Monday, March 17, 2008

Crime in America, an occasional series on myths and realities

Posted on: Thursday, March 6, 2008

Rape: a crime of power, not sex

By George J. Bryjak

(Editor’s note: This report contains material that may not be appropriate for sensitive readers, including children. We publish it because we think it is educational and important, but we urge discretion on whether readers choose to read it.)

The National Crime Victimization Survey defines rape as “forced sexual intercourse including both psychological coercion as well as physical force.” This definition includes attempted rapes and male as well as female victims, both heterosexual and homosexual. Attempted rape also includes verbal threats of rape. According to the NCVS, in 2006 there were 272,350 victims of rape, attempted rape or sexual assaults. Because of the methodology used by researchers, these figures do not include victims 12 years of age or younger.

Almost three of four sexual assaults are perpetrated by a non-stranger, that is, an intimate (spouse or boyfriend, for example), relative, friend or acquaintance of the victim. Approximately 44 percent of rape victims are under age 18, and 80 percent have not reached their 30th birthday. Young females are four times more likely than members of any other age/gender group to be sexual-assault victims. Although they comprise an estimated 10 percent of all victims, males are least likely to report a sexual assault. Since 1993, rape/sexual assault has declined by more than 60 percent in the U.S.

Serial rapists

To learn more about stranger rape, FBI special agents interviewed 41 men responsible for raping 837 victims. These “serial rapists” typically used one of three premeditated strategies to approach their targets.

¯The “con” approach: A young man who raped 20 women approached his victims late at night presenting himself as a police officer. After checking a woman’s driver’s license and registration, he informed her the latter had expired and that she should accompany him to his car. Once in the vehicle, the victim was handcuffed, driven to an isolated location and raped. Offenders using the con approach have confidence in their ability to interact with women as well as the skill to impersonate people in positions of trust.

¯The “blitz” approach: A 28-year-old male attacked women in a parking lot as they piled groceries in their cars. He punched them in the face, threw the injured victims in their vehicles, then raped them. The same man attacked a woman in a hospital rest room, raping her in a stall. Used less frequently than the con approach, blitz rapes usually result in more extensive injuries to victims. Violent attacks are often “fantasy components” of the crime and sexually stimulate rapists.

¯The “surprise” approach: A 24-year-old male rapist selected his victims via “peeping Tom” activities, scrutinizing their comings and goings. Entering apartments, he awaited their return or approached his victims while they slept, telling the women he would not hurt them if they cooperated. The surprise attack was the most frequently used strategy by offenders who lacked the confidence or ability to subdue their victims by other means.

FBI researchers wanted to know how much pleasure rapists experienced during the commission of three specific sexual attacks and asked the assailants the following question: “Assuming that ‘zero’ equals your worst sexual experience and ‘10’ your absolutely best sexual experience, rate the amount of pleasure you experienced.” Agents were surprised to learn the majority of offenders reported low levels of pleasure (3.7), and slightly over one-third of the offenders admitted to a “sexual dysfunction” during the attack.

These findings lend credibility to the well accepted position that rape has little if anything to do with sex in general, or the sexual appetites of offenders in particular. Rather, rape is a mechanism for offenders to exercise power over their victims. Although aggression and sexuality are components of all rapes, the sexual assault is the mechanism by which deep-seated feelings of hostility and rage toward women are expressed. By way of his assault, the rapist is telling the victim: “I can violate your body, mind and spirit, and you are powerless to stop me.”

Perhaps the most accurate portrayal of rape, accurate in its depiction of both the rapist and the victim, is offered by Helen Benedict, author of “Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes”: “I prefer to characterize rape as a form of torture. Like the torturer, the rapist is motivated by the urge to dominate, humiliate and destroy his victim.”

Rape myths

The rape-as-sex-crime misconception is the bedrock of at least two firmly entrenched myths about this offense. Rapists have been portrayed as hyper-sexed individuals with no access to female partners. By way of examining more than 500 rapists over a 10-year period, psychologist A. Nicholas Groth found that approximately one-third of these men were married and sexually active with their wives. The majority of single male subjects were involved with sexually consenting partners at the time they were committing sex offenses.

Arguably the most pernicious rape myth is that of the stereotypical, scantily clad seductress, a woman who cranks up a man’s libido to the point where he can’t control himself. The inescapable conclusion of this untruth is the victim’s culpability in part or whole for the attack, the “She has no one to blame but herself” rationalization. Groth comments on the complete lack of foundation for this perspective, noting that females from infants to senior citizens have been rape victims: “There is no place, no season or time of day in which a rape has never occurred, nor any specific type of person to whom it has never happened.”

Marital rape

A 17th-century English chief justice ruled that a husband cannot be found guilty of raping his wife “for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto the husband which she cannot retract.” Carried over to the New World colonies, this logic and legal precedent was the law of the land until feminists challenged these statutes in the 1970s. By 1993, marital rape was a crime in all 50 states under at least one section of the sexual offense codes. However, in approximately 30 states the treatment of a rape of a spouse differs from that of a non-spouse. These differences include reporting requirements (the time limit for a spouse to report a rape to authorities is shorter than for non-spousal victims) and that the spouse use force or the threat of force during attack.

Research indicates that between 10 and 14 percent of married women have been raped by their husbands. A nationwide study of violence against women concluded that about 7 million women have been raped by their intimate partners in the United States. A. Nicholas Groth notes that marital rape “may be the most predominant type of sexual assault committed.” Victims of marital rape come from all social classes, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and geographic locations. One study found the rate of marital rape to be slightly higher for African-American women than white females, Latinas, and Asian women.

Raquel Kennedy Bergen, one of the foremost experts on marital rape, states this crime generally falls into one of three categories. In force-only rape, husbands use only the amount of force necessary to sexually assault their wives. In battering rape, husbands both rape and batter their wives, with the beating occurring either before, during or after the sexual assault. Sadistic/obsessive marital rapists torture their wives and subject them to perverse sexual acts. They may force women to view pornography or enact what they see in pornographic photos or films. In one study, 18 percent of marital rape victims reported their children had witnessed the sexual attack, and 5 percent of respondents stated that children had been forced to participate in the sexual violence perpetrated by abusive husbands. Marital rape is often an ongoing crime, with many women reporting 20 or more attacks before the violence ends. As one observer noted: “When a woman is raped by a stranger, she has to live with a frightening memory. When she is raped by her husband, she has to live with the rapist.”

As in non-marital offenses, spousal rape is a crime of power and domination committed by men who view their wives as sexual property. Battered women are more likely to be raped by a spouse than non-battered women, as physical and sexual abuse often occur together. Other risk factors include being pregnant, being ill or recently discharged from a hospital, and separation or divorce. Because marital rape victims may be unable to use contraceptives, some of these women are forced to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. In one study of marital rape, 17 percent of victims became pregnant against their will.

Now retired after teaching sociology at the University of San Diego for 24 years, George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale. The Enterprise “Crime in America” series is adapted from “Myths and Realities of Crime and Justice: What Every American Should Know,” George J. Bryjak and Steve E. Barkan, forthcoming 2008, Jones & Bartlett Publishers.

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