Rape occurs when one individual forces another into sexual intercourse against his or her will. Other instances in which one of the individuals participates in sexual acts without fully consenting to them (e.g., unwanted kissing) are encompassed within the more general term sexual coercion. Males are much more frequently than females the perpetrators of rape and sexual coercion, not only in humans but also in non-human animals. In a recent review of research literature, the researchers could not find one animal species (other than human beings) where females actually force sex on males.
Although there are differences among studies, partly depending on how questions are asked and who the participants are, survey data on average indicate that almost half of all college women have experienced at least one sexual coercion incident since age 14, and 6% to 15% of college women have experienced rape. About 15% to 30% of male college students report having engaged at least once in some level of actual sexual aggression, and about a third of college men avow some likelihood of raping if they could be assured that no one would know. Acquaintance rape (e.g., by dates and boyfriends) is reported to be as common as stranger rape and usually does not lead to similar adjustment difficulties in the aftermath. Compared with other types of physical assaults, victims of rape suffer relatively higher trauma from sexual assaults, even when the degree of actual physical severity of the act remains constant. Young women are raped more frequently than are other women and experience the greatest psychological distress following the rape.
Compared with criminologists, who primarily study characteristics of incarcerated rapist populations, social psychologists have focused their research on college students and participants from the general community. The distinctive types of populations they have focused on may help explain some differences between criminologists and social psychologists regarding the proposed characteristics of sexual aggressors. Criminologists have generally concluded rape is typically the result of the same types of characteristics and factors that cause other antisocial acts such as stealing, killing, and cheating. In other words, incarcerated rapists appear to be criminal generalists who commit many different types of antisocial acts. Accordingly, criminologists have found convicted rapists to be comparable with other types of violent criminals on most measures of antisocial traits and behaviors, and the criminal records of rapists often resemble those of other offenders. In contrast, social psychologists have discovered that men in the general population who self-identify as having committed sexual coercion are more specialized in their coercive tendencies. For these men, sexually aggressive behaviors are much less likely to correlate significantly with measures of general antisocial behavior (e.g., drug use, lying, hitting, kicking, fraud, or killing).
An important objective of social psychological research has been to identify risk factors associated with an increased probability of committing sexual coercion among noncriminal populations. Several researchers have found a relation between men’s hostile masculinity characteristics and the likelihood of committing sexually coercive acts. Such hostile masculinity includes callous attitudes toward women (e.g., rape myth acceptance and acceptance of interpersonal violence against women), feelings of hostility toward women, and sexual gratification from dominating and controlling women. Related research indicates that being sexually aroused by forced sex, even in fantasy, correlates with self-reported likelihood of raping and actual sexual coercion, and that for such males, but not other participants, the addition of power cues in a simulated relationship with a woman makes females over whom they have power more sexually attractive to them.
Notably, if a man has a hostile masculinity profile, and he also has a generally promiscuous or impersonal sexual lifestyle, then the combination makes him considerably more likely to be sexually coercive. Men who possess a promiscuous sexuality are identified by certain prior experiences. These men generally have had sexual intercourse at a relatively early age as well as quite a few short-term sexual relationships, without much personal attachment or intimacy. Individuals who come from homes where there was much conflict, including aggression by the parents against each other or sexual abuse of the child, have also been found to be more likely to adopt an impersonal sexual lifestyle. It has also been found that engaging in delinquent acts in adolescence or having close friends who participate in such delinquent acts during adolescence also increases the likelihood of developing an impersonal sexual lifestyle.
Although no single risk factor is strongly predictive of actual sexual aggression, if a man possesses several of these risk factors, these, in combination, can become quite predictive of his propensity to sexually aggress. The risk for sexual coercion is further exacerbated if significant alcohol consumption occurs by either individual on a date or during other social interactions, because inhibitions are likely to be reduced by drinking.
Importantly, risk factors for sexual aggression can be counteracted by certain cultural and individual variables. To illustrate, it has been found that among Asian American men but not European Americans, early risk factors for rape (e.g., abuse and violence in the family of origin) are tempered by the importance one assigns to the preservation of his own social integrity. For example, those males who are more concerned about being shamed by their actions are less likely to commit acts of sexual aggression. This result probably reflects differing norms between Asian and European cultures. Because concerns about losing face and upsetting interpersonal harmony are more characteristic of Asian culture, those Asian men who highly identify with norms of societal interdependency are expected to have this identification as an added cultural incentive not to sexually aggress. Likewise, certain personality traits can serve as possible inhibitory factors against the commission of sexual aggression. For instance, some research has found that males who were otherwise at high risk for sexual coercion were less likely to aggress if they also possessed high levels of empathy and compassion for the feelings of others.
- Abbey, A., Parkhill, M. R., BeShears, R., Clinton-Sherrod, A. M., & Zawacki, T. (2006). Cross-sectional predictors of sexual assault perpetration in a community sample of single African American and Caucasian men. Aggressive Behavior, 32, 54-67.
- Lalumiere, M. L., Harris, G. T., Quinsey, V. L., & Rice, M. E. (2005). The causes of rape: Understanding individual differences in the male propensity for sexual aggression. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Malamuth, N., Huppin, M., & Bryant, P. (2005). Sexual coercion. In D. Buss (Ed.), Evolutionary psychology handbook (pp. 394-418). New York: Wiley.