To aid in the effort to combat sexual violence, the Center for Transdisciplinary Research on Intimate Relationships has been studying the relationship between men’s emotional regulation and the degree to which they perceive consent.

The lab, run by Richard Mattson MA ’04, Ph.D ’06, an associate professor in Binghamton University’s psychology department, focuses on men’s consideration of empathy when making sexual decisions. Simona Kobryn, a senior majoring in psychology, and Mike Shaw, a fifth-year Ph.D candidate studying clinical psychology and the perpetration of sexual violence and its emotional predictors, are researchers in the lab.

Shaw explained that the goal of the study was to discover more effective modes of sexual assault intervention by understanding the psychology behind sexually violent behaviors. The lab began by researching intimate relationships, shifting focus behind the “#MeToo” movement to observe how people perceive consent for sexual activity. It also examines the reasoning behind men’s ability to either successfully comprehend or disregard a lack of consent.

“My big hypothesis is that, for certain types of men … the research calls it hostile masculinity and it’s describing a group of men who really subscribe to aggressive ideologies about gender roles, that have specific beliefs about how men should emotionally feel [and] how they should conduct themselves,” Shaw said. “Those are the people who never really get the chance to learn how to regulate their emotions because they’re so focused on kind of pushing them away and not accepting them. It’s that same kind of emotional avoidance that ultimately leads itself as a risk factor for kind of impulsive behavior and if you put those same men into sexual scenarios, what our lab has shown over the last few years is that they are more likely to engage in aggressive behavior.”

The lab samples male students, offering volunteers $30 for participation. Subjects are presented with imagined scenarios where consent may be ambiguous and a transcranial direct current stimulation — a cap with sponges — applies small bolts of direct electricity to the brain. They are then tested with similar scenarios to see if they have advanced emotion regulation by seeing how they would reach in those situations.

“In terms of safety, it’s really, really safe,” Shaw said. “It’s a pretty interesting thing that I don’t think anybody here at [BU] has done before, as far as research.”

The lab is funded through the American Psychological Foundation Trust Grant, the Harpur Dean’s Graduate Investment Initiative Fund and the BU Dissertation Year Fellowship Award. Researchers and their assistants are able to share their findings at conferences and poster presentations. They are continuing research through the spring semester and intend to apply their findings toward sexual assault training.

“Some of those [sexual assault] trainings don’t have any research basis behind them,” Shaw said. “They’re just kind of put together to satisfy a school need and some of them appear to be making the men who are most at risk of engaging in engaging in sexual assault worse.”

Kobryn described her interest in contributing to the lab’s research.

“The research that we do in this lab is really important and especially relatable to the environment that we’re in because sexual assault and problems with consent are often problems that we see happen on college campuses,” Kobryn said. “Diving deep into why this happens [when] we have a population right at our fingertips to get information from and to pull data from is pretty cool.”

Sexual assault continues to be a leading issue on college campuses throughout the United States. According to the Biennial SUNY Uniform Campus Climate Survey sent out in 2023, of the 1,060 BU students that responded, 37 percent of female students, 13 percent of male students and 58 percent of gender non-binary students reported being victims of sexual harassment the prior year. Twenty-nine percent of female students, 13 percent of male students and 43 percent of gender non-binary students reported that they were subject to sexual assault the year prior.

“Some people are actively trespassing against other people’s boundaries, and we don’t have a clear understanding of what the right kind of intervention [is] for them,” Shaw said. “Right now, one of our goals is to figure out what that is and then start to shape up that kind of intervention.”

Editor’s Note (12/13/23): This article has been edited to correctly state that Richard Mattson runs the lab.