Understanding the Male Rapist: What do experts know?

“If you don’t really understand perpetrators, you’re never going to understand sexual violence.” Sherry Hamby, editor of the journal Psychology of Violence (NYT) (Image credit: Elvin/Flickr)

A piece published Monday in the New York Times fleshes out what experts know of the why behind male-perpetrated sexual violence. It begins with a 41-year-old dissertation by then-graduate student Samuel D. Smithyman, and his newspaper ad seeking rapists to interview.

After nearly 200 phone calls with sexual offenders of all types, Smithyman wrapped up his work.

By the end of the summer, Dr. Smithyman had completed 50 interviews, which became the foundation for his dissertation: “The Undetected Rapist.” What was particularly surprising to him was how normal these men sounded and how diverse their backgrounds were. He concluded that few generalizations could be made.

Subsequent research has yielded more insight, highlighting numerous factors that might determine why some men rape and others don't, or why some rapists develop patterned behavior and others remain one-time offenders.

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.

One commonality noticed by experts is the refusal or inability for perpetrators to recognize themselves as rapists:

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.

Regardless of the assorted motivations and characteristics of individual rapists, researchers invariably find one things holds true:

Indeed, experts note one last trait shared by men who have raped: they do not believe they are the problem.