Does the "predator theory of rape" ignore rape culture? This is a question that has recently come up in relation to Dr. David Lisak's reseach. Dr. Lisak, an associate professor of psychology at the
and director of the Men’s Sexual Trauma Research Project, conducts and supervises research on the causes and consequences of interpersonal violence. In particular, he has studied the motives and characteristics of "undetected" rapists – men who rape but who are never prosecuted. He also studies the long term effects of childhood abuse in adult men, and the relationship between early abuse and the later perpetration of interpersonal violence. His research has been published in leading journals in psychology, trauma and violence, and he is the editor of the journal, Psychology of Men and Masculinity. University of Massachusetts Boston
Patrick McGann, MCSR's Director of Strategy & Planning, interviewed Dr. Lisak in 2008 over email about this very issue and is re-posting part of the interview because of renewed interest.
I wrote you a little while back about starting an email dialogue with you that we’ll use during April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month. So I’d like to start it now.
You’ve researched for some years now sexual assault on the college campus and argue that the overwhelming majority of rapes are committed by young men you would term predators responsible for serial rapes. This certainly challenged some of my own assumptions. I realized I had assumed that often college rapes occur because men are misinformed or drunk and out of control. When I heard you present your research, I was struck by how organized the young men are. They almost have the structure of a street gang, in the sense that a young man in college is able to rape a young woman because his circle of supporters helps to make it possible. Is this accurate?
If it is, it certainly opens doors for viable avenues into prevention. But it seems to me that this form of sexual assault is most likely to occur primarily in the context of male-dominated structures and environments – fraternities, sports teams, and so on. Would that be accurate? And are you suggesting that prevention efforts should target only organized male groups, or should efforts be broader in scope?
I hadn’t intended to jump right into the thick of things with difficult questions. I actually thought I would start out with what led you to become involved in researching rape on the college campus, but somehow I never made it there. But I find your work intriguing and challenging and am trying to think through questions related to it. So I appreciate your willingness to participate in this exchange.
I look forward to your response.
Thank you for initiating this dialogue. I’ll do my best to make it as fruitful as possible. I believe very strongly that the activation of men in the service of containing violence is enormously important and promising. Not only for the goal of containing violence, but also for the goal of bringing men together in the service of community goals. So I am delighted to participate.
In response to your first question. Yes, I believe the research is quite convincing that the vast majority of rapes are committed by men who are serial offenders. There is considerable evidence from community-based research and from sex offender management research that these serial offenders begin their offending behavior during adolescence and that it becomes a continuing pattern of predatory behavior into adulthood. While this research has been “out there” and accumulating for many years, even decades, it is only recently that data have been pointing to the same phenomena in college environments.
These data paint a picture of sexual violence in college communities that is at variance with what many people believe, including many people who are working hard at preventing such violence. To give an example of some of the implications, consider this. The data suggest that approximately 60% of college rapists are serial offenders, and that on average they commit six rapes. This would mean that if you had 100 rapists on a campus, they would have committed 60 x 6 + 40 x 1 rapes, or 400 rapes during their college careers. Of those 400 rapes, 360 (90%) would have been committed by serial rapists.
There are significant prevention implications here. For we can be quite confident that the behavior of those 60 serial rapists cannot be changed by outreach or education. As we learn more and more about them, we learn that they look very much like sex offenders that we have been dealing with in our criminal justice system and in our sex offender management programs for many decades.
However, we also know that these men do not live or act in a vacuum. They are not solitary predators who skulk and lurk. They are very much part of our campus communities. They frequently gravitate toward social groupings in which their attitudes and priorities are reflected and fostered. Sometimes this means a particular fraternity; sometimes an athletic group. But we must be very careful in making such assumptions. On any campus in which there is an active Greek life, most fraternities are NOT hotbeds of misogyny and sexual violence. When I visit a campus and talk with students it takes about five minutes to figure out which are the particular fraternities that have the most misogynistic and rape-supportive cultures. Likewise, there may be particular athletic groups in which such attitudes have become normative, and many others where there is no such problem.
And of course many of these rapists do not belong to either a fraternity or an athletic team. They will still, almost invariably, gravitate to some type of loose male social grouping in which their activities and attitudes have both an audience and a social mirror to reflect it all back to them. Remember, these men tend to be high in narcissistic traits and often measure their self-esteem with a yard stick derived from sexual conquest and a distorted sense of what it means to be masculine.
I don’t think it is good policy or good strategy to make an assumption that fraternities and athletic teams are the wellspring of sexual violence within a particular community. I would advocate a general, multi-step process that any community could fruitfully engage in:
- Articulate the common values of the community, that presumably would include basic respect for all individuals and a universal and shared responsibility by all members of the community not only to live by those values but also to actively foster them.
- Examine (study, do research) the community. How much sexual violence is occurring? Who is being victimized? Under what circumstances is the sexual violence occurring and who is committing it? Are there “hotbeds” and if so, where are they?
- Mobilize the community. Educate – disseminate the information about the community’s problem with sexual violence. Remind the community members of their shared values and the ways in which sexual violence undermines those values.
- Train the community. Bystander education programs (there are many variations), for example, provide a mechanism for both educating and mobilizing and also providing very concrete training in how to constructively intervene in a variety of situations (not only rape-imminent). These interventions, and the mobilization and training of the community members, begin to alter the culture of the community, making sexual violence – and its antecedents – increasingly less normative and simultaneously begin to isolate the serial offenders who have been operating from within the camouflage of that culture.
So, yes, I think rape prevention must be much broader in scope than a program targeting specific groups or sub-cultures.
Let me ask a few questions in response, but first say that I’m glad you made a point of clarifying that most fraternities and many male athletic teams are not “hotbeds of misogyny and sexual violence.” While teaching at universities for a number of years, I heard repeatedly from male students that all fraternities are not alike – the honors fraternities are not like social fraternities, for instance, and I’m sure that there are significant differences even among social fraternities. When MCSR works with fraternities, often one of our initial strategies is to unpack the stereotypes members experience and help them take steps to intentionally challenge those stereotypes. I also think you would agree that even within a particular college male social group at risk for perpetration, it’s likely that many of the young men are not perpetrators.
I wondered, though, about easily identifying the fraternities, athletic teams, and other loosely organized social male groups that are more at risk for perpetrating sexual violence (you indicate you can learn the particular fraternities with the most misogynistic and rape-supporting cultures in a very short time). Do you have identifying factors you use? It makes me think of the list of red flags intended to help young women identify the early warning signs of dating violence – explosive temper, jealousy, and so on. Would you suggest there is or could be a similar list of warning signs college campuses might use to identify at-risk male social groups? And is it a list that might be useful? Or could it be misused in your view?
I’m pushing here, but I’m interested in your view on prevention: if it is possible to readily identify particular male social groups on a college campus as being at risk for perpetrating sexual assault, why do you believe it wouldn’t be wise to take a doubled approach to prevention? By this I mean engaging in the general, multi-step process you advocate (one espoused by MCSR) at the end of your response, while at the same time making concentrated primary prevention efforts directed at the at-risk male social groups? I would argue, though, that the efforts should positively and productively engage. And is there a need to take different and more concerted approaches in identifying and dealing with the 60 serial rapists, especially if their behavior will not be changed by outreach and education?
Thank you for engaging in this dialogue. It is very interesting and productive. I look forward to your next thoughtful email.
I don’t have any list of “identifying factors” or “red flags” that I use to identify hotbeds of rape-supportive subculture within a campus environment or community. That’s not to say that one could not empirically derive such a list – perhaps so – only that I personally have not done that research. But I also think that more important than identifying such factors, even if it could be done, is having each community do the work to identify its own hotbeds. When I meet informally with students at a particular university I do not list the “red flags” and ask which student subculture on that campus is best described by those markers. Rather, I simply ask the assembled students whether they could identify particular groups/places on campus where the attitudes and behaviors that we would call “rape-supportive” are most prevalent. The response typically comes instantaneously. Essentially, everybody in the room knows exactly where these subcultures exist. That’s not to say that all rape in campus is happening within those subcultures. Just that the subcultures are readily identifiable to members of the community. Of course, were one developing a comprehensive strategy of rape prevention for that community, one would do more than informally query a small group of students.
If such hotbeds within a community can be identified I think it would definitely warrant specific attention and the type of multi-faceted prevention approach you refer to – a community-wide effort with additional, focused efforts aimed at those hotbeds. I just wouldn’t assume that the hotbeds will be located in particular groups (e.g., fraternities, athletic groups) without doing the research within the community to positively identify them.
The fact that there are individuals within campus communities who repeatedly victimize other members of the community – serial offenders – presents a real challenge to higher education institutions. It’s a fact that challenges the basic schemas of the institution, and college judicial processes are not designed to respond to this kind of hard core criminal behavior. The general assumption is that errant behavior is subject to education. Further, most college judicial processes are simply not equipped to do the kind of investigation necessary to get beyond the “he said – she said” phase of an investigation. Many college judicial officials have articulated to me their sincere frustration in such cases; they feel helpless to determine what really happened and feel they cannot obtain the kind of evidence they would need to impose serious sanctions even when they suspect it might be warranted. Their frustration is not surprising. It is not reasonable to expect that we can simply ask an alleged offender whether he is guilty of what the victim reports. We don’t approach alleged drug dealers and ask them whether they are, as reported, dealing drugs. We investigate.Share