Researchers say the psychology behind rape is complex

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Editor’s note: This story pairs with another titled “Men persuade male peers to take sexual assault seriously.” 

She met him on the dating website Plenty of Fish. They met up at her apartment to watch a movie. The man was arrested after she told the authorities he raped her.

Another woman was passed out drunk behind a dumpster. A student at the same party she was attending found her, pulled up her dress and raped her.

The psychology behind rape is complex, and researchers have different hypotheses about what goes on in the mind of a rapist.

Otterbein University psychology professor Norm Shpancer detailed evolutionary psychology reasons for why men rape women in a 2014 Psychology Today article. Shpancer said men tend to be physically stronger by genetic design; therefore, they rape because they can.

“All of us behave in scripted ways in many areas of our lives, including sex,” Shpancer told the Daily Universe. “Our scripts are shaped in part by biology, in part by society and in part through our own experiences.”

Acts of sex and violence share the hormone testosterone, and so the two are biologically linked. Primeval men were “rewarded” for aggression by gaining access to women and protecting them from other males. This may have caused sexual aggressive impulses in men to be passed down through generations, according to Shpancer. This does not excuse sexual assault, however, as men have control over these urges.

Social pressure and culture tend to have greater influence over people’s behavior than genetics or biology, according to Shpancer.

He wrote that some men internalize a pervasive social norm that flirting and foreplay lead to intercourse. People hate to go against social norms, according to Shpancer. Therefore, when a woman says, “No,” or “Stop,” these men become angry with the woman rather than questioning their own behavior.

Zoё D. Peterson, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Missouri, examined whether men were more likely to rape or pressure women into sex if the men thought they could get away with it. The researchers also examined whether men who thought their peers would approve or accept such behavior were more likely to engage in rape or sexual coercion — sexual acts obtained through verbal pressure or manipulation.

Peterson’s recent study surveyed 120 heterosexual men between ages 18 and 30. Peterson and her colleagues found those who felt sure they could get away with rape without punishment were more likely to report they used coercive behavior.

There was no significant association between punishment certainty and rape, according to the study. Men who self-reported they raped and those who said they did not rape were both likely to say punishment was uncertain.

Peterson said in the study that men who rape sometimes have antisocial tendencies. Those who are antisocial care less about society’s rules and judgements, Peterson said. Therefore, men who rape could possibly not care about punishment.

Men who perceived their peers approved of sexual aggression reported they engaged in verbally coercive behavior. Peterson said this might be because sexually aggressive men seek out other sexually aggressive men to be part of their peer group. The study author also mentioned men might think their peers accept or approve of sexual aggression when they actually do not.

There was less connection between social acceptance and acts of rape than between social acceptance and sexual coercion. Again, Peterson suggested this was because those who rape are sometimes antisocial and don’t care about social acceptance.

Ohio University sociologist Martin D. Schwartz and West Virginia University sociology professor Walter Dekeseredy explored the relationship between social support and sexual aggression in their book titled “Sexual Assault On the College Campus: The Role of Male Peer Support.”

In the book, they said several studies have found that men who have friends or peers who express acceptance of aggression towards women are more likely to engage in aggressive behavior themselves. Some of these men saw violence and danger as part of masculinity, Dekeseredy and Schwartz said.

They also said there was no evidence that mentally ill men are more likely to rape compared to non-mentally ill men.

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