The Mind Of The Rapist

A startling rise in sex crimes and the notoriety of cases like the Central Park jogger give new urgency to the question: why do men rape?

They say a lot of things lead up to rape, but I never thought about it. I don't know what the hell I was looking for. The opportunity occurred and I just took advantage of it.

Convicted rapist Roger Smith,26,interviewed in Atlanta's Metro Correctional Institution.

Why do they do it? What impels men to commit, sometimes casually, sometimes with practiced cunning, one of the most primitively brutal of crimes--the pre-empting of another person's body for the gratification of their own needs? Data to help solve that frightening riddle is in short supply. Most of it comes from rapists who are caught and convicted, representing only a slice of the real total. Meanwhile, disturbing new statistics are emerging on the sheer incidence of sex crimes. The recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on violent crime against women concluded that rape has increased four times as fast as the overall crime rate over the last decade. A woman is raped every six minutes, the committee said, but only half the rapes are ever reported. The new statistics, along with the notoriety surrounding events like the Central Park jogger trial currently unfolding in grisly detail in Manhattan, are giving new urgency to the quest to understand the phenomenon of sexual violence.

No single profile provides an answer to why men rape. Opportunity, emotional illness, lust--it happens for all of those reasons, yet often for none of them. There is Roger Smith, a married mechanic oppressed by mortgage payments on his trailer home, stopping to do a good deed for a woman whose car had broken down and tarrying, unexpectedly, to assault her. But there is also "Bill," a serial rapist who methodically sought out his victims in their own apartments, attacking seven women at knifepoint before he was caught. Some are like "Vince," a sexually troubled youngster who began by peeping through bedroom windows in his teens, committed a rape murder in his early 20s, and then went to prison for molesting his own stepdaughter. Others are like "James," a 42-year-old Miami business manager with four children, aware only of a vague "frustration" in his life, who liked to pick up females in pairs and rape one of them in front of the other. "Inside is a rage," said James, who completed a sexual-offender program in June 1989, after serving 10 years for rape.

Anger, deep and dark, is a common thread among rapists. Something has invariably gone wrong with their lives, often from almost the very beginning. A 1982 study of rapists in Oregon found that as many as 80 percent were abused children, and their own victimization results in a kind of emotional death. They grow up feeling martyred, self justifying--unwilling or unable to extend compassion to the people they in turn abuse. Many depersonalize their victims. "The offender views rape the same as kicking a tire," says William Pithers, director of the Vermont Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Abuse. Yet others are so shamed by their acts they grow suicidal. William Samek, a Miami-based clinical psychologist, remembers one extreme instance in which the rapist handed his gun to his woman victim, exclaiming: "I can't stand it anymore, please blow me away."

Tough laws: The inability to make useful generalizations about rapists has fostered a somewhat schizoid attitude about how to treat them. "They're not all mad dogs," says Pithers. "Rape is a sick act committed by sane people." That poses a conundrum to police and mental-health authorities, who sometimes split between favoring imprisonment without treatment and treatment without imprisonment. Typically, Washington state has one of the country's more innovative programs for sex offenders--and also the toughest pack of laws to keep released offenders under police and public surveillance.

Inevitably, the quarrel evokes shades of the ancient nature versus nurture argument. Some treatment experts, for example, support the use of Depo-Provera, a drug that brings about impotence, and is thus sometimes labeled "medical castration. " They feel rapists suffer from a biological defect, and can't be cured, only controlled. (Some still advocate literal castration.) Others argue that potency is not the problem, since many rapists are unable to penetrate their victims or achieve orgasm when they rape. "We believe that what's wrong with a sex offender is what's between his ears, not his legs," says Richard Seely, director of Minnesota's Intensive Treatment Program for Sexual Aggressiveness, who refuses to use the suppressant drug. "It's his thinking that's dysfunctional, not his sexuality," he says. "Rapists are who they learn to be-it's not a product of their hormones."

Experts have hotly debated for years whether rape is an act of violence van act of sex. Current thinking seems to be that it is both, but there are still differences of emphasis. "We look at rape as the sexual expression of aggression, rather than as the aggressive expression of sexuality, " says psychologist Nicholas Groth, director of Forerisic Mental Health Associates, who has seen more than 3,000 sex offenders in 25 years of practice. Most of his patients, Groth points out, were not sexually deprived at the time they committed rape.

Three types: About 10 years ago, Groth established a typology of rapists that is still a standard, although some psychologists feel parts of it are outdated. Broadly speaking, rapists fall into three motivational types, said Groth: anger, power and sadism. In anger assaults, the rapist is getting even for "some wrong he feels has been done to him, by life, by his victim at the time. He's in a frame of rage and attacks someone sexually." The anger rape is usually unpremeditated and impulsive, but the impulse drives the rapist into excessive force: the victim is punched, choked, kicked into submission. Most such offenders derive little pleasure from the act, says Groth, but "they want to degrade their victims, and sex is something bad, dirty, the worst thing you could do to someone. That reflects a lot of our values in society."

Anger rapists can be the most ruthless. "Forrest, " 33, went to see a friend once, and found he had moved. When the woman living in the house invited him in to use the phone, he grabbed her and her then 86-year-old mother-in-law, pushed them into the bedroom, tore their clothes offend penetrated the older woman with his finger. Then he panicked and fled. "Rape was always a big issue for me," says Forrest, who was caught soon after the attack and has been in prison for five years. The father of three children, addicted to drugs and drink, he had been thrown out by his wife after beating her repeatedly. Often, he says, he had rape fantasies about his mother, who had beaten him "nonstop since the age of 8." Forrest has joined the sex-offender treatment program at Washington's Twin Rivers prison, and is off drugs.

Phone calls: Power rape, Groth says, is a form of compensation, committed usually by men who feel unsure of their competence. Rape gives them a sense of mastery and control. Power rapists usually hunt for a victim, or seize an opportunity: finding a young girl in the house after a break-in, for example. "Tom," 37, an abuser of alcohol and drugs, was forced as a child to perform oral sex on his grandfather and had a history of window peeping, flashing, compulsive masturbation and making obscene phone calls by the time he committed his first rape, at 20. He admits to about a dozen sexual assaults since then, although he was caught only twice. He recalls feeling nothing for his victims. "There were only thoughts of me. I'd say, 'I have a knife, and I'll cut your eye out'." Once he smashed a woman's face into a car because she kicked him in the groin. But often "there was just pleasure in the humiliation."

Just after serving his first prison term for rape, "Tom" kidnapped a woman at a parking ramp, and forced her to perform oral sex on him three times. Now serving nine years at a maximum security facility in Minnesota, he has gained enough insight from counselors to say, "A lot of what I did had to do with my own feelings of inadequacy." But he is also perceptive enough to add: "I can't say I'll never rape again."

Groth defines his third type, sadistic rape, as eroticized aggression. The very act of forcible sex excites rapists in ways that consensual sex can't. "If the anger components of aggression are eroticized," he explains, "then you see sadistic acts, such as deliberate sexual torture, using an instrument to rape the victim." Something like that may have incited a group of Glen Ridge, N.J., high-school football teammates in March 1989, when they allegedly sexually assaulted a mentally impaired woman with a miniature baseball bat, a broom handle and a stick. A sadistic impulse may be the only explanation for such a horror. But gang rapes have a dynamic of their own. Alone, the participants may be incapable of sexual assault; together, they may bait each other into monstrous acts, as police contend the Glen Ridge footballers and the Central Park jogger's attackers did. They tend to be more opportunistic than ordinary marauders. "A lot of times you may have one or more individuals in the group who have the same arousal patterns as a rapist," says psychologist Gerald Kaplan, executive director of Alpha Human Services in Minneapolis, a community-based sex-offender program. "But the typical gang rape is not like having a whole pack of rapists. In fact, most rapists are isolated people who travel by themselves. It's a very hidden part of their lives."

Gang rapers are usually quite young, and vulnerable to peer pressure: they play follow the leader. The rape is a rite of passage, and the unwilling rapist may be even more unwilling to oppose the group. The gang, moreover, often builds to extreme violence, as members are challenged to outdo each other. Some studies suggest that offenders slow down as they age. Older men simply don't travel in packs. "You're not going to find a group of 40-year-old rapists out there as a group," says Kaplan.

One of the most consistent elements in rape of all kinds is the absence of empathy; attackers are able to persuade themselves that the victim wanted or deserved to be raped. Dr. Gene Abel, a professor of psychiatry at Emory University who has studied hundreds of rapists over the past 20 years, believes that rapists suffer from a form of cognitive distortion that allows them to justify their actions in the face of stark evidence to the contrary. Abel recently saw a patient who claimed he had never raped a woman, despite an arrest record showing repeated rape charges. When he asked the I i patient how he would know a woman wanted to have sex with him, he replied that she was obviously willing if she spoke to him or invited him up to her apartment. How would he know if she weren't willing, Abel asked. The patient responded, seeing nothing askew in his answer: "If she fought me the whole time we were having sex."

Probably these distortions set in early, as a child protects himself from unbearable reality. Only 10 percent of rapists appear to have a history of psychiatric illness. But by the time they are ordered into treatment, their careers may be well advanced; some list hundreds of victims as they pour out their stories. Few rapists ever seek treatment on their own, says Theoharis Seghorn, a clinical psychologist at New England Forensic Associates: "Rapists don't reach out because they don't trust."

Keep out: Treatment may not be able to cure rapists, but the majority can be helped. Most programs aim to get patients to stop rationalizing and accept responsibility. The rapists may not be able to feel actual empathy, but counselors urge them to behave as if they do, if only to keep them out of prison. "For many of them, it has to be on the level of their own self-interest," says Stephen Huot, an associate director at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Oak Park Heights.

Oak Park teaches inmates to acknowledge blame by sharing written autobiographies in group therapy. After identifying their patterns of assault, they work on conscience-building by putting themselves in the victims' shoes. Occasionally they even write letters to their victims. They also learn to change their fantasies and distorted thinking. At the Vermont center, newcomers invariably say they were drunk when they raped. Long-termers tell them: "We'll respect you a lot more around here if you cut out that bullshit." To help such people discover empathy is a complicated job, says director Pithers. "They need to experience their own feelings before they can identify with others." The offenders start by writing down every emotion they can remember feeling. One 16-year-old, in after committing his fifth rape, could name only four: depression, rage, anger and frustration.

Pithers shows them films like "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "A Christmas Story," a simple '40s tale about a boy who wants a rifle for Christmas, and has the offenders try to identify the emotions of all the characters, noting those that weren't acceptable in their own families. He has them read victims' recollections or watch videotapes of their victims' testimony, and jot down when they recognize how one of the victims might have felt. For most people who can feel for others almost as naturally as they breathe, it may be hard to imagine not feeling. But many young offenders are "numbed out," says Lynn Reynolds, clinical director of the Institute Against Social Violence, in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. "I had one boy who saw his father pull his mother down the steps by her hair and stab her," says Reynolds. "That's not an excuse, but it does explain his desensitization to violence." Adds Eugene Porter, an Oakland, Calif., psychologist: "I haven't seen a rapist who didn't have a childhood horror story. "

Some programs still employ behavior modification techniques, such as administering mild shocks while inmates view pornographic material, or "masturbatory reconditioning"--getting them to masturbate to "healthy" images. Some men never do develop the connection to others that allows them to care. With many, impulsiveness and sexual arousal are the main issues, and thus they need both punishment and treatment, says Porter. "Punishment drives home the point, it serves to correct the 'responsibility imbalance'." In recent years the burden of treatment has shifted from mental-health departments to corrections departments, an issue bitterly debated in some states.

The public, for its part, generally opposes money for treating rapists. Funding tends to increase only after widely publicized assaults. After a series of rape-murders in Minnesota a few years ago, the legislature increased both sentences and treatment dollars for rapists, notes Huot. Now, sexual offenders may wait a year to get into treatmeet, and then spend 18 months in therapy programs--often after a year of chemical dependency treatment.

Meanwhile, mental-health and corrections officials across the country are seeing an ever more youthful population of sex offenders, some--both abused and abusing--as young as 8. According to the National Center for Juvenile Justice, the arrest rate for 13- and 14-year-olds accused of rape doubled between 1976 and 1986. Although experts agree that younger offenders respond better to treatment, they often fall between the cracks of the social-welfare system. "Every state is trying to figure out what to do with these kids," says June Binney, of the Department of Mental Health in Massachusetts.

Macho stud: Teenagers are not the only group contributing to the rise in sex offenses. Part of the jump is due to a staggering increase in reported "date" or acquaintance rape. An estimated 75 percent of rapes occur between people who know each other. "Men may well mistake [sexual] liberation for license," says Eleanor Holmes Norton, a lawyer and activist on women's issues.

More than that, many people blame the escalating violence in popular culture for fueling the growth in rape statistics across the board. After two decades of the newly "sensitive," nurturing male, the macho stud seems to have come back in magnum force. In sexually explicit movies and books, as well as increasingly suggestive music videos and television shows, men flex pectorals and women acrobatically surrender to them. "Our insensitivity to the violence of rape is undoubtedly fostered by our massive diet of entertainment," says Dr. Thomas Radecki, research director for the National Coalition on Television Violence, based in Champaign, Ill.

Radecki cites statistics showing one out of eight Hollywood movies depicts a rape theme; and by age 18, the average American will have seen 250,000 acts of violence and 40,000 attempted murders on television. Radecki's position with a special-interest group may make such figures a little suspect, and in light of the recent wave of reaction against funding sexually explicit art, critics should be wary of encouraging censorship. But neither a Radecki nor a National Endowment is needed to convince most people that something has run amok in the culture.

H. Rap Brown once raised middle-class hackles by declaring that violence "is as American as cherry pie." Examinirg our national rape statistics, the Senate Judiciary Committee noted that when ranked against other nations, the United States leads the way, with a rape rate four times that of Germany, 13 times as much as England, 20 times as much as Japan. Sadly, sexual violence, too, may now be an emblem of the American way.


Percent of rapes that occur at the victim's home: 36 Chances that a white victim was raped by a white man:78% That a black victim was raped by a black man: 70% Percent of convicted rapists who will be rearrested within three years: 52 In 20% of single-offender rapes, the rapist is under 21 In 62% of multiple-offender rapes, the rapists are under 21 A weapon was used in 30% of rapes; of those weapons, 25% were handguns and 44% were knives.

The Mind Of The Rapist | News