Ben 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 repeat offenders, 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.

UPDATE: The Atlantic responded to the original Ms. article.

Follow Ms. coverage of sexual violence issues here. 


Erica Wheeler lives and writes in Chicago, Illinois, but was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. She is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago with a degree in Public Policy and has spent time working to reform the sexual assault policy on campus. Currently, Erica volunteers with Rape Victim Advocates and is passionate about giving a voice to survivors. She claims to be new to feminism and has a cat named Henry.