When Men Attack: Why (and Which) Men Sexually Assault Women

The risk of sexual violence one assumes just by living while female is high.

Posted Feb 20, 2019

The risk of sexual violence one assumes just by living while female is high. According to the CDC, one in three women In the United States have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact at some point in their lives. Considering that sexual violence against women is by all accounts under-reported, the actual number may be higher. The attackers, almost exclusively, are men. Why do men sexually assault women?

 Senior Airman Kia Atkins
Source: Photo by: Senior Airman Kia Atkins

One reason, the mention of which may strike some (erroneously) as flippant, is because they can. By biological lot, men are on average bigger and stronger than women and can overpower them physically. “Anatomy is destiny," said one Sigmund Freud; and it is indeed grim destiny that a man who wishes to impose his will on a woman has the means of physical force available to him. The same is not generally true in reverse. This biological fact of nature is not fair. But there is no fairness in nature. There is only nature in nature.

Another reason sexual violence is so common is that sex and violence are closely linked in our internal architecture. Psychologically, sex contains violent undertones and vice versa. The link reveals itself both in the language we use to describe sex—conquest, surrender—and in how our words for sex commonly serve double duty as aggressive insults (see under: ‘F--- you!’). It manifests in how boys of a certain age tease and hit (in the pre-Facebook sense) those girls they ‘like.’ The link is echoed too in our taste for using violent signifiers such as spanking, biting, choking, scratching, and cuffing as means of sexual arousal.

The sex-violence connection was, of course, not lost on old Herr Freud, who viewed it as a relic from ancient times when men’s persuasive communication skills were not developed enough to secure reliable access to reproductive mates. Freud also noted, back in the day where deep symbolism was a thing, how the act of sexual intercourse itself (the ‘primal scene’) bears a striking resemblance to violent struggle, marked as it is by raw physicality, sweating, bodily penetration, thrusting, grunting, etc. And you don’t need Freud to tell you, conversely, what associations are invoked at the sight of those sweaty MMA fighters mounting each other inside the Octagon.

Yet the sex-violence link is no mere psychological construct. Rather, it appears to be rooted in biology. For one, the sex drive and the propensity to violence in humans are both linked to the same hormone, testosterone. Both are also linked to the important neurotransmitter serotonin (of Prozac’s fame). Both violence and sex involve heightened autonomic nervous system arousal, and both stimulate the pleasure and reward systems in the brain. Recent research (from David Anderson at California Institute of Technology and Dayu Lin of the Neuroscience Institute at NYU, among others) has discovered that the neural brain circuitries for aggression and mating overlap substantially in male rodents. Rodents, lest you be tempted to laugh them off, are quite similar to humans genetically, and their neural processes often map well onto human brains.

Evolutionary science has come to view the sex-violence connection as an inherent feature of the male-female mating system. Acts of dominance and violence are common ways by which males attract and protect their mates among our primate relatives. Evolutionary scientists argue whether sexual aggression is itself adaptive, or a mere side effect of other selected traits. But everyone agrees that it is linked to mating competition.

In humans, too, aggressiveness is often rewarded by greater access to, attention from, and mating success with women. Some of this is due to dominant men forcing themselves on women. But some of it is due to women seeking out and choosing dominant men. It is no coincidence that the theme of being taken forcefully by an attractive lustful man dominates (pun) the erotic literature written by and for women, and features prominently in women’s sexual fantasies. Thought experiment (with a shoutout to Lysistrata): Would men continue to seek, display, and compete for dominance if women stopped bedding the winners?

This is an uncomfortable realization for some. Yet discomfort is not the end of the world. It’s just the world. And the fact that we have sexual appetites for things we may find politically abhorrent—such as to be dominated—has to be acknowledged if we are to make progress on controlling sexual violence, in the same way, that we must acknowledge the thrilling, seductive aspects of warfare if we want to advance effectively the cause of peace.

However, our biological constitution, which privileges men physically and rewards male aggression, is only one major determinant of behavior, sexual and otherwise. Another is social influence. We all have biological features and tendencies, but whether, when, and how we act on them is often shaped by social context and social identity. For example, biology dictates what we can eat. But society decides what we will eat. Our biology enables us to easily pick up any language (in childhood). But the language we pick up is that of our society. Moreover, while genetic endowment sets the boundaries for what one can do, it does not determine what one should or will do. That women are more physically vulnerable by nature need not mean that they should be fair game for attack. Human beings, as the late, great psychologist Gilbert Gottlieb has noted, can select a large range of behaviors without requiring genetic change.

In fact, society always can, and always does, choose whether to elevate and encourage certain genetic attributes or minimize and resist their influence. Thus for example, nations that allow the legacy of men’s biological strength advantage to guide their social order have high levels of both gender inequality and sexual violence against women. Nations that choose to combat the historical legacy of this biological difference and facilitate gender equality have lower rates of sexual violence.

Of course, people still behave differently even within the same society. Biological predispositions interact with social conditions and experiences (and chance, of course) to produce our cherished individual differences. To wit: not all men attack women sexually. Those who do are likely to have certain individual characteristics in common. What may those characteristics be?

Neil Malamuth of UCLA and his colleagues have proposed in the late 90s an influential framework for explaining sexual violence. Their ‘confluence model’ of sexual aggression pulled together several empirically identified risk factors into two distinct paths toward sexual violence: Hostile Masculinity, which involves an attitude of distrust and anger toward women as well as adversarial views about relationships; and Impersonal Sexual Orientation, which involves a preference for frequent, casual sexual relationships and a view of sex as a game to be won rather than a source of emotional intimacy.

These paths toward sexual violence (which may operate independently or in concert) are predicted in part by early experiences, particularly childhood victimization and adolescent delinquency. More recent research has elaborated on the model to include additional predictors, such as personality traits (psychopathy), situational factors (alcohol consumption) and perceptual biases (the ‘over-perception bias,’ whereby men misperceive women’s friendliness as sexual interest).

Social and situational conditions thus factor heavily in shaping individual proclivities toward violence. For example, research has shown that men who hold more rape supportive attitudes (such as: women say “no” when they mean “yes”; women who dress provocatively, drink alcohol, or go someplace alone with a man are asking to be raped; women can resist a rape if they try; women often falsely accuse men of rape) are more likely to initiate sexual violence against women. These rape supportive attitudes are not in-born or genetically determined like the location of the nose on your face; nor are they some random product of universal experience. Rather, they are learned, inhaled from the air of the culture.

Still, it is ever so tempting to attribute bad social facts to the bad behavior of inherently bad people. This ‘othering’ is a nifty psychological maneuver, effective in easing our anxieties by suggesting a simple solution (lock ‘them’ up) while pushing the problem away (from ‘us’). Alas, in the sexual violence context, claiming that the culprits are uniquely vicious, sociopathic ‘others,’ –sick sexual deviants unmoved by society’s disapproval—also contains a measure of truth.

There are many more women who are attacked by men than men who attack women. This is so because many sexually violent men are repeat offenders. Repeat sexual offenders often have in common strong sociopathic traits. A meta-analysis of 82 recidivism studies including 29,450 sexual offenders By Canadian researchers Karl Hanson and Kelly Morton-Bourgon identified antisocial orientation as the main predictor of recidivism. More recently, Heidi Zinzow and Martie Thompson of Clemson University provided further evidence that the main individual characteristic differentiating single from repeat offenders is the presence of antisocial traits in the latter group. Some sexual aggressors, in other words, are probably congenital, sociopathic norm violators. They are true ‘others.’

At the same time, many of the men who have violated a woman sexually do not meet clinical diagnostic criteria as either sociopaths, sexual deviants, or for that matter neurologically (or intellectually) impaired. While ‘stranger danger’ stirs deep easy dread (and is hence a useful trope for screenwriters and politicians), most sexual violence takes place among otherwise normative people who are familiar with each other and are involved in some type of relationship. This raises the possibility that to these perpetrators the violence appears, in context, normative. By this argument, a sizable proportion of the men who attack women are following, rather than flaunting, social dictates.

The role of social dictates in shaping individual behavior is often overlooked because we are inclined to favor internal causes when explaining other people’s behavior. This tendency is so fundamental that it has a name: The Fundamental Attribution Error. (When evaluating our own, particularly negative behavior, however, we often rely on less damning external explanations. To wit: you’re late for work because you’re lazy. I’m late because of traffic. This is called the ‘actor-observer effect’).

It turns out, however, that social and situational variables often override individual characteristics in predicting one’s behavior and overall future. If I need to predict whether you’ll be dancing next Friday night, it’s better for me to inquire about where you’ll be that night than about your extraversion score on a personality test. If I want to know whether you’ll become wealthy, I’m better off basing my prediction on whether your parents are wealthy than on the conscientiousness score on your personality test. We are more beholden to our circumstances than we tend to believe. This is true in general; and it’s true for sexual violence in particular. For example, contextual and group factors (such as orders from the leadership, pre-conflict rates of sexual violence, intra-group dynamics, gender inequality) predict the prevalence of war rapes better than the personalities or characteristics of individual soldiers.

Circumstances matter in part because they set (or remove) certain hard parameters. Regardless of your personal characteristics, if you’re at your wedding, you’re going to dance. The fact also remains that if you are born in Afghanistan to poor parents, you have no access to capital. If you’re born in Manhattan to wealthy parents, you do. Circumstances, particularly social ones, also matter greatly because as herd animals we are utterly dependent on the approval, acceptance, cooperation, and support of others. Thus we are wired to notice, take into account, and align with the behavior of those around us.

If you’re still telling yourself that you are your own person, doing your thing, not giving a damn about what others think—then you need to grow up and face the (social) facts. Society gives you life. It is your main source of strength and identity. Without it you’re hopeless—an ant that has lost its colony. Society provides you with the tools and rules for living. It has fearsome powers of reward and retribution. In other words society, as the sociologist Randall Collins has argued brilliantly, is God.

Two specific social forces known to influence our behavior greatly are social scripts and peer pressure. Social scripts are culturally acquired bits of knowledge about the sequence of events expected in a specific setting. Scripts are not written laws, but they are often more powerful. If you don’t believe it, try joining the nice couple having dinner in a booth at Applebee’s. You could (there’s room; Ii’s a public space; there’s no law against it). But you won’t.

Social scripts assign certain roles and temperaments to various actors, setting them on certain trajectories. When it comes to sex, those trajectories can be problematic. One example (per Jennifer Hirsch of Columbia University) is the common script whereby women’s role is to give consent and men’s role is to secure it. Such a script defines women as the gatekeepers for sex and men as sexual agents, and by extension potential perpetrators.

Social scripts dictate that certain things lead to other things. Those who have internalized a script are loath to violate it. Moreover, when the script is violated, those who have internalized it will tend to blame the violator, not the script. If the common script says that everyone must wear a suit and tie for work no matter the weather, then those who show up in shorts on a hot day will receive a rebuke.

Likewise, if the sexual script dictates that the end point of flirting and foreplay is intercourse, then many will be loath to break it regardless of how they actually feel in the moment. Those who stop, or say, “Stop!” mid-script are bound to feel awkward, even guilty. They will also likely be seen as failures, or as dishonest manipulators deserving of retaliation.

As gender violence expert Rhiana Wegner of UMass writes:

When potential perpetrators perceive situational cues, such as the woman’s alcohol consumption, as consistent with their rape supportive attitudes, they are likely to feel justified in using force to obtain sex. The ubiquitousness of rape myths in American culture may also reassure potential perpetrators that others will find these justifications reasonable and, therefore, they will be more likely to try to use them to excuse their behavior.

The other contextual force often at play here is immediate peer group pressure. Within our vast social ocean, the immediate peer group is the most powerful current. This is because day to day, the proximal context tends to exert more influence than a distal one. To figure out whether you’re smoking pot, it’s better for me to ask whether your friends are smoking, rather than what your parents do for a living. Peer group norms, however, tend to sprout not from thin air but from the soil and climate of a larger cultural consciousness. What is this cultural consciousness that permits and pushes men towards sexual violence?

On a general level, it is one that is characterized by the sanctioning of all kinds of violence. As the psychologist Hans Eysenck observed long ago, what sex was for the Victorians, violence is for us. We officially condemn it, but actually reward and revel in it. An American child is rewarded for fighting back, not for turning the other cheek. (“Jesus was no sissy,” per the late televangelist Jerry Falwell.)

An undercurrent of violence worship is apparent in American culture, where parents express their love by spanking their children, where the symbol of patriotism is the soldier, the symbol of personal freedom is the gun, the largest mental health system is the prison system, the most popular sport if football, the most popular entertainment are shoot ‘em up video games and vengeful movie superheroes blowing up things, and the most cherished demographic is youth. As a rule, where you see a lot of violence, you will see a lot of sexual violence.

Another aspect of this consciousness is that it objectifies people. The objectification of women—turning their body parts into props in the drama of male desire—has been acknowledged widely, as has its connection to sexual violence. Feminist consciousness raising, insightful theorizing, and dogged activism and advocacy have led to considerable improvements in how police, the courts, and the media treat the survivors of sexual violence. The movement has helped put the lie to the notion that rape victims are to blame for the crime. The problem of sexual violence is no longer systematically dismissed, ignored, or denied by the institutions of culture.

At the same time, the focus on female objectification has obscured the fact that men too are routinely objectified—not as instruments of desire and reproduction, but as instruments of labor and production. In the unforgivingly competitive market system where they spend their days, workingmen (and, indeed, women) are routinely treated as means to an end and deprived of their full humanity in the process, a phenomenon known in the literature as ‘workplace objectification.’ Men are not even given the cultural license, still available to some women, to opt out of the race into full time parenthood. America by and large treats its workers as it does the products they make: like things to use up, throw away, and replace. 

How many men sense, rightly, that no one cares about their subjective experience or their feelings independent of their economic value? How many sense, rightly, that their worth is conditioned on their net worth (as women’s worth is conditioned on their physical attractiveness)? How many sense that they are interchangeable and easily disposable? How many are true agents in their lives, as opposed to tools of a trade?

American workers work very hard. But much of this work is motivated by fear, the terror of being left behind, of falling through the gaping cracks in the tattered so-called safety net, of becoming nonproductive and hence non-entities, useless objects. Objectified people are less able, and motivated, to treat each other humanely. 

This is one reason why framing the sexual violence problem as chiefly a ‘man vs. woman’ issue may hinder progress toward resolving it. Just as specific rights movements tend to benefit from the creation of a more general civil rights conversation and consciousness within the culture, so will an effort to end the objectification of women and violence against them benefit from a more comprehensive social conversation about violence and objectification.

The legacy of feminist scholarship is further relevant to the discussion of sexual violence because, in addition to raising awareness of the problem of sexual violence, feminist scholarship has also changed the way such violence is explained.

For example, prior to the movement’s rise in the 60s and 70s, rape was considered to be largely about sex. Feminist scholarship proposed instead that rape was about the assertion of male power over women. The event that ushered in this paradigm shift was probably the publication, in 1975, of Susan Brownmiller’s ‘Against Our Will’ in which she sought to reframe rape as a political issue: the embodiment—and enforcement tool—of patriarchal misogyny.

“Rape,” Brownmiller wrote, “is not a crime of irrational, impulsive, uncontrollable lust, but is a deliberate, hostile, violent act of degradation and possession on the part of a would-be conqueror, designed to intimidate and inspire fear…” She wanted rape to be eliminated through a socio-political change in the same way lynching, a once thriving practice has been thus eliminated.

Positioning rape as systemic cultural subjugation rather than mere individual violation was effective in highlighting the profound social implications of rape (and the threat of rape) as well as the pressing and pervasive cultural problem of gender inequality. That important victory, however, came at a cost. Before long, Brownmiller’s scholarly claim morphed into a galvanizing political battle cry: ‘rape is about power, not sex,’ which has over time calcified into popular dogma. What this notion did well was to promote the causes of social justice and gender equality. What it did poorly was to explain sexual violence.

Advocacy, of course, need not rely on science so long as it’s solely focused on values. I may value gender equality and champion it without needing science’s approval of my stance. One’s values are subjective, requiring no proof in evidence; and they are not inherently beholden to empirical facts. But advocacy can, and often does, run into trouble when it tries to support the promotion of subjective values with claims of empirical truth. If, for example, I advocate a position that ‘rape is not about sex,’ I am making a claim of truth, not of values. Discerning truth requires us to referee competing claims based on evidence. For that, we have only science.

Alas, advocacy by its nature pushes toward a pre-selected destination. Science follows the evidence wherever it leads. Advocacy relies on strong convictions and tends toward clear, simple messages. Science, on the other hand, is skeptical. It seeks facts and a full understanding and tends to meander its way cautiously through the jagged and slippery terrain of nuance, caveat, complexity, and doubt. It moves slowly, often in multiple directions at once, and wanders up many dead-end alleys. Thus, advocacy will often lose its patience with science and end up misrepresenting, selectively using, or altogether ignoring or dismissing it. This, it appears, is what happened to the ‘rape is not about sex’ notion.

Examined dispassionately for its truth-value, the ‘rape is about power, not sex’ claim appears problematic on its face. First, to claim that sex—one of our most powerful motives (our species’ existence depends on it, after all)—is somehow absent from an act that routinely involves erection, vaginal penetration, and ejaculation defies reason. Arguing that rape is not about sex is akin to asserting that gun violence is not about guns. Both claims betray an incomplete, and politicized, view.

Second, even if we frame rape as an assertion of patriarchal power, the question remains: asserting power to what end? As feminist scholars such as Barbara Smuts have noted, the origins of the patriarchy itself may quite reasonably be traced to the male motivation to control female sexuality. If rape is a symbol of patriarchal ambition, then it symbolizes a sexual motive.

Current scholarship on rape further undermines the ‘rape is about power, not sex’ narrative. For example, Richard Felson of Penn State and Richard Moran of Mount Holyoke College provided statistics showing that most rape victims are young women. Female youth, of course, is strongly linked in the scientific literature to sexual attractiveness. One may counter that young women are targeted merely because they are easy targets. But elderly women (and children) make even easier targets by those parameters, yet they are not raped at the same high rates. Moreover, when cases of robbery (where control and power goals have already been satisfied) end in rape, the victims are mostly young women. “The evidence is substantial and it leads to a simple conclusion: most rapists force victims to have sex because they want sex,” the researchers assert.

In addition, laboratory research has consistently shown that rapists differ from non-rapists in their patterns of sexual arousal. Rapists show a higher erectile response to hearing scenarios of non-consenting sex. This fact does not exclude the possibility that the rapists are responding to the implied violence in the non-consent scenario, rather than to the sex. However, research has suggested that rapists do not differ from non-rapists in response to scenarios of non-sexual violence. For example, in 2012, Canadian researcher Grant Harris and colleagues summarized the research on rapists’ sexual responses thus: “Violence and injury without sexual activity do not usually produce much erectile responding among rapists.” In other words, rapists have a unique taste for nonconsensual sex rather than for nonconsensual violence per se.

Contemporary feminist scholars, alert to the limitations of the ‘rape is about power, not sex’ dogma, have sought to provide a more nuanced, empirically based and hence useful understanding of rape. For example, Beverly McPhail of the University of Houston notes that rape is both, “a political, aggregate act whereby men as a group dominate and control women as a group,” and “a very personal, intimate act in which the body of a singular person is violated by another person(s).” Rape, she asserts further, “occurs due to multiple motives rather than the single motivation... The multiple motivations include, but are not limited to, sexual gratification, revenge, recreation, power/control, and attempts to achieve or perform masculinity.” 

Not a catchy political slogan, one concedes, but much closer to the truth, despite how it inconveniences the dogma.

Sexual violence is not a simple ‘either-or’ problem but rather a complex ‘this-and-that’ one. This is so because, as mentioned earlier, sex and violence are deeply intertwined in our biological and psychological makeup. This is so also because multiple developmental paths lead to sexual violence, and they are shaped by a dynamic interplay of biological, psychological, circumstantial, and sociocultural variables. Thus, easy once-and-for-all, one-size-fits-all solutions will not do. The problem also embodies a conflict between our social ‘human’ aspirations (that “right makes right; violence is wrong”) and our evolutionary ‘animal’ heritage (where “might makes right; violence is effective”). The challenge here is to fashion a social consciousness that’s neither a dismissal of—nor apologia for—our biology.

How can such social change be achieved? Two general approaches are available. The first is a top-down strategy, applied through changes in regulation or law, as California has done some years back regarding consent with its ‘yes means yes’ bill (which states that, “Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time"). A top-down approach may also work through the power of morally invested leadership, of the kind President Obama attempted to embody way back in the day when presidential moral authority was a thing.

The top-down approach has advantages. Laws can be enacted fast, and can compel people to change the way they act. This is important because one of the quickest ways to change social attitudes and scripts is through changing behavior. Mandate the use of seatbelts, and with time a failure to buckle up becomes a social faux pas. Don’t say, "If I only felt better, I’d go golfing." Go golfing, and you’ll feel better.

However, the top-down approach also has limitations. Changing the law can have unintended consequences. Prohibition reduced the drinking rates, but also helped spawn large-scale organized crime. When Mao had all the grain-eating sparrows in China killed, the locust population boomed, destroying the crops and causing mass starvation (sparrows, it turns out, also eat locusts).

Also, law enforcement is based on punishing those who break laws, not on reinforcing those who follow them. Psychological science from B.F. Skinner onward has shown that punishment, while teaching you what not to do, is not a good way to teach you what to do. In fact, what people who are punished often learn best is how to avoid (and resent) those who punish them, and how to become good at not being caught. On the highway, everyone slows down when they see a police car. And then they speed back up after it’s gone.

Moreover, sexual interactions are, one might safely conclude with even minimal experience, complex. The law is limited in its ability to regulate such complexity. Often, applying the crude instruments of law (and law enforcement) to the subtle and subjective dance of sexual relations is akin to peeling grapes with an ax. The ‘he said-she said’ situations, common in cases of sexual violence, are inherently difficult to pin down and address legally.

A case in point is the aforementioned question of consent. While the law may be clear, sexual interactions are often anything but. As negotiated in the lives of real people, consent is a variously shaded, contextual concept. For example, we may easily agree that the inebriated person in a one-night stand is unable to give consent. But what about a couple who likes to have drunk sex? And if certain sexual actions between long-married people commence sans mutual, vocal, affirmative, ongoing throughout enthusiasm, do they constitute assault? When it comes to sex, even well-meaning laws may end up paving, as it were, the road to (social) hell.

Top-down means, while often necessary, are never in themselves sufficient to alleviate social ills. A bottom-up approach is also needed, by which individuals, families, and communities initiate actions and conversations to create new terms, new scripts and expectations and, ultimately, a new social consciousness. For teeth to evolve, a species needs to start biting.

Important social changes often begin as—or become powerful through—grassroots efforts. #Metoo is one recent example. Such efforts may lead to (and benefit from) subsequent changes in the law. But laws alone are by and large insufficient to maintain social gains over time. Laws reside in books. Their spirit remains alive only in the relationships between people.

In the old Zen tale, a master and his student are having lunch on the porch. A fly buzzes overhead. Eyes closed, the master reaches with a quick flick of the hand and catches the fly midair.

“How can you do that?” asks the awestruck student.

“How can you not?” asks the master.

Not that long ago it was unimaginable that women could vote, let alone run for office, let alone win. Now, it is unimaginable that they couldn’t. A lot of things that are hard to imagine, eventually—with changes in law and social consciousness—become taken for granted.

Right now it is difficult for us to imagine a world in which everyone has an equal right to sexual self-determination; where a woman may feel, and be, as safe as a man walking down the street, or having a one-night stand.

Yet how can we justify not having such a world?

Parts of this post have appeared in earlier posts, including here and here.


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Wegner, R., Abbey, A., Pierce, J., Pegram, S. E., & Woerner, J. (2015). Sexual Assault Perpetrators' Justifications for Their Actions: Relationships to Rape Supportive Attitudes, Incident Characteristics, and Future Perpetration. Violence against women, 21(8), 1018-37.

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