“ Eustache Le Sueur – Rape of Tamar (1640) – image edited by Web Investigator
It’s not a profound mystery, or explained by deep psychosocial complexity. For rapists, rape is easy. And that must stop
There is a simple and surprisingly durable myth about what causes men to rape to women. It goes like this: if a man is too horny, from sexual deprivation or from being constitutionally oversexed, he will lose control in the presence of an unguarded woman. Through the early days of psychology as a science, this basic assumption remained the same. When Richard von Krafft-Ebing wrote Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), he assumed that rapists suffered from either ‘priapism and conditions approaching satyriasis’ or a ‘mental weakness’ that allowed lustful urges to escape their control. It was a simple matter of hydraulics. If the pressure was too great, or the vessel too weak, a horrifying crime would burst forth.
In the early decades of the 20th century, as human sexuality became the focus of intense scientific interest, this naive model of sexual assault went unquestioned by researchers. Havelock Ellis believed that all male sexuality was violent and predatory, and therefore saw no reason to doubt that rape was a normal manifestation of masculine desire. Alfred Kinsey preferred to ignore the issue altogether, dismissing most rapes as false accusations, and doubting they did real harm anyway. Thus the hydraulic model of rape persisted until the latter half of the 20th century, when it was abruptly shattered by a deadly combination of feminist theory and empirical research. That research has brought us much closer to an understanding of why men rape. But it’s also taught us something far more useful, and almost universally overlooked: how rape can be prevented.
Let’s return to the hydraulic theory, which might have persisted even longer were it not for one particularly treacherous feature: it opened the door to victim-blaming. If sexual desire triggered rape, then a really provocative woman might inspire so much lust that even a good man would be overwhelmed. The victim became the real perpetrator: the man was effectively helpless as he punched her, wrestled her to the ground, and forced his penis into her.
This idea was seized upon by Freudians in the mid-20th century. Not only did they find it plausible that victims instigated rape, they speculated that all women secretly longed for it. Female sexuality was held to be inherently masochistic, since, as the psychoanalyst Karen Horney put it in ‘The Problem of Feminine Masochism’ (1935): ‘the content of the early sexual wishes and fantasies concerning the father is the desire to be mutilated, that is castrated by him’. On this reading, female victims unconsciously desire, if not engineer, their sexual assaults. The blame sometimes spreads beyond the victim to infect every woman in sight, as when the forensic psychiatrist David Abrahamsen argued in The Psychology of Crime (1960) that a rapist was formed by a mother who was ‘seductive but rejecting’, goaded by ‘his wife’s masculine and competitive inclinations’, and finally ‘somehow seduced into committing the crime’.
Such was the lamentable state of affairs when the feminist activist Susan Brownmiller introduced her ground-breaking feminist work on rape Against Our Will (1975) with the dictum: ‘[Rape] is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.’ Brownmiller dispensed with any trace of victim-blaming, and dismissed the idea that rape was the result of sexual desire. Rape was instead a political crime, committed ‘for many of the same reasons that blacks were lynched by gangs of whites’. It was a crime not of passion, but of cold premeditation, often coordinated among a group. However and wherever it occurred, the motive was not sex, but power.
This theory gained instant currency with sympathetic readers, and divided public opinion into warring camps. To anti-feminists, it was patently absurd, akin to saying burglars aren’t motivated by money, but by a twisted desire to oppress homeowners. For feminists, it was intuitively true, and incidentally useful in supporting broader arguments about gender inequality.
In 1975, research money was plentiful, and the field of psychology was enjoying a new respectability, so the stage was set for a flood of studies into the motives of rapists…