Causes of sexual violence

Causes of sexual violence

There is no single theory that conclusively explains the causes of sexual violence; the motives of perpetrators can be multi-factorial and are the subject of debate. Researchers have attempted to explain the motivations in terms of socioeconomics, anger, power, sadism, sexual pleasure, psychopathy, ethical standards, attitudes toward the victims and evolutionary pressures.


Groth typology

Nicholas Groth has described several different types of rape.[1]

Anger rape

The aim of this rapist is to humiliate, debase and hurt their victim; they express their contempt for their victim through physical violence and profane language. For these rapists, sex is a weapon to defile and degrade the victim, rape constitutes the ultimate expression of their anger. This rapist considers rape the ultimate offense they can commit against the victim.

Anger rape is characterized by physical brutality, much more physical force is used during the assault than would be necessary if the intent were simply to overpower the victim and achieve penetration. This type of offender attacks their victim by grabbing, striking and knocking the victim to the ground, beating them, tearing their clothes, and raping them.

The experience for the offender is one that is of conscious anger and rage.[1]

Power rape

For these rapists, rape becomes a way to compensate for their underlying feelings of inadequacy and feeds their issues of mastery, control, strength, authority and capability. The intent of the power rapist is to assert their competency. The power rapist relies upon verbal threats, intimidation with a weapon, and only uses the amount of force necessary to subdue his victim.

The power rapists tends to have fantasies about sexual conquests and rape. They may believe that even though the victim initially resists them, that once they overpower their victim, the victim will eventually enjoy the rape. The rapist needs to believe that the victim enjoyed what was done to them, and they may even ask the victim to meet them for a date later.

Because this is only a fantasy, the rapist does not feel reassured for long by either their own performance or the victim's response. The rapist feels that they must find another victim, convinced that this victim will be "the right one".

Hence, their offenses may become repetitive and compulsive. They may commit a series of rapes over a short period of time. This is the most common type of rapist in the United States.[2]

Sadistic rape

For these rapists, they have a sexual association with anger and power so that aggression and the infliction of pain itself is eroticized. For this rapist, sexual excitement is associated with the inflicting of pain upon his victim. The offender finds the intentional maltreatment of his victim intensely gratifying and takes pleasure in the victim's torment, anguish, distress, helplessness, and suffering;[3] he/she finds the victim's struggling with him/her to be an erotic experience.

Sadistic rape usually involves extensive, prolonged torture and restraint. Sometimes it can take on ritualistic or other bizarre qualities. The rapist may use some type of instrument or foreign object to penetrate his/her victim. Sexual areas of the victim's body become a specific focus of injury or abuse.

The sadistic rapist's assaults are deliberate, calculated and preplanned. They will often wear a disguise or will blindfold their victims.[3] Prostitutes or other people whom they perceive to be "promiscuous" are often the sadistic rapist's targets. The victims of a sadistic rapist may not survive the attack. For some offenders, the ultimate satisfaction is gained from murdering the victim.[1]

Gang rape

Some forms of sexual violence, such as gang rape, are predominantly committed by young men.[4] Sexual aggression is often a defining characteristic of manhood in the group and is significantly related to the wish to be held in high esteem.[5] Sexually aggressive behaviour among young men has been linked with gang membership and having delinquent peers.[6][7] Research also suggests that men with sexually aggressive peers are also much more likely to report coercive or enforced intercourse outside the gang context than men lacking sexually aggressive peers.[8] Gang rape is often viewed by the men involved, and sometimes by others too, as legitimate, in that it is seen to discourage or punish perceived immoral behaviour among women, such as wearing short skirts or frequenting bars.

For this reason, it may not be equated by the perpetrators with the idea of a crime. In several areas in Papua New Guinea, women can be punished by public gang rape, often sanctioned by elders.[9]

Sexual gratification

Though anger and power are believed to be the primary motivation for most rapes,[10] in 1994, Richard Felson coauthored the controversial book "Aggression and Coercive Actions: A Social-Interactionist Perspective" with James Tedeschi, a book which argues that sexual fulfillment is the motive of rapists, rather than the aggressive desire to dominate the victim.[11] Felson believes that rape is an aggressive form of sexual coercion and the goal of rape is sexual satisfaction rather than power. Most rapists do not have a preference for rape over consensual sex.[12][13][14][15][16][17] In one study, male rapists evaluated with penile plethysmography demonstrated more arousal to forced sex and less discrimination between forced and consensual sex than non-rapist control subjects, though both groups responded more strongly to consensual sex scenarios.[18]

Individual factors

Known victim

Data on sexually violent men show that most direct their acts at women whom they already know.[19][20]

Alcohol and drug consumption

Alcohol has been shown to play a disinhibiting role in certain types of sexual assault,[21] as have some drugs, notably cocaine.[22] Alcohol has a psychopharmacological effect of reducing inhibitions, clouding judgements and impairing the ability to interpret cues.[23] The biological links between alcohol and violence are, however, complex.[21] Research on the social anthropology of alcohol consumption suggests that connections between violence, drinking and drunkenness are socially learnt rather than universal.[24] Some researchers have noted that alcohol may act as a cultural break time, providing the opportunity for antisocial behaviour. Thus people are more likely to act violently when drunk because they do not consider that they will be held accountable for their behaviour. Some forms of group sexual violence are also associated with drinking. In these settings, consuming alcohol is an act of group bonding, where inhibitions are collectively reduced and individual judgement ceded in favour of that of the group.

Psychological factors

There has been considerable research in recent times on the role of cognitive variables among the set of factors that can lead to rape. Sexually violent men have been shown to be more likely to consider victims responsible for the rape and are less knowledgeable about the impact of rape on victims.[25] Such men may misread cues given out by women in social situations and may lack the inhibitions that act to suppress associations between sex and aggression.[25] They may have coercive sexual fantasies,[26] and overall are more hostile towards women than men who are not sexually violent.[27][28][6] In addition to these factors, sexually violent men are believed to differ from other men in terms of impulsivity and antisocial tendencies.[29] They also tend to have an exaggerated sense of masculinity. Sexual violence is also associated with a preference for impersonal sexual relationships as opposed to emotional bonding[dubious ], with having many sexual partners and with the inclination to assert personal interests at the expense of others.[28][30] A further association is with adversarial attitudes on gender, that hold that women are opponents to be challenged and conquered.[31]

Research on convicted rapists

The research on convicted rapists has found several important motivational factors in the sexual aggression of males. Those motivational factors repeatedly implicated are having anger at women and having the need to control or dominate them.[32]

Factors increasing men's risk of committing rape include alcohol and other drug consumption, being more likely to consider victims responsible for their rape, being less knowledgeable about the impact of rape on victims, being impulsive and having antisocial tendencies, having an exaggerated sense of masculinity, having a low opinion on women, being a member of a criminal gang, having sexually aggressive friends, having been abused as a child and having been raised in a strongly patriarchal family.

A study by Marshall et al. (2001) found that male rapists had less empathy toward women who had been sexually assaulted by an unknown assailant and more hostility toward women than nonsex offenders and nonoffender males/females.[33]

Freund et al. (1983) stated that most rapists do not have a preference for rape over consensual sex,[34] and Marshall et al. (1991) stated that there are no significant differences between the arousal patterns of male rapists and other males.[35]

Peer and family factors

Early childhood environments

There is evidence to suggest that sexual violence is also a learnt behaviour in some men, particularly as regards child sexual abuse. Studies on sexually abused boys have shown that around one in five continue in later life to molest children themselves.[36] Such experiences may lead to a pattern of behaviour where the man regularly justifies being violent, denies doing wrong, and has false and unhealthy notions about sexuality.

Childhood environments that are physically violent, emotionally unsupportive and characterized by competition for scarce resources have been associated with sexual violence.[29][7][37] Sexually aggressive behaviour in young men, for instance, has been linked to witnessing family violence, and having emotionally distant and uncaring fathers.[7][6] Men raised in families with strongly patriarchal structures are also more likely to become violent, to rape and use sexual coercion against women, as well as to abuse their intimate partners, than men raised in homes that are more egalitarian.[29]

Family honour and sexual purity

Another factor involving social relationships is a family response to sexual violence that blames women without punishing men, concentrating instead on restoring lost family honor. Such a response creates an environment in which rape can occur with impunity.

While families will often try to protect their women from rape and may also put their daughters on contraception to prevent visible signs should it occur,[38] there is rarely much social pressure to control young men or persuade them that coercing sex is wrong.[where?] Instead, in some countries, there is frequently support for family members to do whatever is necessary including murder to alleviate the shame associated with a rape or other sexual transgression. In a review of all crimes of honour occurring in Jordan in 1995,[39] researchers found that in over 60% of the cases, the victim died from multiple gunshot wounds mostly at the hands of a brother. In cases where the victim was a single pregnant female, the offender was either acquitted of murder or received a reduced sentence.

Societal factors

Factors operating at a societal level that influence sexual violence include laws and national policies relating to gender equality in general and to sexual violence more specifically, as well as norms relating to the use of violence. While the various factors operate largely at local level, within families, schools, workplaces and communities, there are also influences from the laws and norms working at national and even international level.


Poverty is linked to both the perpetration of sexual violence and the risk of being a victim of it. Several authors have argued that the relationship between poverty and perpetration of sexual violence is mediated through forms of crisis of masculine identity.[40][41][42][43][44]

Bourgois, writing about life in East Harlem, New York, United States, described how young men felt pressured by models of successful masculinity and family structure passed down from their parents and grandparents generations, together with modern day ideals of manhood that also place an emphasis on material consumption. Trapped in their slums, with little or no available employment, they are unlikely to attain either of these models or expectations of masculine success. In these circumstances, ideals of masculinity are reshaped to emphasize misogyny, substance abuse and participation in crime and often also xenophobia and racism. Gang rape and sexual conquest are normalized, as men turn their aggression against women they can no longer control patriarchally or support economically.[42]

Physical and social environment

While fear of rape is typically associated with being outside the home,[45][46] the great majority of sexual violence actually occurs in the home of the victim or the abuser. Nonetheless, abduction by a stranger is quite often the prelude to a rape and the opportunities for such an abduction are influenced by the physical environment. The social environment within a community is, however, usually more important than the physical surrounding. How deeply entrenched in a community beliefs in male superiority and male entitlement to sex are will greatly affect the likelihood of sexual violence taking place, as will the general tolerance in the community of sexual assault and the strength of sanctions, if any, against perpetrators.[19][47] For instance, in some places, rape can even occur in public, with passersby refusing to intervene.[9] Complaints of rape may also be treated leniently by the police, particularly if the assault is committed during a date or by the victim's husband.

Laws and policies

There are considerable variations between countries in their approach to sexual violence. Some countries have far-reaching legislation and legal procedures, with a broad definition of rape that includes marital rape, and with heavy penalties for those convicted and a strong response in supporting victims. Commitment to preventing or controlling sexual violence is also reflected in an emphasis on police training and an appropriate allocation of police resources to the problem, in the priority given to investigating cases of sexual assault, and in the resources made available to support victims and provide medico-legal services. At the other end of the scale, there are countries with much weaker approaches to the issue where conviction of an alleged perpetrator based on the accusation of the women alone is not allowed, where certain forms or settings of sexual violence are specifically excluded from the legal definition, and where rape victims are strongly deterred from bringing the matter to court through the fear of being punished for filing an unproven rape suit.

Social norms

Sexual violence committed by men is to a large extent rooted in ideologies of male sexual entitlement. These belief systems grant women extremely few legitimate options to refuse sexual advances.[43][48][49] Some men thus simply exclude the possibility that their sexual advances towards a woman might be rejected or that a woman has the right to make an autonomous decision about participating in sex. In some cultures women, as well as men, regard marriage as entailing the obligation on women to be sexually available virtually without limit,[50][51] though sex may be culturally proscribed at certain times, such as after childbirth or during menstruation.[52]

Societal norms around the use of violence as a means to achieve objectives have been strongly associated with the prevalence of rape. In societies where the ideology of male superiority is strong, emphasizing dominance, physical strength and male honour, rape is more common.[53] Countries with a culture of violence, or where violent conflict is taking place, experience an increase in almost all forms of violence, including sexual violence.[53][54]

Global trends and economic factors

Many of the factors operating at a national level have an international dimension. Global trends, for instance towards free trade, have been accompanied by an increase in the movement around the world of women and girls for labour, including for sex work.[55] Economic structural adjustment programmes, drawn up by international agencies, have accentuated poverty and unemployment in a number of countries, thereby increasing the likelihood of sexual trafficking and sexual violence.[56] something particularly noted in Central America, the Caribbean[57] and parts of Africa.[58]

Disasters and lack of infrastructure

Major disasters, particularly where safe spaces, privacy, and access to justice are minimized and destroyed, can play a key role in increasing rates of sexual violence. Speaking at the UN General Assembly in 2010, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, its Causes and Consequences noted women’s particular vulnerability and increased risk of experiencing violence following disasters.[59] The sexual violence experienced by large numbers of Haitian women and girls living in the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps created following the January 2010 earthquake is one example.[60] The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recognized the need for state actors to respond to gender-based violence committed by private actors, in response to a petition by Haitian groups and human rights lawyers calling on the Haitian government and international actors to take immediate measures—like increasing lighting, security, and access to medical care—to address sexual violence against women and girls in the IDP camps.[61]

Feminist theories of male-female rape

The feminist theory of male-female rape is summarized by Susan Brownmiller's statement: "rape is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear".[62] Some feminists assert that male domination of women in socio-political and economic domains is the ultimate cause of most rapes, and consider male-female rape to be a crime of power that has little or nothing to do with sex itself.[63] However, an 1983 study comparing 14 indicators of male dominance and the incidence of rape in 26 American cities found no correlations, except one where greater male dominance actually decreased the incidence of rape.[64] Social learning theory of rape is similar to the feminist theory and links cultural traditions such as imitation, sex-violence linkages, rape myths (e.g., "women secretly desire to be raped"), and desensitization to be the core causes of rape.

Rape culture

Rape culture is a term used within women's studies and feminism, describing a culture in which rape and other sexual violence (usually against women) are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media condone, normalize, excuse, or encourage sexualized violence.

Within the paradigm, acts of sexism are commonly employed to validate and rationalize normative misogynistic practices; for instance, sexist jokes may be told to foster disrespect for women and an accompanying disregard for their well-being, which ultimately make their rape and abuse seem "acceptable". Examples of behaviors said to typify rape culture include victim blaming, trivializing prison rape, and sexual objectification.

The way males are socialized and sexual scripts

It has been argued that rape may be caused by the way males are socialized in regard to sexuality.[65][66] Boys are brought up to be sexually aggressive, dominant and conquering, as a way of affirming their masculinity. Catharine MacKinnon argues that men rape "for reasons that they share in common even with those who don’t, namely masculinity and their identification with masculine norms and in particular being the people who initiate sex and being the people who socially experience themselves as being affirmed by aggressive initiation of sexual interaction".[67] According to Check and Malamuth (1983), men are taught to take the initiative and persist in sexual encounters, while women are supposed to set the limits.[68] This classical sexual script is often popularized through television shows, popular films and pornography, which depict the man making a sexual advance and the woman initially resisting, but then finally positively responding by falling in love with him or experiencing orgasm (Cowen, Lee, Levy, and Snyder, 1988; Malamuth and Check, 1981; Smith, 1976; Waggett, 1989). The implied message is that men should persist beyond a woman's protest and women should say "no" even if they desire sex (Muehlenhard and McCoy, 1991). The more traditional the society, the closer the adherence to this sexual script.[68] For this reason, many men do not believe that a woman means "no" when she says "no", and they feel entitled to continue to pressure the woman, and ultimately coerce or force her into sex; consent often becomes confused with submission.[69] In many societies, men who do not act in this traditional masculine way are ostracized by their peers and considered effeminate. In studies, young males from Cambodia, Mexico, Peru and South Africa, reported that they have participated in incidents where girls were coerced into sex (such as gang rapes) and that they did so as a way to prove their masculinity to their friends, or under peer pressure and fear that they would be rejected if they didn't participate in the assault.[70] In many cultures, such as Asia or Latin America, it is believed—by both men and women—that men have uncontrollable sexual urges and instincts, which cannot be managed in any way, and that once they are sexually aroused they should be provided with sex as a right. On the other hand young girls are expected to uphold the honor of their family by maintaining their "reputation" and preserving their virginity. As a result, assaults on women, especially those perceived as "easy" and "known" to have had sex with many partners, are rarely judged, and are justified by the myths that men simply cannot control their sexual needs, and that "good" girls do not get raped, but only those who act irresponsibly and entice men.

The sex industry and rape

The relation between the sex industry (pornography, striptease, live sex shows, prostitution, etc) and rape has also been discussed. Some theorists charge that the acceptance of these sexual practices increases sexual violence against women, by reinforcing stereotypical views about women, who are seen as sex objects which can be used and abused by men, and by desensitizing men; this being one of the reasons why some theorists oppose the sex industry. They argue that pornography eroticizes the domination, humiliation, and coercion of women, and reinforces sexual and cultural attitudes that are complicit in rape and sexual harassment.

Evolutionary explanations

Males who under some circumstances used force may have had greater reproductive success in the ancestral environment than males who did not employ force.[63] Sociobiological theories of rape are theories that explore to what degree, if any, evolutionary adaptations influence the psychology of rapists. Such theories are highly controversial, as traditional theories typically do not consider rape to be a behavioral adaptation. Some object to such theories on ethical, religious, political as well as scientific grounds. Others argue that a correct knowledge of the causes or rape is necessary in order to develop effective preventive measures.

See also


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  65. ^ {{cite book|author1=Tara M. Emmers-Sommer |author2=Mike Allen |title=Safer Sex in Personal Relationships: The Role of Sexual Scripts in HIV Infection and Prevention |url= |accessdate=1 October 2011 |date=1 November 2004 |publisher=Taylor and Francis |isbn=978-1-4106-1168-0}
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Further reading

  • Marnie E., PHD. Rice; Lalumiere, Martin L.; Vernon L., PHD. Quinsey (2005). The Causes Of Rape: Understanding Individual Differences In Male Propensity For Sexual Aggression (The Law and Public Policy.). American Psychological Association. ISBN 1-59147-186-9. 

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