Why Do Men Rape?
First things first: UNDERSTANDING DOES NOT EQUAL ABSOLUTION. I am not in any way making excuses for rapists, nor do I believe that men should be punished less severely based on their histories. In my fiction novels, Detective Petrosky loves fantasizing about cutting off rapists’ balls. Poppy Pratt from Born Bad would likely do it. It’s why I love them both, oh, so much.
But I’m writing this post today because I have treated many rape victims. And one common question tends to be, “Why?” Not only, “Why me,” but also: “Why would someone think this is okay? Why are they so hateful?”
These are valid questions that often keep women (and men) up at night. And these questions might have an answer. For some survivors of rape, knowing the answer sufficed in solving a mystery that in turn helped them heal. For others it merely satisfied curiosity. At the very least, we may be in a better position to reduce rape in the future, and I could retire happily never having to treat another rape victim. (I can dream, can’t I?)
So let’s get into this.
Is Rape an Evolutionary Adaptation?
According to prominent evolutionary psychologist Edward Hagen, “There is no principled reason why animal nervous systems could not be specialized for coercive mating, including rape.” However, rape doesn’t need some specialized psychological mechanism in place for it to be deemed useful in the mind of a rapist–it all boils down to a cost-benefit analysis. Just as reciprocal altruism (or sharing) would not always have been beneficial, nor would waiting for consensual sex.
Hagen believes that the benefits of rape would have outweighed the costs in the following environments:
• Where higher status males could force matings without punishments, which of course NEVER happens today with (cough) HarveyWeinstein-R.Kelly-JeffreyEpstein-BrockTurner (cough).
• Where punishments were low because of lack of support for the woman herself; orphans or those deemed lower status would have been particularly vulnerable. This meshes with today’s statistics that impoverished women have higher rates of sexual violence than do other economic groups.
• During times of war when repercussions were low, which meshes with the vast majority of human history where raping “enemy” women has been a usual occurrence, seen by some as simply a perk of war. (More on that in Recall, where the killer is attacking rapists–as a cop, would you stop him? My detective really doesn’t want to.)
• Low status men who could not attract a mate due to financial reasons may have benefitted significantly from rape even in the face of repercussions from the woman’s family. This remains true today as men in lower economic realms are those more likely to engage in rape or burglary, presumably as a desperate attempt to increase their own economic standing or “spread their seed” without resources to attact a mate legitimately.
All of these reasons are at first glance are less than comforting, mostly because women tend to wonder, “Why is he such a psychopath? Why doesn’t he care who he hurts?”
As crazy as it seems, these men don’t necessarily have a deficit in empathy. In fact, one study of incarcerated men (rapists and non-rapists) found that the rapists actually had more empathy overall than did the other group. Self-esteem and psychopathy were also not factors for rape. Instead it was found that rapists may suppress empathy towards their victims, but do not necessarily have issues with empathy on the whole.
But what would cause one to suppress empathy? Why would that ever be useful?
Newsflash people. Even non-rapist boys are taught to do it. And it starts young.
Boys and the Pressure to Separate From Mommy
Identification and empathy are normal experiences in emotional intimacy, but these emotions may threaten men because their view of what it means to be “male” is derived from rigid independence and autonomy, not a caring merger with others (this form of detrimental masculinity is a theme I explored in depth in “Rearview,” one of my favorite short stories). When coupled with the societal ideas that femininity and masculinity are opposites, that femininity is inferior and that emotional connections mean less independence, men have more trouble embracing these more caring expressions and are forced instead to put distance between themselves and those around them, according to Dr. Michel Bared in Arousal. And that starts with Mom.
While girls are often expected to maintain close relationships with their mothers for emotional support, boys are expected to disengage–they don’t need emotional support, they’re strong and independent and don’t have ANY feelings…right? As boys grow, accommodating stoicism requires devaluing emotional relationships, and separating from the women they love, namely their main source of parental support (usually Mom for the reasons listed above). And that kind of separation is hard to accomplish without devaluing women in general. Through more subtle objectification or overt hostility, society teaches males to eliminate this snag of emotional entanglement. It tells children that feelings are both abnormal and dangerous because being emotional is a death blow to masculinity. As. If. (Insert Clueless reference here for anyone as old as I am.) Devaluing women has the effect of creating the emotional space necessary to separate and fit in with society at large. No one wants to be a “momma’s boy.” No one wants to marry one. No one wants to be one.
The belief in male superiority is one fantasy (and it is indeed a fantasy) that helps to propel boys and men to avoid identifying with their mothers or any women they might have otherwise looked up to. Devaluing females from the first possible opportunity by yelling “you throw like a girl” or “don’t cry, sissy!” makes things easier.
But how much devaluing occurs depends on the security of little guys’ relationships. And the more insecure the attachments, the less value it makes sense to place on those relationships. If your relationship with your mother didn’t provide you with the security you needed, and society at large tells you women are beneath you, what point is there in valuing them at all? Screw ‘em. Right?
This meshes with other studies that found rapists tend to have more hostility towards women, which was negatively related to their empathy scores (ie, the more hostile they were towards women in general, the less empathy they had for rape victims). Rapists also tend to have less empathy towards their victims than towards other women, though this may also be a coping mechanism to reduce their guilt. Either way, it is clear that those who rape do tend to place less value on women in general and maintain more hostility towards them.
Power and Control as Defense Mechanisms in Abused Males
While the non-rape-y population has about a 7.3% sexual abuse rate, 56.1% of serial rapists reported at least one forced or exploitative abuse experience as a child, though this estimate may be low due to the shame and therefore reluctance to discuss it. 51% reenacted this abuse as adolescents with some they knew, the most common being neighborhood girls, sisters or girlfriends before moving on to strangers.
Perhaps more interesting, when looking only at those who are abused, the rapists were more often attacked by a family member, whereas the other men—who were abused but did not end up being rapists—reported being abused by someone outside the family. This speaks to issues of early attachment issues, a lack of safety to go home to, as opposed to early assault alone.
Within these abusive or sexually inappropriate family environments, exposure to pornography during childhood and adolescence and resulting deviant sexual fantasies led to later development of deviant sexual preferences such as rape. In these cases, not only do children experience modeling which shows that sexual acting out is normal and acceptable, but they are also likely to be abused themselves, both factors in perpetuating later abusive behaviors. However, Bader sees these actions as part of a subconscious (though destructive) drive towards healing, as in these cases the pain tends to be severe enough to require actual acting out of abusive fantasies in order to resolve internal conflict.
Wait…rape as healing? What in the actual hell, Meghan?
Stay with me here, people.
Some types of rape fantasies revolve around submission or coercion, but end with everyone enjoying themselves, often used to overcome guilt or other early issues. However, there are those (both in fantasy and acted out) which focus on actual harm, pain and most of all power. These are the fantasies that most often accompany actual rape scenarios. In these cases, males may be using a defense mechanism called “Identification with the aggressor.”
Bader posits that in rape, some men may be acting out what was done to them, focusing on the pain and humiliation of their victim, often someone smaller or weaker, either a woman or a child. Though child rapists have additional dynamics, the gist is similar: through force, the victim is helpless, not the perpetrator. The victim is now hurt, not the perpetrator. In taking this control, the men involved may transcend feeling frightened and vulnerable, probably a very real experience of being victimized, wounded to humiliated in early life, and temporarily feel safe enough to stay aroused albeit at someone else’s expense.
Separation guilt may also come into play in these perpetrators. Bader notes that for some children, disorganized or otherwise less that ideal attachment is a threat to safety. For children in homes where parents are unstable, the notion that something is wrong with the parent is far more threatening than the notion that something is wrong with them because of an evolutionary history where young children without a caregiver would have perished. So children internalize. They will try to change themselves in attempts to make even abusive parents happy, and often take the blame for their parent’s moods, including aggression or depression. Children may identify with the sadistic parent if they come to believe that they are not supposed to be healthier than that parent. In other words, loving a sadistic parent means acting as that parent would. Bader sites the violence in these cases as a perverse sort of loyalty.
Other studies suggest that sexual offenders have been socialized to satisfy the most basic of human needs (intimacy and sexuality) in violent or otherwise maladaptive ways, which may be why there is such a high rate of recidivism among sexual offenders. If the only way you know to find safety or intimacy is through violence, you’re driven to keep it up. Therefore, the reintroduction of intimacy and teaching one how to bond in appropriate ways may lead to more productive, and less rape-driven individuals in the future. Jail doesn’t do much long-term good if it only deepens hatred and hostility, particularly in cases where those feelings of being out of control or hostile towards caregivers are the underlying cause of the behavior.
Does this mean they should not go to jail? Hell to the no (Petrosky would lose his mind if he read that). Don’t misunderstood me: punishments do need to be in place for the greater good and to ensure safety for potential victims. However, in order to actually improve outcomes and make sure this safety is maintained long term, we need more than locking one up for a few months.
In helping these men restore their safety, we help reduce the chance that they will later victimize someone else in an effort to find it. Helping them helps us too, even if we are ethnically appalled at the notion of assisting someone who committed such brutal and horrendous acts. For more than justice, we want to punish. But sometimes, the punishment hurts us as well. It is a difficult to reconcile dichotomy. But understanding where these behaviors come from may allow us to protect society at large through early intervention. Because despite the wishes of many abused women (and Petrosky himself), they won’t let you bury these men in shallow graves. It behooves us to find ways to offer assistance to those who need it.