This paper focuses on the ability to identify and rehabilitate sexual predators based on understanding how they think and behave. It does so from the perspective of the psychological phenomenon of “nature vs. nurture.” Research will include the role of society on the formation of sexual predators, the psychological damage accrued during childhood, and the theories of entitlement that incarcerated predators have stated as their reasoning for raping and/or molesting their victims. The culmination of the research will show that the most successful choice of action will be to target children and educate them on not only the dangers of sexual assault and how it hurts both the offender and the victim, but also to help them understand the boundaries of others, and teach them all (especially the boys) that forcing their will onto others is not necessary in order to get the things that they want.
Keywords: sexual offender, sexual predator, rape, molestation, psychology, criminology
When people hear the words “sexual predator”, what do they think of? Perhaps they envision the stereotypical fat, unclean, balding man with a creepy smile and grabby hands, driving around in a beat-up white van offering kids candy and money. But this is rarely the case. Sexual predators exist everywhere—they are both handsome and ugly, wealthy and poor, male and female, young and old. A sexual predator is defined as any individual who has committed multiple accounts of sexual assault, which can be any form of intimate touching or copulating that isn’t desired by one of the partners involved. Sexual harassment crimes and sexual predators are a tricky topic to dive into, yet one that is important nonetheless. These crimes are committed frequently and on a global scale, and yet most victims of sexual assault feel that they won’t be taken seriously if they come forward, especially if they are male or gay. If we don’t normalize the ideals of consent and understanding the difference between sex and sexual assault, then no one is ever going to learn the difference, and society will continue to foster these individuals. There are many ways that this problem can be approached, but the focus will be primarily on the psychology of the sexual predator, especially from the angle of “nature vs. nurture”. It is possible that if we as a society understand the mindsets of these sexual predators and where their psychosis stems from, we can discover where neurologically they went amiss and prevent it from occurring in the next generation of young men and women.
In McDermott, Kilmartin, McKelvey, and Kridel’s article titled “College Male Sexual Assault of Women and the Psychology of Men: Past, Present, and Future Directions for Research,” (2015), the authors’ research focuses primarily on the effects of masculinity on the reasons behind sexual assault and its frequency amongst college students. The authors found that personality variables (such as risk taking and deviance), toxic male role models, and gender role socialization are the primary factors that create an individual who feels entitled to nonconsensual sex (McDermott, Kilmartin, McKelvey, & Kridel, 2015). They also touched on two key factors of gender role: status and restriction. Status influenced men to be tough and dominant, whereas restriction forced them to reject femininity and restrict emotion. Another researcher’s study linked several masculine “norms” to sexual assault perpetration: “winning, risk-taking, violence, power over women, dominance, playboy, self-reliance, and disdain for homosexuals,” (McDermott, Kilmartin, McKelvey, & Kridel, 2015). As a result, it was concluded that the pressure to behave like a “manly man” socialized some groups of college-age men into ignoring and/or committing sexual assault, giving a face and an archetype to the act of heterosexual rape.
Eric Beauregard’s “Rape and Sexual Assault in Investigative Psychology: The Contribution of Sex Offenders’ Research to Offender Profiling,” takes a different approach to sex offenders by studying their crime scenes rather than surveying them. He addresses “crime-switching”—the act of a criminal not conforming to one method of carrying out a crime or one victim type—among sexual predators. Studies show that many predators don’t conform to a specific pattern, making it harder to identify who committed what crime. He also describes the A → C equation. Through this method of investigative psychology, experts are able to identify the (A)ctions made in a crime scene in relation to the possible (C)haracteristics of the offender. In doing this, they have narrowed down three basic typologies for sexual predators: sadistic, angry, and opportunistic (Beauregard, 2010). These typologies explain the motives, methods, and potential outcomes of each of the three types of sexual predator.
Marshall and Marshall’s “Attachment and Intimacy in Sexual Offenders: An Update,” offers interesting insight into what makes a person into a sexual predator. The most interesting discovery they offer is the theory that a lack of affection with a child’s parents can cause psychological problems in adult life. As a result, the stimulation of care-giving and attachment from others (such as friends or children) may result in sexual stimulation and urges towards these individuals in the mind of the offender, because their brain cannot distinguish the difference between affection and sexual arousal. They use a real-world example of a man called Wendell who was perfectly normal, until a lack of stability and affection in his love life among adult women caused him to associate his affection for his daughter with sexual desire, resulting in his courting and raping her (Marshall, 2010). This narrative offers insight into what makes somebody completely docile into a sexual offender—which, according to Marshall, could simply be a lack of attachment and/or confusion of an offender’s emotions. While this article is interesting and scholarly in its research, it lacks in that it is simply a short update made on an article that was written over ten years ago, meaning that it has little information to offer besides what was previously described.
Finally, Pemberton and Wakeling’s article titled “Entitled to sex: Attitudes of sexual offenders,” details a research study conducted on forty incarcerated sexual offenders to understand why it is they felt entitled to committing sexual offense, which relates to the studies made by Beauregard and McDermott et al. in that it categorizes the types of sexual offenders, but instead of doing so by personality type or method of committing the crime, it focuses on the psychological reasoning behind it. By issuing a questionnaire to these offenders and analyzing their responses to the question of why they sexually abused their victims, the following six subcategories of entitlement were found: “Women/children are my property, sex is my right as a husband/partner/father, sex is a man’s birthright, only I matter, they owe me, I have the power” (Pemberton & Wakeling, 2009). Compressing this information into a data table allowed the researchers to calculate the frequency of how often each excuse was made overall and how often by which type of offender (Pemberton & Wakeling, 2009). The authors concluded that these findings were important because they not only uncovered two new subcategories for entitlement theory, but this research is also useful in the rehabilitation of sex offenders, especially those with these implicit theories.
Criticism of the Present Research
Over the past two decades, extensive research has been conducted on the psychology of sexual offenders. This research is groundbreaking and informative, and when compared it mostly seems to add up together to paint the picture of a male sexual predator. But the problem lies in that that is all the existing research has done. There appears to be little-to-no research conducted on female or homosexual sexual predators. Rape and sexual assault committed by women and homosexuals is just as valid as the rape committed by heterosexual men, but if no one takes the time to research it, we may never fully understand the mindsets of sexual predators across the board. The more that we as a society refuse to acknowledge that rapists are not always straight and male, the easier it will be for rapists that don’t conform to this archetype to continue to rape.
Because sexual predators could be anyone and come from anywhere, it makes studying them and trying to find telltale links in their personality difficult, but it can be done in roundabout ways. An interesting framework for the study of sexual predators is that of “nature vs. nurture”, which is the psychological dilemma of whether or not a person’s personality is shaped by how they’re born or how they’re raised. Most psychologists believe it is a combination of the two that defines who we are as people, and that one is not more important than the other. This is true of not only personalities, but of some psychological disorders or confusions, such as the case of Wendell in Marshall and Marshall’s paper. This psychological phenomenon can be used to study the thoughts and behaviors of sexual predators.
On the “nature” side of the debate, there is information linking the confusion of emotions and needs such as attachment and caregiving (Marshall & Marshall, 2010) as well as implicit feelings of entitlement to sex rooted deeply in the brain of the offender in reference to their need for power and control (Pemberton & Wakeling, 2009) that suggest psychological imbalance derived from birth among sexual offenders. It is important to understand that many cases of sexual assault result in a misunderstanding of boundaries or emotions among people, suggesting that many sexual predators could suffer from neurological conditions and injury-related disorders. An article written by Jaydip Sarkar states, “Rapists were found to have head injuries (3.9%) in a large sample in Sweden…and sadistic rapists have shown abnormalities within the temporal horn,” (Sarkar, 2013). This lines up with Beauregard’s research, which states, “The sadistic sexual aggressor…may torture his victim and mutilate her sexual body areas. Often, this category of offender humiliates his victim verbally and physically. The degree of injury is usually high and may end in murder,” (Beauregard, 2010). This kind of sadism goes beyond sexual frustration and into a need (that could almost be considered an obsession) for desire and bloodshed. However, it is also important to note that rape is not listed as a behavioral disorder, and in most cases is not a result of disorders such as schizophrenia or autism, debunking the myth that mentally ill people are more likely to be sexual predators (Sarkar, 2013).
On the “nurture” side, extensive information has been found regarding the effects of societal views of men and sex as well as the “duties” of women to men and why these factors play into the creation of sexual predators (McDermott, Kilmartin, McKelvey, & Kridel, 2015). Within their research, they referenced the study of gender role strain on the formation of sexual predators, and following their explanation of the importance of status and restriction (as earlier described in the literatur review), they stated this:
“These analyses revealed two factors: status and restriction…They found evidence that psychological entitlement and, in turn, sexual entitlement mediated the relationships between status and restriction and a variety of variables related to sexual assault perpetration using structural equation modeling approaches,” (McDermott, Kilmartin, McKelvey, & Kridel, 2015).
In laymen’s terms, this study found that there is a definite link between raising young men to believe that they must exude a desire for power and dominance and simultaneously rejecting anything that’s considered “feminine” (such as behaving affectionately and allowing others to take charge), which comes together to teach young men that it is okay to commit sexual assault because it’s simply the act of taking whatever they want.
This is a toxic way to raise our children, and research even suggests that this socialization has already been put into effect among adults. When analyzing Pemberton and Wakeling’s research, they used surveying methods to compile six entitelement theories and their frequency among sexual offenders. The most popular theory is “Only I matter,” cashing in at 34 uses total, which includes detailed statements such as, “I plan to have sex with her whether she likes it or not,” and “It doesn’t matter if she gets pleasure as long as I do,” (Pemberton & Wakeling, 2009). The second-most popular theory is “It’s my birthright,” at 28 uses, which includes similar statements. People are not simply born with these beliefs; they have to be socialized into believing them. It appears that nurture plays a much bigger role in the formation of the sexual predator than nature, because most entitlement theories and “origin stories” of rapists seem to stem from the indoctrinated beliefs that sex is theirs for the taking whether their partner wants it or not. While this makes the world appear to be a much darker place, it also makes for an easier and more straightforward solution to fostering these individuals.
A Call to Action
Because we now know that sexual predators are more heavily socialized into their misbehavior than born into it, we as a society have the opportunity to put this future to rest before it begins. It starts with our children.
If we continue to raise our young men with the beliefs that their “masculinity” forces them to behave in a controlling, dominant manner that is uncaring of other people’s feelings, then we will continue to see rapists in our society. This goes deeper than just teaching boys that sex is their birthright. This extends into the beliefs that there are strict rules and guidelines that genders must follow, including interests, careers, and which emotions to display versus which ones to suppress.
Not only does this dangerous socialization create a world in which heterosexual men are more likely to rape, but it creates one in which women and other victims of sexual assault feel unable to report what has been done to them. This is largely due to the stigmas and myths that surround the topic of rape in our culture. Beauregard explores this by saying that a victim’s drug and alcohol history reflect on their credibility in court cases, and instances of sexual assault in which a relationship previously existed more often go unreported, because “a relationship with the offender may raise questions about ‘consent’ during the sexual activity,” (Beauregard, 2010). Limitations such as these make it much more difficult for victims to come forward with their concerns, because they often feel that they are more likely to be met with scorn than justice for the crimes committed against them. This isn’t only true for men who rape women—according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights, about one in eight lesbian women are raped, and as many as 68 percent of transgender people experience rape as well (Paulk, 2014), and in a recent study conducted by Hanna Rosin, it was found that 38 percent of all sexual assault is committed against men—and it is only believed that that many people came forward about their experiences due to the publicity involving the Penn State scandal (Rosin, 2014). The fact that so many men felt unable to come forward with their stories until it became more popularized by a famous athlete, and the knowledge that this percentage is still probably inaccurate, is a reflection of how we as a society have failed to take these crimes and the people who commit them seriously.
If the world around these individuals can’t wise up and understand the implications of sexual harrassment, then how can we expect them not to commit it? We cannot continue to raise our children in a world where rapists can do whatever they please and victims are forced to stay quiet about it for fear of further harrassment from their peers. If rapists are largely influenced by the society that they are surrounded by, then it is society’s job to teach them differently. There should not be as large of an emphasis on gender roles and expectations—perhaps there should be no emphasis at all. Particularly, there should not be an emphasis on the role of the male to be strong, dominant, and pushy; nor should there be one on the female to be submissive and subordinate in the role of a sexual partner. Change begins with our children, and if we as adults can put a halt on potential rapists before they begin, there will be no need to worry about rehabilitating them later in life when it is too late to stop them from committing these heinous crimes.
Sexual harassment crimes are frequent, international, and kept under tight wraps by both the rapists and the victims, which means that there is a desperate need for people everywhere to acknowledge the existence of rape and to take an active role in preventing it, starting with our young. If McDermott et al.’s article is anything to go by, rapists are emerging as early as college—and there is reason to believe that this isn’t the youngest that they’ll start at. But if we as a society can better understand the mindsets of these individuals and why they commit the crimes that they do, then it is quite possible that we can stop these crimes before they ever manifest themselves. The best way to lower the amount of sexual assault that our society bears witness to is to understand what it is that makes people into sexual predators and, with this knowledge, teach our children not to believe the things that these predators believe.
Beauregard, E. (2010). Rape and sexual assault in investigatve psychology: The contribution of sex offenders’ research in offender profiling. Journal of Investigatve Psychology and Offender Profiling, 7, 1-13.
Marshall, W. &. (2010). Attachment and intimacy in sexual offenders: An update. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 86-90.
McDermott, R. C., Kilmartin, C., McKelvey, D. K., & Kridel, M. M. (2015, October). College male sexual assault of women and the psychology of men: Past, present, and future directions for research. Psychology of Men and Masculinity, 16, 355-366.
Paulk, L. (2014, April 2014). Sexual Assault in the LGBT Community. Retrieved from National Center for Lesbian Rights: http://www.nclrights.org/sexual-assault-in-the-lgbt-community/
Pemberton, A. E., & Wakeling, H. C. (2009). Entitled to sex: Attitudes of sexual offenders. Journal of Sexual Aggression, 15, 289-303.
Rosin, H. (2014, April 29). When Men Are Raped. Retrieved from Slate: http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2014/04/male_rape_in_america_a_new_study_reveals_that_men_are_sexually_assaulted.html
Sarkar, J. (2013). Mental health assessment of rape offenders. Indian J Psychiatry, 235-243. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3777344/
(Photo credit: https://www.buckingham.ac.uk/psychology)