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Sexual Abuse

Why Does Rape Happen?

New research explores the beliefs that seem to drive sexual assault.

On July 26, 2012, the following question was posted on Reddit: “Reddit’s had a few threads about sexual assault victims, but are there any Redditors from the other side of the story? What were your motivations? Do you regret it?”

Within days, numerous responses were posted including anonymous posts from self-reported perpetrators of sexual assault. When different news outlets picked up the story, there was a deluge of traffic to the thread ranging from brief responses only a few words long to some that were more than 2,000 words in length.

Realizing that this thread posed a unique opportunity to explore many of the rationalizations perpetrators use to justify sexual assault, a team of researchers at Georgia State University downloaded the entire thread and conducted a thematic study of the collected responses. Of the more than 12,000 responses collected, lead researcher Tracy N. Hipp and her colleagues selected 68 first-person accounts by sexual perpetrators to examine further. The responses were individually read by a team of trained and supervised undergraduate research assistants who followed a formal coding process to classify the different justifications given.

Their results, which were recently published in the journal Psychology of Violence allowed them to identify specific themes in the various justifications given. These themes include:

  • Sexual scripts: Used to guide our behaviour in intimate sexual encounters, these scripts essentially provide the "ground rules" for when sex is appropriate or not. In the first-person accounts studied, 37 percent of respondents justified sexual assault with rationalizations such as "when a woman says no, she really means yes."
  • Victim blaming: Placing the blame for the rape on the actions or sexual history of the victim. Approximately 29 percent of respondents blamed their victim for drinking too much, not saying "no" loud enough, or not physically resisting their advances. Respondents also blamed their victims for flirting with them or for their previous sexual history (including with the perpetrator).
  • Hostile sexism: Many perpetrators have extremely negative views about women and often make statements expressing their indignation concerning how they have been treated by women in the past. This hostility seems to carry through to how they treat women in intimate situations, with 24 percent of perpetrators expressing anger over some action on the part of their victim. One perpetrator, for instance, described his disgust at a woman vomiting on his bed and how he responded by violently raping her while she was unconscious.
  • Biological essentialism: Among male perpetrators, there is often a persistent theme that they are personally not responsible for their actions because of their biology which makes them want sex. For 18 percent of perpetrators, statements such as "My hormones were just going insane" were common, with women appearing to be given the sole responsibility for preventing the rape from happening.
  • Objectification: For many perpetrators, sexual objectification (reducing a potential sex partner to only those aspects the perpetrator finds attractive) is commonly reported. About 18 percent of the first-person accounts studied objectified women by focusing on their physical desirability or describing them as if they were sex toys. One perpetrator even said that "She wasn’t a person anymore—just a path, a tool, a means to an end.”
  • Sociosexuality: For a further 18 percent of the perpetrators studied, the rape was seen as a way of having as many sexual partners as possible, without any restrictions such as the need for intimacy or an actual relationship. Physical gratification seemed to be the only goal and they often described themselves as feeling bored by "vanilla sex," hence the need for using force.

For most of the accounts studied, multiple themes were found. For example, biological essentialism was often seen together with objectification and victim blame. One respondent described how he continued with his sexual assault despite realizing that he was harming his victim because his "hormones were going crazy" and his partner "no longer seemed human to him anymore." Another perpetrator said that "Most girls don’t really understand how horny guys are" and went on to describe how he would educate his own daughter on how to avoid being raped.

Overall, the different themes explored in this study do appear to reflect how many perpetrators feel the need to control their victims by turning them into sexual objects rather than human beings. They also demonstrate the disturbing cultural norms and values that are often used to perpetuate violence against women. Themes such as victim-blaming, blatant hostility towards women, sexual objectification, and the use of sexual scripts often come into play before and after the sexual assault has occurred. Certainly, the hostility towards women—along with a total disregard for their feelings—that comes through in the accounts covered in this study is far more common than most people would prefer to believe.

Given the anonymous nature of the data in this research, there is no way to determine their veracity or how well they describe the mindset of sexual assault perpetrators in general. Still, as Tracy N. Hipp and her fellow researchers point out in discussing their findings, there is much more that needs to be done to challenge the erroneous beliefs often used to justify rape—whether by the perpetrators themselves or by others after the fact.

Victim blaming, objectification, and denigration of women due to their appearance or perceived sexual history need to be challenged whenever they occur, whether in real life or online. That also includes challenging ideas about "biological essentialism" and sexual scripts that deprive people of their right to say no.

There is no acceptable alternative.


Justifying sexual assault: Anonymous perpetrators speak out online. Hipp, Tracy N.; Bellis, Alexandra L.; Goodnight, Bradley L.; Brennan, Carolyn L.; Swartout, Kevin M.; Cook, Sarah L. Psychology of Violence, Vol 7(1), Jan 2017, 82-90.

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