The psychology of men who rape

April 4, 2019
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Early studies on the psychology of rapists relied heavily on convicted rapists, which skewed the data. More recent studies tend to rely on anonymous surveys of college students and other communities, which come with legal language assuring subjects their answers cannot be used against them. The studies avoid using terms such as “rape” and “sexual assault.”

Instead, they ask subjects highly specific questions about their actions and tactics. The focus of most sexual aggression research is acknowledged nonconsensual sexual behavior. In questionnaires and in follow-up interviews, subjects are surprisingly open about ignoring consent.

Men who rape tend to start young, in high school or the first couple of years of college, likely crossing a line with someone they know. Some of these men commit one or two sexual assaults and then stop. Others — no one can yet say what portion — maintain this behavior or even pick up the pace.

Antonia Abbey, a social psychologist at Wayne State University, has found that young men who expressed remorse were less likely to offend the following year, while those who blamed their victim were more likely to do it again. One repeat offender put it this way: “I felt I was repaying her for sexually arousing me.”

There is a heated debate among experts about whether there is a point at which sexual assault becomes an entrenched behavior and what percentage of assaults are committed by serial predators.

Most researchers agree that the line between the occasional and frequent offender is not so clear. The recent work of Kevin Swartout, a professor of psychology and public health at Georgia State University, suggests that low-frequency offenders are more common on college campuses than previously thought.

“It’s a matter of degree, more like dosage,” said Mary P. Koss, a professor of public health at the University of Arizona, who is credited with coining the term “date rape.”

Dosage of what? Certain factors — researchers call them “risk factors” while acknowledging that these men are nonetheless responsible for their actions — have an outsize presence among those who commit sexual assaults.

Heavy drinking, perceived pressure to have sex, a belief in “rape myths” — such as the idea that no means yes — are all risk factors among men who have committed sexual assault. A peer group that uses hostile language to describe women is another one.

Yet there also seem to be personal attributes that have a mediating effect on these factors. Men who are highly aroused by rape porn — another risk factor — are less likely to attempt sexual assault if they score highly on measures of empathy, Dr. Malamuth has found.

Narcissism seems to work in the other direction, magnifying odds that men will commit sexual assault and rape.

What about the idea that rape is about power over women? Some experts feel that research into hostile attitudes toward women supports this idea.

In general, however, researchers say motives are varied and difficult to quantify.

Dr. Malamuth has noticed that repeat offenders often tell similar stories of rejection in high school and of looking on as “jocks and the football players got all the attractive women.”

As these once-unpopular, often narcissistic men become more successful, he suspects that “getting back at these women, having power over them, seems to have become a source of arousal.”

Most subjects in these studies freely acknowledge nonconsensual sex — but that does not mean they consider it real rape. Researchers encounter this contradiction again and again. Indeed, experts note one last trait shared by men who have raped: they do not believe they are the problem.

*Article adapted from an article that appeared in The New York Times

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