Understanding men who rape and why they rape

Studying who rapes and why is a difficult task: it is far more than a simple matter of strolling up to your local neighbourhood rapist and saying “Oi, you, why did you do it?”

The first issue is that most rapists do not get caught. The majority of rapes are not reported, and of those that are, the conviction rape is very low.  Because of this, it is difficult to identify rapists to understand who rapes.

Two recent studies have addressed the question of identifying “undetected rapists”: the first, McWhorter and colleagues, used a sample of young men enlisting in the navy, while the second, Lisak & Miller, sampled college students.

In the McWhorter sample, approximately 13% of the sample had perpetrated attempted or completed rape, while approximately 6% of the Lisak & Miller sample had done so. In both samples, the reperpetration rate was high: in the McWhorter sample, 71% of the men had repeatedly attempted to or successfully raped a woman. Lisak & Miller found an average of 5.8 rapes among the repeat rapists in their samples. These findings are startling: in both samples, the rapes had never been reported to the authorities by the victim, yet these rapists had perpetrated multiple rapes. In the McWhorter study, it was found that the majority of victims were acquaintances of the rapists.

These findings are in keeping with those regarding rapists who are caught: that they frequently reoffend, and the victim often knows the rapist. The evidence is not in favour of the classic rape myths that rapists are a stranger in a balaclava leaping out of a bush. It also fails to support the folk notion that rape is something that happens just once when a man gets a little bit hot and bothered by a woman all dressed up sexy near him.

It is frightening to note the sheer quantity of undetected rapists. The McWhorter sample is unrepresentative of the general population, being young men enlisting for the military: 91% were single, and they had a lower level of education than the US average. Likewise, the Lisak & Miller sample were drawn from a particular college. However, these figures are informative about certain population groups, and it would merit further investigation into other groups using similar methodology to identify the true prevalence of undetected rapists.

To identify undetected rapists, both studies used the Sexual Experiences Survey (SES), a 13-item self-report questionnaire. This measure never mentions the word “rape”, instead asking questions such as “Have you ever had a woman misinterpret the level of sexual intimacy you desired?”, “Have you ever obtained sexual intercourse by saying things you didn’t really mean?” and “Have you ever Had sexual intercourse with a woman when she didn’t want to because you used some degree of physical force (twisting your her arm, holding her down, etc.)?” Crucially, questions in the SES do not mention the word “rape” at any point. Statistical tests have found it to be a reliable and valid measure, i.e. it measures what it is attempting to measure, and all of the items in it are distinct.

There are two major criticisms of the SES. First, it is a self-report measure, which are prone to people answering the questions in a socially desirable manner. This is the best one can hope for in this type of research: it is not possible to follow people around, videotaping their every sexual encounter to check for signs of coercion. Second, the SES is entirely focused on men’s sexual violence against women. To address this issue would improve the quality of research into rapists and why they rape greatly: sexual violence is not exclusively men against women, after all.

A further question to be addressed is why do rapists rape? One study has attempted to address this question. The researchers administered a battery of tests to men who were in prison for a range of offences, using a modified version of the SES. Although the majority of participants were imprisoned for non-sexual offences, 51% had engaged in verbally coercive sexual behaviours, and approximately 20% in sexually aggressive behaviours. There was some evidence that the self-reported measure was underestimating the number of men who raped: 85% of those who denied using sexually aggressive tactics on the questionnaire were classified as sexually aggressive due to previous criminal history. This corroborates the problem outlined earlier with using questionnaire measures.

Some characteristics were common to both coercers and aggressors. Both groups had a history of sexual promiscuity, aggressive tendencies and were poor at empathising. Furthermore, both groups were more likely to subscribe to rape myths. Belief in rape myths was measured using a questionnaire called the RAPE scale. The RAPE scale was developed from clinical work with sex offenders and validated on a sample of incarcerated rapists, therefore representing beliefs which many rapists hold. It consists of 36 items which read like a rape culture checklist, such as:

  • “Before the police investigate a woman’s claim of rape, it is a good idea to find out what she was wearing, if she had been drinking, and what kind of a person she is.”
  • “A lot of women claim they were raped just because they want attention.”
  • “Often a woman reports rape long after the fact because she gets mad at the man she had sex with and is just trying to get back at him.”
  • “I believe that if a woman lets a man kiss her and touch her sexually, she should be willing to go all the way.”
  • “Most of the men who rape have stronger sexual urges than other men.”
  • “If a woman gets drunk at a party, it is really her own fault if someone takes advantage of her sexually.”
  • “I believe that any woman can prevent herself from being raped if she really wants to.”

Belief in such myths was found to differentiate between men who were sexually coercive or aggressive, and those who were not. This study therefore provides some evidence that these rape culture myths facilitate rape, and provides an important reason to attack such beliefs wherever they are seen.

Differences in coercers and aggressors were also found: coercers were less able to imagine others’ reactions, while aggressors showed higher levels of hostility towards women, higher impulsivity and reported higher levels of emotional abuse in childhood.

As with the other studies, this sample was not particularly representative of the general population. Men in prison are different to men who are not in prison.

In general, it is difficult to study rapists, and the existing tools we have need work. Due to our current measures, it is not possible to investigate men who rape men, or women who rape, and we must rely on self-reported measures on which it is possible to lie.

What evidence is there suggests that, thankfully, not all men are rapists, and that rape culture is very dangerous indeed. With further research and a constant attack on the flawed belief system which allows rape to happen, we can fight rape.

10 thoughts on “Understanding men who rape and why they rape”

  1. I think those questions do not detect rape but a range of sexual acts and situations that are open to a number of interpretations.

    Some people have S and M relationships without identifying them as such, even to themselves or each other. If you asked my partners those questions some of them would come across as ‘rapists’ which I do not believe them to be.

    1. Interesting question re: unlabelled S&M encounters. I’m not really sure whether the items could differentiate there. Yet another issue with the questionnaire. Good spot.

      However, I do think with such people, it’s worth getting into good habits of establishing consent nonetheless. Just because something is all right with one partner doesn’t mean it will be all right with others… and that’s when they run the risk of becoming a rapist.

      1. That does sound odd: running the risk of becoming a rapist!

        I know what you mean but I don’t think a person needs the label of ‘potential rapist’. I find it very damning before anything has happened.

        Maybe the term ‘rapist’ in itself is problematic?

        1. In general, I become uncomfortable around labels, so I do have issues with that–person who has raped someone would obviously be better, but I am a lazy typist and Twitter beat me out of doing that sort of thing.

          Potential rapist is certainly a little strong. Educating everyone about consent, I think, is crucial to circumventing this particular problem.

  2. I think saying what you mean is always possible and always necessary. I don’t think education will get rid of rape. I am very well educated and I still don’t trust myself to make sensible decisions or to negotiate consent in sexual relationships effectively

  3. Most of the research on rape that I can find covers female participants under investigation telling their unfortunate stories of a terrible experience. This is the only research I could find where men are asked why they rape. Okay, there was an exuse in this study that said it is difficult to ask men why they rape because bla bla…and I find that ridiculous considerind the high rate of rapes in the military alone without all the rest that are reported. I carry on searching for men’s explanations of why they rape female children and women! As a social scientist I will get to the bottom of this even with all these stupid excuses trying to stop me.

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