit because they find that date rapists sometimes also have a match for one or more stranger rapes. (;contentBody). And it isn’t just rapes. NYC also finds that domestic violence can be an indicator of related stranger rapes. When Susan Brownmiller reviewed criminology studies for her book “Against Our Wills”, she found that rapists often had histories of other boundary violation crimes, including theft and burglary.

    If we really want to win the fight on crime, we very much need to start looking seriously at how to improve arrests and convictions of rapists.

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