Understanding Perpetrators

Understanding Perpetrators

Who are perpetrators?

Questions about perpetrators, such as “who is a perpetrator?” and “what constitutes perpetration?” can elicit some strong and sometimes defensive reactions. Sexual violence perpetrators occupy a stigmatized role in society and it is understandable that most would want to distance themselves from the association. Unsurprisingly, perpetrators are not a self-disclosing group. Rather, sexual violence perpetration is one of the most under-reported crimes in the U.S. with fewer than 3% of rapists ever serving a day in jail (National Crime Victimization Survey, 2010). This shockingly low percentage speaks not only to the barriers that survivors face when reporting but also to the ways in which social, cultural, legal, juridical, and political systems interact to downplay, normalize, or make invisible the pandemic of sexual violence.

As we come to understand the prevalence and effects of sexual violence, we must also come to an honest understanding of the broader interconnectedness between sexual violence and our collective socialization. The host of behaviors arising in nonconsensual sexual interactions is a behavior conditioned, in part, at the social level. As a Conduct Officer and social justice advocate, it is important to strike a balance between understanding how these behaviors manifest and establishing the wider social message that sexual assault is intolerable. Sexual assault perpetration should thus be assessed against a standard for consent and ethics established by campus policy and informed by a social justice framework.

Frustration, anger, guilt, sympathy and fear can arise as you familiarize yourself with the factors most responsible for sexual violence. Keep in mind that this process may confront and trigger experiences from your own history, and that it is important to be aware of how your feelings on perpetration guide your receptiveness to this information. 

Adapted to Emory University with permission by a team of Respect Program staff and interns from the University of Michigan’s Striving for Justice document.

Main Findings:

Childhood abuse, including being witness to family violence, is correlated with committing future violence (O’Hearn and Margolin, 2000, Reitzel-Jaffe and Wolfe 2001). In an exploratory study conducted by Lee, Walters, Hall, and Basile (2013) on the relationship between childhood family violence and IPV, it was found that men who witnessed violence at home growing up held more adversarial sex beliefs, expressed increased hostility towards women, and expressed a greater desire to control their partners.

Men are more likely to commit sexual violence in communities where sexual violence goes unpunished. (National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 2004)

Perpetrators tend to be repeat offenders. Speaking with 99 male sex offenders, court records showed 136 victims between them, but later during treatment, they eventually confessed to 959 victims between them. (Slicner, 2007) Another study using 1146 newly enlisted men in the U.S. Navy found that 149 of participants had attempted or completed forced sex since the age of 14, amounting to a total of 365 sexual violence incidents. (Mcwhorter, 2009)

There is no “typical profile” of a rapist. Many defense attorneys will talk about whether their client, the alleged assailant, either fits the profile of a rapist or doesn’t. This is an invalid argument because there is no typical profile of a rapist. This is why it is good to focus on that person’s behavior instead of who they are in their community. (Maas, 2007)

Sexual Coercion: the normalization of disregarding or overriding consent


Up until the last decade, studies have focused on sexual coercion as a physical tactic used by men against women. While recent studies confirm that gender differences still exist between male and female coercion tactics, a richer understanding of coercion as a multifaceted behavior exhibited by both sexes has emerged.

Sexual coercion can be explained as the use of tactics that are intended to achieve a sexual end with an unwilling partner. These tactics include:

  • physical force: restraining, harming, tying up, use of weapon
  • verbal threats: physical, social or professional threats, blackmail, threats to break-up, threats of self-harm or suicide
  • emotional manipulation: using position of authority, telling lies, shaming
  • intoxication: purposefully providing drugs or alcohol to achieve a sexual end with an unwilling partner. 

(Schatzel-Murphy et al., 2009)

Men have been found to commit approximately twice as many coercive acts as women for all categories listed above. However, both groups report believing that sexual persistence after refusal is not coercive but mutually beneficial to both themselves and the other person (Struckman-Johnson et al., 2003).

Studies have found that, on the whole, men are more likely to believe rape myths about women, conceptualize a narrower range of behaviors as violence, blame and show less empathy for survivors of sexual assault, see behaviors constituting violence against women as less serious or damaging, and trivialize the harms associated with physical and sexual assault. (Flood and Pease, 2009).  Masculinity, or the social conditioning process most centered on the expression of dominance, can lead to male peer support for sexual aggression, development of rape myths, and adversarial sexual beliefs (Kilmartin, 2000; Rozee & Koss, 2001). In addition, rape-supportive beliefs among men have been found to positively correlate with attempted or completed perpetration (Abbey et al., 2001; Humphrey & Kahn, 2000).



Attitudes Towards Sexual Assault

A 2004 study by Carr and Van Deusen compared complex relationships between sexual attitudes and experiences, substance abuse patterns, and child abuse histories in college men. The comprehensive survey measured risk factors that previous studies had found to be associated with male sexual aggression. The results revealed that some hypothesized risk factors were indeed predictive of sexual aggression, including negative gender-based attitudes, heavy alcohol use, and pornography consumption. Few men acknowledged using physical force to obtain sex, whereas more men acknowledged some form of sexual coercion. This included pressuring women and saying things they did not mean to obtain sex, using alcohol to obtain sex, and having sex with a woman even when she wanted to stop. A few men reported some likelihood of raping if they could be sure of not getting caught.

Also, a pattern of alcohol-related sexual coercion emerged. Fifteen percent of the men acknowledged using some form of alcohol-related sexual coercion. Thirty five percent of the men reported that their friends approved of getting a woman drunk to have sex with her, and twenty acknowledged having friends who have got a woman drunk or high to have sex.

Pornography consumption was common among the men in the sample and may further add to the risk of sexual aggression. Laboratory analogues and the self-reports of men who admit to committing rape revealed an association between violent pornography – especially that which is rape-themed – and a propensity to rape women and/or have pro-rape attitudes.

The patterns of sexual coercion, aggression, and rape-prone attitudes found in this study are very similar to patterns reported by other researchers, and they further strengthen our understanding of factors that may lead a subset of college men to commit sexual assault.

Peer pressure to have sex and alcohol-related sexual coercion emerged as important factors in the social milieu at the campus surveyed.

Adapted to Emory University with permission by a team of Respect Program staff and interns from the University of Michigan’s Striving for Justice document.