A guest-post by Thomas.
[Trigger Warning, this entire discussion is about rape, rapists, rape methodology and rape-supportive culture] Readers of Yes Means Yes Blog may notice that this largely duplicates my prior writing on Lisak, and I have lifted passages of my own earlier posts wholesale.
Though the stranger rape remains entrenched as the paradigm of “real” rape, of rape that is recognized as such, it is not actually the norm. As most readers of feminist blogs know, acquaintance rapes are by far the more prevalent. In this area, understanding badly lags, and relatively recent research could change the understanding of exactly how acquaintance rapes happen, who commits them, and why. It is for this reason that I have been doing everything I can to popularize the work of University of Massachusetts professor David Lisak, and similar work by some of his colleagues.
Though the term is mine and not Lisak’s, the substance of the research can be summarized by the title of this post. Predator Theory is the theory that acquaintance rape as we know it is overwhelmingly caused by a relatively narrow portion of recidivist undetected rapists in the population, each of whom will have several victims, and that these rapists select targets based on the likelihood that they can rape without meaningful consequence, and favor alcohol and avoid overt force as tools to defeat resistance for just this reason.
Large Surveys of Undetected Rapists
I am aware of two large-sample surveys of undetected rapists. One is Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists by David Lisak and Paul M. Miller, published in Violence and Victims, Vol 17, No. 1, 2002 (Lisak & Miller 2002). The other is Reports of Rape Reperpetration by Newly Enlisted Male Navy Personnel by Stephanie K. McWhorter, et al., published in Violence and Victims, Vol, 24, No. 2, 2009 (McWhorter 2009). (I can’t link to either study because neither is available in full for free.)
These look to me to be the best available data on who the rapists are who have not been caught and incarcerated — which is the vast, vast majority. They are, however, limited, so that in talking about them it constrains the discussion of rape into a narrow range around a modal form of men raping women.*
Lisak & Miller
Lisak & Miller set out to answer two questions:
First, do a substantial number of undetected rapists rape more than once (i.e. repeat rapists)? Second, do undetected rapists (repeat or otherwise), like their incarcerated counterparts, commit other types of interpersonal violence …?
Lisak & Miller at p. 74.
Their sample was 1882 college students, ranging in age from 18 to 71 with a median age of 26.5 — so somewhat older than a traditional college population. The group was also ethnically diverse. They asked this group four questions about rape and attempted rape. Here is the full text of the questions they used:
(1) Have you ever been in a situation where you tried, but for various reasons did not succeed, in having sexual intercourse with an adult by using or threatening to use physical force (twisting their arm, holding them down, etc.) if they did not cooperate?
(2) Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated (on alcohol or drugs) to resist your sexual advances (e.g., removing their clothes)?
(3) Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?
(4) Have you ever had oral sex with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?
Lisak & Miller at 77-78.
120 men admitted, essentially, to rape or attempted to rape. This is actually a relatively slim proportion of the survey population — just over 6% — and might be an under-report. Lisak & Miller’s team did interviews with some of the self-reported rapists to confirm the self-reports, which would tend to reveal an undercount in the self-reports, and found that the responses were consistent.
The really new information, however, is how those rapists and their offenses broke down: of the 120 rapists in the sample, 44 reported only one assault. The remaining 76 were repeat offenders. These 76 men, 63% of the rapists, committed 439 rapes or attempted rapes, an average of 5.8 each (median of 3, so there were some super-repeat offenders in this group). Just 4% of the men surveyed committed over 400 attempted or completed rapes.
The breakdown between the modus operandi of the rapists also tells us that a great deal of the rapes that happen are very different from what is recognized as “real” rape. Of all 120 admitted rapists, only about 30% reported using force or threats, while the remainder raped intoxicated victims. This proportion was roughly the same between the 44 rapists who reported one assault and the 76 who reported multiple assaults. (What the authors call “overt-force rapists” committed more sexual assaults, on average, than the “intoxication rapists” by about 6 to 3, but the parts of the sample are so small that this result did not reach statistical significance and could be sampling error rather than a real phenomenon. I’d really like an answer to that, though.)
Lisak & Miller also found that the repeat rapists in their survey were responsible for a broad array of violent acts, including intimate partner violence and child abuse. The surveys covered acts such as slapping or choking an intimate partner, physically or sexually abusing a child, and sexual assaults other than attempted or completed rapes. The 76 repeat rapists, just 4% of the sample, were responsible for 28% of the reported violence. The whole sample of almost 1900 men reported just under 4000 violent acts, but this 4% of recidivist rapists were responsible for over 1000 of those violent acts. The public policy implication is clear: rape is not an isolated problem, as the repeat rapists are not only committing a huge proportion of all rapes, but disproportionate share of the domestic violence as well. Society-wide, if these men were removed from the population, there would be a dramatic decrease in violence towards women and children.
Stephanie McWhorter and her colleagues completed a study in 2009 that in my view replicates the important results of Lisak & Miller, working with a very different population of young-ish men. She studied 1146 newly enlisted men in the U.S. Navy, asking them about their behavior since age 14. McWhorter’s participants were younger than Lisak & Miller’s sample, averaging just under 20 and topping out at 34, as one would expect from a sample of military recruits. The study was longitudinal, following up at intervals during the participants’ Navy hitch.
McWhorter used a Sexual Experiences Survey tool that has been in use for more than 20 years. Of her 1146 participants, 144, or 13%, admitted an attempted or completed rape — substantially higher than Lisak & Miller. But in another respect, her work very much matched theirs: 71% of the men who admitted an attempted or completed rape admitted more than one, very close to Lisak & Miller’s 63%. The 96 men who admitted multiple attempted of completed rapes in McWhorter’s survey averaged 6.36 assaults each. This is not far from Lisak & Miller’s average of 5.8 assaults per recidivist. Looked at another way, of the 865 total attempted or completed rapes these men admitted to, a staggering 95% were committed by 96 men, or just 8.4% of the sample.
McWhorter’s findings on modus operandi also confirm the basic finding of Lisak & Miller’s earlier study: 61% of the reported attacks were intoxication-based, 23% were overt force alone, and 16% were both. (77% of the pre-enlistment and 75% of the post-enlistment rapes or attempted rapes were, in whole or in part, intoxication attacks. But 34% of pre-enlistment and 45% of post-enlistment assaults involved overt force, a change in pattern that ought to be explained by further research.)
McWhorter’s research also indicates that rapists start young. Of the men who did not report an assault pre-enlistment, only 2% reported assaults while in the Navy, but 16% of those who admitted that they raped or attempted to rape between age 14 and enlistment also said they did it again while enlisted. 60% of rapists, however, said their first assault was after they turned 18. This implies that there is a window when rapists start raping, in their late teens.
Finally, in an entirely unsurprising finding, rapists who admitted assaulting strangers – ever – were less than a quarter of the rapist population. More than 90% targeted acquaintances some of the time, and about 75% said they only targeted acquaintances. Only 7% of all the self-reported rapists reported targeting only strangers. And, in fact, there was zero overlap between the men who said they targeted starangers, and those who used only force.
I’m going to reiterate that, because I think it is important. As McWhorter wrote:
Of the men who used only force against their victims, none reported raping a stranger; all the men knew their victims… [T]he stereotypical rape incident characterized by a man violently attacking a stranger was not reported by any of the respondents. Instead, respondents who used only force against their victims reported raping only women they knew. Men who targeted strangers exclusively reported they used substances only in the rape incident.
These findings may help explain why most self-reported [attempted or completed rape] incidents go undetected.
McWhorter, p. 212-13.
Lisak’s Qualitative Work
Lisak’s contribution extends far beyond identifying the prevalence of certain types of rapists and their methodologies. He has also done a great deal of work understanding who these men are and how they operate. The analysis I want to focus on is this paper, Understanding The Predatory Nature Of Sexual Violence. It is on the web in several locations, though I have not seen a journal cite for it anywhere. A review of the references shows, however, that it is based on peer-reviewed literature, including Lisak’s own prior work.
Lisak says that the research on the psychological characteristics of incarcerated rapists also applies to the undetected:
Many of the motivational factors that were identified in incarcerated rapists have been shown to apply equally to undetected rapists. When compared to men who do not rape, these undetected rapists are measurably more angry at women, more motivated by the need to dominate and control women, more impulsive and disinhibited in their behavior, more hyper-masculine in their beliefs and attitudes, less empathic and more antisocial.
Guys with rigid views of gender roles and an axe to grind against women in general are overrepresented among rapists. That won’t come as a surprise to most readers here, I expect. But it is important confirmation. Guys who seem to hate women … do. If they sound like they don’t like or respect women and see women as impediments to be overcome … they’re telling the truth. That’s what they think, and they will abuse if they think they can get away with it.
Lisak doesn’t actually say this, but having read some of his work in depth now, I really think the major difference between the incarcerated and the non-incarcerated rapists are that the former cannot or do not confine themselves to tactics that are low-risk to them. The undetected rapists overwhelmingly use minimal or no force, rely mostly on alcohol and rape their acquaintances. They create situations where the culture will protect them by making excuses for them and questioning or denying their victims. Incarcerated rapists, I think, are just the ones who use the tactics that society is more willing to recognize as rape and less willing to make excuses for.
It is the modus operandi that keeps the undetected rapist undetected: they correctly identify a methodology that will put them under the protection of the rape culture. They are unlikely to be convicted because the story doesn’t fit the script. In fact, they are unlikely to be arrested because the story doesn’t lead to easy convictions. In fact, they are unlikely to be reported because rape survivors know that the tactics these men use leave them with little real recourse. In fact, these rapists may put the victim in a position where she is so intoxicated or terrified or just isolated and defeated that she never even says “no,” and because the culture overwhelmingly refuses to call these tactics what they are, even the victims themselves may be unable to call it rape for a very long time afterward, if ever.
Lisak describes the characteristics of their methodology:
In the course of 20 years of interviewing these undetected rapists, in both research and forensic settings, it has been possible for me to distill some of the common characteristics of the modus operandi of these sex offenders. These undetected rapists:
• are extremely adept at identifying “likely” victims, and testing prospective victims’ boundaries;
• plan and premeditate their attacks, using sophisticated strategies to groom their victims for attack, and to isolate them physically;
• use “instrumental” not gratuitous violence; they exhibit strong impulse
control and use only as much violence as is needed to terrify and coerce their victims into submission;
• use psychological weapons – power, control, manipulation, and threats – backed up by physical force, and almost never resort to weapons such as knives or guns;
• use alcohol deliberately to render victims more vulnerable to attack, or completely unconscious.
This isn’t quite a user’s guide to finding the rapists at a party, but it is an identifiable set of characteristics that have some implications and allow some educated guesses.
As Lisak says:
This picture conflicts sharply with the widely-held view that rapes committed on university campuses are typically the result of a basically “decent” young man who, were it not for too much alcohol and too little communication, would never do such a thing. While some campus rapes do fit this more benign view, the evidence points to a far less benign reality, in which the vast majority of rapes are committed by serial, violent predators.
Lisak’s work has received mainstream attention recently, notably this report on NPR. That report contrasted Lisak’s model with a lawyer and law professor defending the traditional view that campus rapist are simply good boys who made a single bad decision:
Stetson University law professor Peter Lake agrees there are plenty of predators on campus, and that it’s important to spot them and get them out of school.
But Lake says there’s a problem the predator theory underestimates: the amount of drinking and sex that’s become common with many — although certainly not all — college students.
“It’s very common for them to go out Wednesday through Saturday at a minimum, drink fairly heavily and hook up sexually with people that they may not know particularly well, may have met for the first time that night, or had been introduced through friends, or MySpace or Facebook,” he says. “So you have a lot of sexual activity, you have alcohol, you have a population that’s sort of an at-risk age, and it’s in some ways, it’s a perfect storm for sex assault issues.”
* * * *
Lake, author of the 2009 book Beyond Discipline: Managing the Modern Higher Education Environment, says schools address sexual assault mainly as a violation of conduct codes. And he says these codes have evolved to better handle sexual assault cases.
Part of Lake’s belief in second chances for students comes from personal experience as a law professor. He’s a consultant to universities about discipline procedures, and he was the honor-code investigator for his own law school’s discipline committee for a decade.
But he’s also worked as an attorney in criminal courts where he’d see criminals who were “incorrigible” and who made him “kind of grateful that we have jails and we’re still building them.”
Those men were different than the ones he’d routinely see being disciplined on college campuses. “What surprised me was how many people have made terrible mistakes and can actually learn to be better people from that,” Lake says, “that there still is a chance for teachable moments.”
But Lisak, the psychologist, says schools put too much faith in teachable moments, when they ought to treat sexual assault as a criminal matter. “These are clearly not individuals who are simply in need of a little extra education about proper communication with the opposite sex,” he says. “These are predators.”
Elton Yarbrough, A Case Study
NPR even provided an example of exactly the kind of behavior Lisak studies: Elton Yarbrough, formerly of Texas A&M, and now of a Texas correctional facility. What happened? Exactly what Lisak’s work predicts, every time:
By the time it was over, there would be a total of five women, all testifying they were assaulted by Yarbrough in the same circumstances: After drinking heavily, each said she passed out or fell asleep and woke to find Yarbrough having sex with her or touching her sexually.
“He would pick the most intoxicated female, whether he’d be at a bar or at a party,” recalled Lt. Brandy Norris, the lead investigator on the case for College Station police. “He’s a serial rapist. He was smart enough to know he didn’t have to hide in the bushes and grab them as they were walking by.”
Since the victim-blaming social structures are so strong, my thought reading this was, “how did any of these women ever get a prosecutor to take it to trial, let alone convince a jury?” Call me cynical. Here’s a partial answer:
A European foreign exchange student, the first woman to accuse Yarbrough by name, had been a friend of a friend of his. The two had chatted on what police would call “The Facebook” and played pool together at a local nightspot. During the 2004 Thanksgiving break at her off-campus apartment, she and her roommate couldn’t get Yarbrough to take the hint to go home after a night of drinking and they all lay down to sleep in the same bed.
The exchange student testified she woke up to find him on top of her, having sex with her. She screamed and demanded he leave, and he did. Her roommate called 911, and at the prompting of police, she called Yarbrough two days later and confronted her assailant on the phone — while police recorded the conversation.
Some excerpts from the tape that were read to the jury:
Victim: “I was passed out, Elton, and you knew it. I don’t care if you were drunk. I was out cold. Why would you do that? Had you planned it, or was it just something that came to you spontaneously? What?”
Yarbrough: “No, I didn’t plan it. I don’t know. I don’t know what happened.”
Victim: “Why did you do it?”
Yarbrough: “I don’t know why … Look, I’m sorry.”
Victim: “You made me feel so sick, so violated, so helpless …”
Yarbrough: “I don’t really — I don’t even know what to say. It was my fault. It’s no excuse but I was drunk. Sorry for making you feel that way.”
The tape became a key piece of evidence that helped put Yarbrough in prison. And news of his arrest would lead three other women to testify that Yarbrough had assaulted them prior to the foreign exchange student.
An admission on tape is pretty good evidence, and evidence that most survivors will not have.
Yarbrough’s victims were his friends. Women he knew very well, women who were comfortable being alone and drunk with him. And some men wonder why a lot of people — women, but not only — view men generally as potential rapists. Well, that’s why. The predators may not be a large portion of the population, but to their targets they are a danger that is not easily identified.
Earlier survivors had come forward, and he could have been stopped. But the first got pointed questions from the health center about being drunk, felt blamed and didn’t want to put herself through the hell of seeking accountability. In acquaintance rapes, it’s only the most recognized and conventional victim narratives that are recognized, and often even those are not.
When interviewed, Yarbrough exhibited just the sort of self-justification one might expect from a man who raped five women but insists he did nothing wrong:
“I was pretty promiscuous in college. I don’t know too many people who weren’t. I guess when you combine a lot of drinking and partying in college you’re going to have a lot of” sex going on, he said.
And when people drink, their inhibitions are lowered — and, he said, sometimes they have sex with people with whom they wouldn’t normally. “It’s college. You walk around Northgate,” he said, speaking of one of College Station’s most popular bar areas, “you’re going see a lot of drunk men and women. And then, at the end of the night, you’re going to see a lot of drunk men and women going home together.”
But he says he never forced anyone to have sex, and says the four women with whom he admits to having sex were willing participants. He recalled one having participated in foreplay before intercourse, and another came into his bedroom and initiated sex with him, he said. His childhood friend testifying he’d raped her was “a big shock,” in particular, he said.
“Pretty much all of them said they were too drunk to remember the details of that night, but the only details they could remember were the details that were incriminating against me,” he observed. “They didn’t remember any of that other stuff that happened.”
In the past I have given my thoughts about the implications of the Predator Theory for dealing with rape as a social crisis, and I’ll summarize them here, though they are laid out at length in the Yes Means Yes posts. Lisak’s own view is that it isn’t possible to fix the rapists, but that:
Rather than focusing prevention efforts on the rapists, it would seem far more effective to focus those efforts on the far more numerous bystanders – men and women who are part of the social and cultural milieu in which rapes are spawned and who can be mobilized to identify perpetrators and intervene in high-risk situations.
[Emphasis mine.] With that in mind, here’s what I think we can do:
(1) Men who inhabit cis- and het- identified social spaces need to listen to women. The women we know will tell us when the men they thought they could trust assaulted them; if and only if they know we won’t stonewall, deny, blame or judge. We need to listen without defending that guy. That guy is more likely than not a recidivist. He has probably done it before. He will probably do it again.
(2) The same men need to listen to other men. The men who rape will all but declare themselves. The guy who says he sees a woman too drunk to know where she is as an opportunity is not joking. Men who rape look for assurance that their social license to operate is in effect; they look for little confirmations that if he takes home the drunkest woman at the party and she says the next day that she said no, that she’ll be blamed and not believed. Choosing not to be part of a rape-supportive environment actually tells the rapist that his behavior has risks, and not everyone will take his side against an accuser.
(3) We need to change the culture of discourse about rape (and I mean all of us). Rapists know that the right combination of factors — alcohol and sex shame, mostly — will keep their victims quiet. Otherwise, they would be identified earlier and have a harder time finding victims. Women need social permission to talk frankly about sexual assault, because the more women can say what happened to them, the more difficult it is for the same man to rape six women without facing legal or even social consequences.
(4) Because the rapists have a fairly well-developed modus operandi, is is possible to spot it and interrupt it. We can look for the tactics and interrupt the routine. We can spot the rapist deliberately getting the woman drunk or angling to get the drunk woman alone in an unfamiliar place, and intervene. A guy offering a drunk woman a ride home may just be offering a ride, but if he is insistent when someone else offers a ride, this ought to raise a flag. If a guy is antagonistic towards women and places a lot of emphasis on sex as scoring or conquest, and he’s violating a woman’s boundaries and trying to end up with her drunk and alone, we don’t have to be sure what he’s doing to be concerned, and to start trying to give her exit ramps from his predatory slide.
The most important change I think we can make in light of the Predator Theory, however, is to get the theory itself into circulation. Probably many of us know the line from the movie The Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” The recidivist rapist’s strongest ally is the false belief that, if he is ever accused of raping an acquaintance, it must have been a miscommunication. It is this myth, more than anything, that allows that relatively small number of predators to hide among us and to keep doing what they’re doing.
For further reading on Lisak’s work:
*Big caveats here: The research in this area is still in an almost embryonic state, though. Since both studies only look at male attackers and don’t discuss the sex, orientation or gender identity of victims at all, I’m kind of stuck with discussing rapes committed by men and presuming that their adult victims are women, though I’m almost certain there are exceptions that are not broken out in this data, and that are probably too few in number to allow conclusions about anyway. Also, as Feministe’s own Cara has pointed out, the questions impose limitations which necessarily narrow the assaults addressed by the data. I’m going to address rape within the constraints of the data, which is about male rapists, and speak as if the modal assault, which is against a woman, is all assaults. That ignores a lot in terms of topics and dynamics, if not raw numbers, and I’m aware of how much it ignores, but just having any data from a non-incarcerated sample of rapists is a huge improvement over having none.
- Profile of a College Rapist by Jill March 5, 2010
- A bit more on that “one in four” statistic by Jill February 27, 2008
- New Statistics on Military Rape and Reporting by Cara March 18, 2009
- Is she lying about rape? Just check out her pay stub. by Jill October 16, 2007
- Victims’ Advocates “Schooled in Man-Hating” by Jill December 15, 2005