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Who are rapists, and where did rape even come from?

(Part of How You Guys - That's Right, You GUYS -- Can Prevent Rape, and continued from What is Rape & What Is It Like to Be Raped?)

The vast majority of people who rape are and have always been male. That does not mean that most men are rapists. While many women will be raped, the majority will not be, and the majority of men are not rapists.

That also does not mean that ONLY men can rape, and that women cannot or do not ever rape. Just because it is far more rare does not mean that women should not be doing everything in our power to be sure to obtain full consent from our sexual partners, and to only be having any kind of sex with partners who want to be having sex with us. Now and then, we have had female users even at Scarleteen who presume that men or boys are always ready for sex, and do or should always say yes to sex, which is a dangerous and false presumption. All this isn’t directed at you guys because it’s all somehow okay if and when women rape or enable rape: it’s not. This article is directed at men both because rapists will nearly always be male, and because the help we need most right now with rape prevention is help from men.

A lot of people have inaccurate ideas of what rapists look like, act like or who they are, and think that there is just no way any of their friends, boyfriends or other men in their lives could rape.

Last year, on YouTube, a video surfaced -- distributed by the rapists -- of a group of boys who filmed, and later sold copies of that film, a gang rape. As someone assaulted by a group of young men when I was young, it was incredibly painful and triggering for me to watch. Seeing it caused me such upset, I had to just let myself be an emotional wreck for the rest of the day, and accept that I was going to feel delicate and on edge for the rest of the week. When you survive a rape, it's not something you want to think about or relive every day, and if you've done some healing, you (hopefully) don't usually have those images in your head every waking minute of your day. Enough time has passed since that assault for me, and I've done enough work in healing, that it's rare enough for me to envision what I can recall from my assault. But those images of a group of fresh-faced, smiling, laughing guys -- smiling and laughing while they knowingly tormented a developmentally disabled young woman -- brought it all back. For some, what those young men looked like may have been a surprise, or it may have seemed an anomaly to see rapists that looked like any other bunch of guy friends having fun together.(The eight teens were charged and pled guilty, but none served any jail time: instead six of them were only given counseling – a service not likely provided by the government for their victim – and community service work.)

But rapists usually look, act, smell, dress, talk and seem like anyone else. While rapists are often acting out of a desire to punish, humiliate, dominate, overpower and/or control, and while the person they are raping is in turmoil in some way, they are generally still having a good time themselves, even when – and sometimes because -- they know the person they are raping is not. While we know that for the person being raped rape isn't about sex, and while we know that for the rapist, it isn't only about sex, to at least some degree, a rapist is having sex on his part, and is expressing his sexuality in some way while raping. Plenty of rapists also do not see themselves as rapists, even those who rape in such a way that is within a definition of rape which pretty much everyone can agree on and see clearly as rape. Part of why it's so difficult for anyone to protect themselves from rape is that we can rarely see a rapist coming with any sort of signs, and can’t tell who we should "expect" to be raped by. Most rapists are liked by those they aren't raping, and who other men will vouch for. Most people can't tell who a rapist is until they are being raped, and more often that not, that person is someone the victim would least expect to be attacked by.

Rapists are most often known to the people they rape. Statistics from a wide variety of sources show that for the majority of rapes, most victims, be they male or female, know their rapists: they are friends, boyfriends, husbands, neighbors, teachers, even family. One of the most quoted and credible studies on rape -- Tjaden and Thoennes, Extent, nature, and consequences of rape victimization: findings from the national violence against women survey. Washington: National Institute of Justice; 2006 -- showed that in 8 out of every 10 rape cases, the victim knows their rapist, and that it is far more common for women than for men to be raped by an intimate partner or date -- around 64% of women are raped by a partner or date compared to around 16% of male rape victims.

The 2005 National Crime Victimization Survey found that 73% of rape victims knew their rapist.

  • Approximately 38% of victims are raped by a friend or acquaintance;
    • 28% of victims by an intimate partner;
      • 26% of victims by a stranger;
        • 7% of victims by another relative;
        • When it comes to rape, we – especially women -- can't always count on the people we trust not to rape, even people we're told to trust most, which is obviously something awful to live with. Someone who rapes may very well tell the person they rape that they love them, may have been their friend for years, may be someone who other male friends vouch for, and may even be related to the person they rape. This is also another way that making rape all about danger from strangers not only doesn’t help keep people from being victimized by rape, and keeps the more common forms of rape so invisible, but can do many people real harm. Even though it may be a terrible truth to face, we’re all safer being aware of it than we are trying to deny it.

          What else do we know about rapists? According to the 1997 Sex Offenses and Offenders study, just more than half of rapists are white, and close to one-quarter of rapists are married. Most rape their victims in the victims’ own home, or in the home of a friend, neighbor or relative. Only around one out of every ten rapes happens away from home and outside. Only around 6% of rapes involve the use of a weapon: most rapists rape via the physical force or their own bodies or by verbal and emotional force and/or coercion. Around one out of every three rapists is intoxicated when he rapes. Overall, rapists rape younger people more often than they do older people: in the United States alone, around 44% of victims are under the age of 18, 15% are under the age of 12 and 80% are under the age of 30 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, February 1997).


          Rapists are often classified into different profiles based on different models of classification, which you can read about here or here.

          Rapists tend to believe that the people they are raping deserve to be raped, and most rapists are very opportunistic -- in other words, who they rape isn't usually about what someone is wearing, what someone says or where they are at: it is merely about them being available and it seeming to the rapist that he can succeed in raping that person and get away with it. Rape also isn’t usually about a man strongly desiring sex and being unable to get it consensually. In other words, a guy really wants to get laid, but can’t find a willing partner, and so he rapes: most experts on rape agree that rape of all types is primarily motivated by a desire for power and control, not just out of unmet sexual desire. Mind, many men have been raised with ideas from other men that their part in sex is all about masculinity, domination and power-over, about subduing or a partner or making them surrender, which certainly doesn’t help men to develop sexualities or sexual ethics which don’t incorporate some of those qualities, and those kinds of attitudes certainly are part of rape.


          Some couples do enjoy and want powerplay in their sex lives: having one partner be dominant and the other submissive. But that doesn't have to mean that someone gets assaulted or raped. Rather, for those -- be that you or anyone else -- it means that powerplay in partnered sex takes place only when the all parties informedly consent, when all also WANT or invites that sort of role play, and when it is clearly negotiated and acknowledged AS role play within limits, not some sort of essential given. Communication when it comes to BDSM sex (even if you’re not calling it that), including firm agreement on what means stop, is as important as with any other kind of sex. So if you and your partner aren’t ace communicators and both great with establishing and upholding boundaries, sex and/or sexual roleplay with domination and submission isn’t going to be safe for one or both of you.

          The simplest typology is the Groth typology, which currently divides rapists into three primary types:
          The anger rapist -- uses rape to degrade or humiliate women; expresses much profanity; attacks often prompted by some marital conflict, occupational or financial problem
          The power rapist -- uses rape to express sexual conquest, establish masculine identity, and likely to kidnap victim for repeated assaults over an extended period of time
          The sadistic rapist -- uses torture or bondage to experience sexual arousal over victim's suffering; frequently targets prostitutes, women who have had many sexual partners or who actively express their sexuality (or are perceived as doing such, even if they really aren't), or those who symbolize something he wants to destroy or punish

          The first two types are most common, some rapists will bridge types, and all of these elements are often part of rape and the motivation to rape. In plenty of ways, all of these are also parts of how people enable rape. For instance, when we hear anyone -- be they a rapist or not -- express that a rape victim "deserved it," for any reason, they're reading from a rapist’s script, because in most rapist’s minds, all women or girls (or men or boys, for those who rape those groups) deserve it. When we hear people express that male sexual dominance – be it over women and girls or over boys – is a given, or that rape and dismissing real consent is a “boys will be boys” activity, they’re enabling the same sorts of ethos that those who rape usually share. Men who trash-talk women as a group and who treat or think of women as sexual objects – or who mutely agree with other men who do, even if they disagree – are enabling behavior and ideas which make rape more prevalent.

          We also know that less than 40% of rapes are reported to the police, which is unsurprising given how much victim-blaming goes on in society, how poorly rape victims are often treated within the justice system, and how many messages raped people are sent that tell them their rapes aren’t really rape, and that it isn’t right for victims to speak up. The rapists in those rapes, where a report wasn't made, will not have to serve any time or suffer any sort of consequence for raping. For only those rapes which are reported, only about 50% result in arrests, only 80% of those arrests result in conviction, and less than 17% of reported rapists convicted of rape will ever even do time in prison. When it comes to rape, the victims nearly always do far more “time” than the perpetrators.

          Where did rape even come from?

          If you’re wondering how rape all started and where it came from, the answer is that we can’t really pinpoint it to one area, or find that it started at a given time. The few experts who have delved into and written about the history of rapists, do generally purport that from what they know rape isn’t some sort of a universal given or something which we have sound reason to believe has been going on since the start of human life. Professor Joanna Bourke, author of Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present, says that she’s found no basis that there is anything “natural” or inevitable about male sexual violence, and that it tends to most often occur with men in specific settings or cultural power systems; who feel required to enact rape as a kind of social performance, as proof of masculinity to their victims, other men or themselves. In other words, when you hear someone express something like, “Oh, that’s just how men ARE,” about rape and sexual violence, from what we know, they’re wrong. It’s not how men are: it’s how some men choose to be.

          As an example of one of the most common settings for stranger rape that’s about cultural power systems, we know that rape has been popularized and made more acceptable during wartimes among soldiers – groups of men both under (in terms of their higher-ranked superiors) and enacting (in terms of the people in countries they were based in) a system of power, violence and masculine hierarchy. Nearly a hundred thousand women were raped during the Nanking Massacre. Hundreds of thousands of women -- called, horribly, "comfort" women, since they were seen as responsible for providing "comfort" for soldiers -- were forced into prostitution during World War II, and millions of women were forcibly raped as that war ended. During the Holocaust, while it’s thought that rape occurred to Jewish women less often than it does to women during other wartimes, that was only because of racism: Jews were seen as subhuman by Nazis and while rape was by no means considered a crime, racial mixing, or rassenschande, was. Nonetheless, women were still frequently raped in the ghettos and camps, and in some concentration camps, brothels and “escort services” were set up for the soldiers which women were forced into, or bribed into with promises of food. Some women in the camps were also “experimented” upon by Nazi doctors. Dr. Hermann Stieve, as a particularly heinous example, would have guards rape the women, then brought to the gas chambers to be killed. Their bodies would then be brought back for autopsies: Stieve reported he wanted to see if their reproductive systems could handle stress (rape being the stressor), and later published reports based on those studies without hesitation or apology.

          During the Bosnian War, tens of thousands of women and girls were raped: during an organized Serbian program of cultural genocide, one goal was to make raped women pregnant, and to raise their children as Serbs. A U.N. report estimated that during the relatively recent civil war in Rwanda, as many as 500,000 women and girls suffered brutal forms of sexual violence, including gang-rape and sexual mutilation, after which many of them were killed. Gang rape is common during times of war, and in some cases, gang rapes during wartime have involved as many (or more, for all we know) as 80 men raping one single woman. None of these scenarios are anomalies: rape as an agent of war or occupation has nearly always not only been prevalent, but a given.


          Looking at rape during wartime, we can see very clear examples of what real male strength is and is not. While those soldiers who have raped women during war were often told they were proving their masculinity, solidarity and strength, all they were doing was falling in line with some other’s man’s orders to do someone else harm – and most often, they absolutely had a choice in that -- or with a system of masculinity that defined strength as dominance over women and obedience to other men. It takes a lot more strength to challenge a status quo, or to refuse to follow the orders of some other man or system by refusing to rape or to enable rape than it does to rape, which is a show of profound weakness, not of being strong.

          Too, for most of history -- and in plenty of places and people's minds still -- rape was only or primarily considered a crime not against those BEING raped, but against those to whom a rape victim was considered to belong to. In other words, rape was, and often still is, seen as a crime against property, women being that property. In plenty of ancient societies, we know that bride capture was a standard practice: to obtain a wife, a man would kidnap her, rape her, and then marry her. Not only was this practice socially acceptable, in plenty of cultures, it was viewed as an act of great heroism and machismo. Bride capture made the woman her husband’s property directly through rape.

          Rape as a crime in areas where it was/is viewed as a crime against property was or is seen as victimizing that woman's husband or father, the person who "owned" that woman, because the rapist would be taking something not that rightfully belonged to a woman or child, but as belonging to the person who owned them. Appallingly, in some ancient laws, rapists were "punished" by being required to marry the woman they raped: what was supposed to punish them resulted in a woman being pawned off unto her rapist, giving him the legal right to rape her every day if he pleased, and that was considered okay so long as she was his property. Rape law as we know it today, based on rape being a crime against the actual victim -- even though many remain flawed -- didn't really exist until feminist movements took action and helped usher them into being or reform them in the late 1960’s, when women also started organizing rape crisis centers and domestic violence centers, as well as identifying things like rape trauma syndrome. In the United States, the first law against marital rape – where a husband rapes his wife, which was not seen as a crime for so long because wives were considered their husband’s property -- wasn’t even imposed until 1976.

          Click to continue to the next section, How can men know if someone is giving consent or not? orhere to go back to the whole article

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