The psychology of a rapist

Sexual assault is always traumatizing and demeaning for its victims. But the motives behind it vary.

No one can deny that being raped is one of the most distressing, horrendous and demeaning experiences anyone could have. It almost always leaves the victim with feelings of self-loathing, self-blame and rage, and can cause post-traumatic syndrome disorder (PTSD).

But have you ever wondered about the rapist? Why do men rape? This is acomplicated question  with multiple answers, as several factors play roles in producing a rapist.

A sexual assaulter can be any kind of person. This statement isn't meant to make everyone scared of everyone else; rather, it just means that there isn't one specific type who commits such kinds of crimes.

That is what Dr. Samuel D. Smithyman, a US clinical psychologist, learned when he anonymously interviewed 50 men back in the 1970s who had confessed to having raped someone. These men had diverse backgrounds, social statuses and, of course, different personalities and mentalities. What surprised him was how unconcerned they sounded when talking about such a criminal offense.

Motives behind rape vary and are difficult to quantify. However, studies show that rapists have some common characteristics:

- a lack of empathy

- narcissism

- feelings of hostility towards women

Toxic masculinity

Sherry Hamby,  a research professor of psychology at the University of the South in the US state of Tennessee, told DW that "sexual assault is not about sexual gratification or sexual interest, but more about dominating people."

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Hamby, who is also founding editor of the American Psychological Association's journal Psychology of Violence, explained how toxic masculinity promotes rape culture. "A lot of offenders of rape and other sexual assaults are young men," she said. "The only way to have social status among male peers in many cases is to be highly sexually experienced, and not being sexually active is often stigmatized."

She believes that these kinds of peer pressure set men up to become sex offenders because "many are just in absolute panic they're going to be discovered as not sexually experienced by their peers."

In other words, there are elements at work in some cultures, and often even in media, that suggest to these men that they should assert dominance over women as a form of fake masculinity and that stigmatize those who don't have a lot of sexual encounters.

Is rape a sexual desire or an act of violence?

It is necessary to first establish that rape is not a behavioral or mental disorder, but a criminal offense. Although some rapists may have a psychological disorder, there is no such disorder that compels people to rape.

Evolutionary biologist Randy Thornhill and evolutionary anthropologist Craig Palmer  believe, in contrast to Hamby, that the primary motive behind rape is indeed sex.


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They argue  that rape is an adaptation  — a result of Darwinian selection and are of the opinion that it evolved to increase the reproductive success of men. They point out that most victims are women of childbearing age, saying this supports their hypothesis that rape derives from a desire to reproduce.

However, their book, "A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion," was sharply criticized in the science journal Nature.  It said that the pieces of evidence cited by the authors were misleading, biased or "equally support alternative explanations."

In fact, most social scientists, psychologists and feminist activists are of the opinion that rape nearly exclusively has to do with issues of power and violence. They say that rape is not about lust but motivated by the urge to control and dominate, and that it could also be driven by hatred and hostility towards women.

Hostility toward women 

Rapists often see women as sex objects who are there to fulfill men's sexual needs. They tend to hold false beliefs, often described as rape myths.  For instance, a rapist can believe that if a woman says no, she really means yes, and that she is just playing around or challenging him.

Antonia Abbey,  a social psychologist at Wayne State University in the US city of Detroit, wrote that one repeat assaulter believed the woman  "was just being hard to get." Another believed that "most women say 'no' at first most times. A man has to persist to determine if she really means it." 

 Abbey quoted yet another repeat offender as saying: "I felt as if I had gotten something that I was entitled to, and I felt I was repaying her for sexually arousing me." This man described both of his rape experiences as "powerful," "titillating," and "very exciting."

Sherry Hamby told DW that in some cultures, patriarchy and dominance are expressed through a kind of "dehumanization" in which women are seen as inferior beings to men. This makes it much easier for women to become the targets of aggression.


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According to Hamby,  for men in such cultures, "part of their cultural training is for them to lose touch with their emotions." They do not know how to deal with their own feelings and even worse, they are not aware of the feelings of others or simply do not care.

The link between narcissism and rape seems to be especially strong when repeat offenders are concerned. One of the key characteristics shared by rapists and narcissists is a tendency to dehumanize others.

Types of rapist

There are several types of rapists.  There is the opportunistic rapist, who seizes any chance for sexual gratification, such as the loss of self-control on the part of their victim under the influence of alcohol.

Another type is sadistic rapist, whose motivation is to humiliate and degrade victims.

The vindictive rapist has anger and aggression focused directly toward women. Such a rapist believes he is permitted to sexually attack women because he feels he has been hurt, rejected or wronged by women in the past.

Rapists often deny having raped their victims and freqently try to justify their actions. Men who admit rape often try to find excuses for what they have done.

Sexual assault is an inexcusable act of violence and a criminal offense. Unfortunately, a lot of the victims remain silent to avoid stigmatization and being blamed by society, while their rapists are free to look for another victim.

This article deals with men raping adult women, not children, and not with any other form of sexual abuse.

Laboni Basak

9 Blog posts

Rupayan Banerjee 2 yrs

Awesome study