Characteristics of Rapists
Are rapists characterized by a single personality or behavioral pattern? Until recently, efforts to answer this question have been hindered by both a narrow conceptualization of rape and inadequate research methods. This was because our knowledge of the characteristics and motivations of rapists was based primarily on studies of men convicted of the crime—a sample group that probably represents less than 1% of rapists. Because convicted rapists are less educated, more inclined to commit other antisocial or criminal acts, and more alienated from society than are rapists who do not pass through the criminal justice system, we cannot say with certainty that men who rape without being prosecuted and convicted match the profile of convicted rapists.
We can say that many of the men incarcerated for rape have a strong proclivity toward violence, one that is often reflected in their acts of rape. This fact, along with certain assumptions about male-female relationships, has led a number of writers to argue that rape is not sexually motivated but is rather an act of power and domination (Brownmiller, 1975). This viewpoint prevailed for a number of years, during which the sexual component of rape and other assaults was de-emphasized. However, more recent research suggests that, although power and domination are often involved in sexual coercion, such coercion is also frequently motivated by a desire for sexual gratification. This view has been supported by several studies of the incidence and nature of sexual coercion among nonincarcerated males (Hickman & Muehlenhard, 1999; Senn et al., 1999).
It appears that a wide range of personality characteristics and motivations underlie sexual assault and how that assault is committed. Men who embrace traditional gender roles, particularly that of male dominance, are more likely to commit rape than are men who do not embrace traditional gender stereotypes (Ben-David & Schneider, 2005; Hartwick et al., 2007; Robinson et al., 2004). Anger toward women is a prominent attitude among some men who sexually assault women (Abbey & Jacques-Tiura, 2011; Anderson et al., 1997). Alcohol can also contribute to rapists’ behavior; rapists often had been drinking just before assaulting their victims (Howard et al., 2008; Novik et al., 2011; Rapoza & Drake, 2009). Furthermore, alcohol-involved rapes are often associated with a high level of violence (Abbey et al., 2003; Young et al., 2008).
Many rapists have self-centered personalities, which may render them insensitive to others’ feelings (Dean & Malamuth, 1997; Marshall, 1993). Research has provided strong evidence that men with a narcissistic personality trait may be especially inclined to commit rape and other acts of sexual coercion (Baumeister et al., 2002; Bushman et al., 2003). Narcissism as characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, an unreasonable sense of entitlement, deficient empathy for others, and exploitative tendencies toward others. Research indicates that narcissists are also inclined to engage in aggressive retaliation against others for real or imagined slights (Baumeister et al., 2002;
Bushman & Baumeister, 1998). In addition to these aggressive tendencies, narcissists’ unreasonable sense of entitlement may influence them to view women as owing them sexual favors. Their lack of empathy for others would negate the impact of their victims’ discomfort or suffering. Finally, their exaggerated sense of self-importance may facilitate their ability to rationalize their behavior and "convince themselves that their coercion victims had really desired sex or had expressed some form of consent" (Bushman et al., 2003, p. 1028).
Anger, power, and sexual gratification all play varying roles in rape. However, anger and a need to express power appear to predominate in stranger rape, whereas a desire for sexual gratification seems to predominate in acquaintance or date rape.