Narcissistic Reactance Theory Definition
The narcissistic reactance theory of sexual coercion and rape explains how the personality of rapists intersects with situational factors to produce reactance. Reactance is a psychological motive to reassert one’s sense of freedom when freedom has been denied. In the case of rape, some men will desire sex more after they have experienced a sexual rejection. Rapists will be motivated to reassert their freedom by aggressing against the woman who has denied them sex and by forcing her to have sex. Reactance cannot fully explain rape because most men do not rape when they are refused sex. The narcissistic reactance theory of sexual coercion asserts that men who display narcissistic personality characteristics are more prone to rape in the face of sexual refusal.
Reactance Results from Sexual Refusal
The typical date rape occurs after a man and a woman have engaged in some sexual activity short of intercourse such as kissing or oral sex. The man wants to continue, but the woman refuses. The rapist then uses physical strength or psychological intimidation to force the woman to have sexual intercourse. Theories of psychological reactance help explain why a man might steal sex from a woman who has refused him.
Reactance is a psychological state that results from threats to one’s freedom. When a person’s freedom has been limited by rejection, reactance theory predicts that the threatened freedom will be viewed as a forbidden fruit. Held out of reach, the forbidden fruit is seen as more important than before. Freedom is reasserted by aggressing against the individual who has refused and engaging in the behavior that has been forbidden.
Reactance theory can apply to the typical date rape scenario. When a woman refuses a sexual advance, a rapist may perceive this refusal as a threat to his freedom. Then he may feel more motivated to have sex with the woman. Some evidence on rape supports this view. Men who are sexually aggressive believe that when a woman “teases” and then denies a man, rape is justified. Ex-lovers and husbands are especially likely to rape women with whom they have had prior sexual relations. It is possible that after the break-up, sex with this woman becomes even more valuable, and the ex-lover feels he must use force to reassert the freedom that he has lost.
The Narcissistic Rapist
Narcissism as a general personality trait may help explain how some men cross the line from sexual rejection to rape. Narcissists are arrogant and feel an exaggerated sense of self-importance. They harbor delusions that they are more successful, important, intelligent, and handsome than the average person. Because of their perceived superiority, narcissists possess strong feelings of entitlement. They tend to be demanding of admiration from others. They are also exploitative and lack empathy for other people. Narcissists also become aggressive when they have been criticized or their egos have been threatened.
Given these characteristics, narcissists would be especially susceptible to reactance following a sexual rejection. The narcissist believes that he is superior to other men in intelligence and attractiveness, and he becomes aggressive when his self-views are challenged. A sexual refusal would likely be the ultimate challenge because the narcissist believes that he is especially deserving and entitled to a woman’s admiration and sexual compliance. This increased sense of entitlement intensifies his desire to have sex following a refusal and leads to an increased need to reassert his freedom by forcing a woman to have sex.
Research on rapists supports the idea that rapists have narcissistic qualities. Rapists tend to be arrogant and show cognitive delusions. Rapists also tend to demonstrate a sense of entitlement in that they are likely to feel that they were entitled to sex with a woman whom they had courted with effort and money especially if she had consented to some sexual activity in the past. Rapists often claim that their victims were promiscuous. A narcissist would become especially angry at a woman whom he believed was easy for other men but refusing of him and would likely take this refusal as a personal insult: If she has had sex with an inferior man, she should definitely not refuse the narcissist! Rapists also show the selective empathy that narcissists demonstrate. Rapists are unwilling to see the situation from their victim’s perspective. They may report that they never thought about how the woman was experiencing the event or that they believed the woman actually enjoyed the rape.
Evidence for the Narcissistic Reactance Theory
Although ethical restraints prohibit direct laboratory tests of this theory, some experimental evidence indicates that narcissism and reactance combine to foster attitudes that are supportive of date rape. Narcissists are more likely to endorse myths about rape and show less empathy for rape victims than are non-narcissists. Although most men are turned off by a rape that occurs after a couple has shown mutual affection, narcissists find the same scenario enjoyable, entertaining, and sexually arousing. Laboratory tests have also shown that when a female accomplice in an experiment refuses to read a sexually explicit passage to a narcissist, narcissists find this personally insulting and retaliate against her. Men who are not narcissistic do not behave similarly. These results suggest that narcissists support rape that occurs after they believe a man has been led on, and they experience psychological reactance when they undergo a sexual refusal.
- Baumeister, R. F., Catanese, K. R., & Wallace, H. M. (2002). Conquest by force: A narcissistic reactance theory of rape and sexual coercion. Review of General Psychology, 6, 92-135.
- Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. New York: Academic Press.
- Bushman, B. J., Bonacci, A. M., Van Dijk, M., & Baumeister, R. F. (2003). Narcissism, sexual refusal, and aggression: Testing a narcissistic reactance model of sexual coercion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 1027-1040.