Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Sexual violence motivation

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Sexual violence motivation:
What motivates engagement in sexual violence?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Sexual abuse effects 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men before the age of 15 years (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006), with 93 percent of perpetrators being male (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2002). Because of the prevalence of sexual violence in our society, it is beneficial to gain a deeper understanding of the common motivations of perpetrators to increase awareness and create and promote prevention strategies. This topic explores the definitions of various terms used to explain sexual violence, the different theories about motivation for sexual violence, the different factors that effect motivations for this type of crime, the motivations for the specific types of sexual violence and the preventative measures currently in place in regard to sexual violence.

Definition[edit | edit source]

The World Health Organisation defines Sexual Violence as "any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work". Below are some of the common terms used to describe different types of sexual violence:

  • Intimate Partner Sexual Violence is a term used to describe sexual violence between intimate partners
  • Non-Partner Sexual Violence is used to describe sexual violence by anyone other than an intimate partner (Yount, 2014).
  • Rape is a term that does not have a universal definition, so in some places it can be used synonymously with sexual assault, but some definitions can be much more specific, only classifying sexual intercourse or vaginal penetration with the penis without consent, or any meaning in between.
  • Sexual Assault is an overarching, gender neutral term, that encompasses any unwanted sexual contact (Muehlenhard, Powch, Phelps, & Giusti, 1992)
  • Sexual Harassment is any unwanted sexual behaviour enacted, resulting in a person feeling intimidated, humiliated or offended. (Australian Human Rights Commission)
  • Sexual Coercion is the use of intimidation, force or to trick someone into sexual behaviour. It is often seen as a manipulation of power.

Motivations for sexual violence[edit | edit source]

It is important to keep in mind when exploring this topic that each individual case is different, and that each perpetrator of violence has their own motivations, so we aim to examine the most common factors and traits. In this section we will explore schema, aggression, sex, sex-aggression diffusion, and the five implicit theories, as common motivators for sexual violence.

Schema[edit | edit source]

Schemas are also known as cognitive distortions. Mann and Beech (2003) (as cited in Beech, Bartels, & Dixon, 2013) highlight that schemas are related to distorted interpretations and thoughts. The schemas associated with sexual violence can be seen in 3 levels according to Ward (2000). These three levels include the general level, which shows general beliefs about the world and people as a whole, the middle level, which breaks people into categories, and shows the beliefs about these categories such as gender or age categories, and the specific level, which shows beliefs about the particular individual. Beech, Bartels and Dixon (2013) display how sexual offenders can use these schemas in order to rationalise and justify their acts before partaking in devious behaviours, as they are able to interpret the outcomes differently to the majority of the population, due to different learned associations formed.

Aggression, sex, and sex-aggression diffusion[edit | edit source]

Rada (1978) stated what he believed to be the three fundamental aims of rapists. For the Aggressive aim, he says rapists engage in acts that and humiliating for the victim in order to service their aggression. For the sexual aim, Rada says they aim to fulfil their sexual desires, and in the Sex-Aggression aim they show very sadistic tendencies, and that a level of violence may be necessary for them to fulfil their aims. Beech, Fisher and Ward (2007) claim that that anger can be a key feature in the lead up to the crime.

Five implicit theories model[edit | edit source]

Implicit theories are defined as personal constructions regarding particular phenomenon, in the minds of individuals (Sternberg, Conway, Ketron, & Bernstein, 1981). These five implicit theories inform us of ways in which perpetrators of sexual violence justify their actions and are based off qualitative analysis of interview data with 41 convicted rapists. The inter-rater agreement refers to the percentage of the sample that fit the criteria to that specific component of the theory. The five implicit theories are:

Uncontrollability[edit | edit source]

Uncontrollability is linked to the belief that events just happen, and that the world is uncontrollable. It was the most common Intrinsic Theory for female child abusers in Beech, Parrett, Ward and Fisher's study in 2009, with it being found in 87% of the participants. This theory is a lot less common in male perpetrators, with 73% inter-rater agreement.

Dangerous world[edit | edit source]

This Implicit Theory most commonly relates to the perpetrators' family environment rather than the outside world, and they are seen as destructive and menacing. 53% of Beech, Parrett, Ward and Fisher's female participants (2009) were associated with this. Their inter-rater agreement from male perpetrators was at 80% agreement.

Children as sexual objects[edit | edit source]

47% of the female participants of the Sternberg, Conway, Ketron, and Bernstein 2009 study displayed this implicit theory, although it was manifested in three ways: (1) perpetrators saw the victims as adults rather than children, stating how they seem older and more mature for their age; (2) perpetrators claiming to being sexually aroused or attracted to the victim; and (3) the perpetrator believed the victim to have enjoyed the offence. 87% of the male study agreed to this.

Nature of harm[edit | edit source]

20% of the female participants displayed this implicit theory, with a 73% inter-rater agreement from the male study. These cases generally involved the belief that the perpetrator was helping the victim by ensuring worse abuse would not occur, especially in situations with co-offenders.

Entitlement[edit | edit source]

No evidence for this Intrinsic Theory was found by Beech, Parrett, Ward and Fisher in 2009, although it was one of the original ITs for child sexual abusers presented by Ward and Keenan in 1999 (as cited in Beech, Parrett, Ward, & Fisher, 2009).

Differences between genders in implicit theories[edit | edit source]

Beech, Parrett, Ward and Fisher (2009) found that female manifestations of the first four ITs may differ to those of the males, contributing to slight differences in content and meaning. The 2006 study by Beech, Ward and Fisher of the Sexual and Violent Motivations in Men who Assault Women ranked Dangerous World, Women as Dangerous, Women as Sexual Objects, Uncontrollable male sex drive, then Entitlement to do exactly what they want, in a different order of prevalence to the women's motivations. This could show intrinsic differences either between genders or on the age of the victim, as the female study described sexual offences against children, whereas the study of males was offences against women.

Other factors to consider in motivations for sexual violence[edit | edit source]

Antisocial personality disorder[edit | edit source]

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines Antisocial Personality Disorder, previously known as Psychopathy, as a person presenting with significant impairments in personality functioning, including impairments is self-functioning and interpersonal functioning, as well as pathological personality traits of either antagonism or disinhibition. Antagonism is characterised by manipulativeness, deceitfulness, callousness and hostility, whereas Disinhibition is characterised by irresponsibility, impulsivity, and risk taking, (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Robertson and Knight (2014) state that there is a link between psychopathy (now antisocial personality disorder) and sexual and non-sexual violence in both adolescence and adulthood. They hypothesised that the traits of intimidation and violence often seen in those with psychopathy/antisocial personality disorder can be used to achieve some control over others. Their results state that psychopathy is associated with a large range of violence, including sexual violence, non-sexual violence, increased instances of violence, and violence severity.

Sexual sadism[edit | edit source]

Characteristics of Sadism, as defined by the DSM-5 are people having "sexual desire or behavior that involves another person’s psychological distress, injury, or death, or a desire for sexual behaviors involving unwilling persons or persons unable to give legal consent" (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). The individual also should feel personal distress about their interest to fulfil the requirements for diagnosis. The definition of sadism encompasses how this could be a factor for a motivation to partake in sexual violence. This is supported by the studies of Breslow (1989), Johnson and Becker (1997), and Kirsch and Becker (2007), (all as cited in Robertson & Knight, 2014). Robertson and Knight (2014) describe sadism as "the range of cognitions and behaviours associated with deriving sexual excitement from inflicting physical and/or emotional pain" (p. 13).

Motivations for specific types of sexual violence[edit | edit source]

It is important to determine that not all types of sexual violence are motivated by the same factors or traits. Each type of violence has its variations, and these are explored in this section.

Exhibitionism[edit | edit source]

Exhibitionism is generally motivated by a passive need for sexual gratification (Sadoff, 1986). Individuals who partake in these actions almost never come in physical contact with victims, but fulfil their urges from a distance. This does not take away from the negative effects of their actions on their victims, but it is important to identify that this crime generally does not physical contact, as it is not the physical gratification that motivates these individuals.

Rape[edit | edit source]

Sadoff (1986) states that although rape is a primarily violent act, not all rapists are violent people. The act of rape is seen as a way of expressing violent urges, which is why it is likely to result in harm, humiliation and even death of the victim. These outcomes are driven by the violent motivations of the rapist.

Sexual assault[edit | edit source]

Individuals who commit sexual assault, but not rape, are likely to blame the victim for their inadequacy and powerlessness in order to counteract the perpetrators own feelings of powerlessness (Sadoff, 1986). In such cases, the crime is enacted in a way to escalate humiliation and destructive actions on the victim. Sadoff (1986) states that in these cases there is "significant brutality and very little overt sexuality" (p. 468).

Sexual homicide[edit | edit source]

Although a universal definition does not exist, sexual homicide (also referred to as lust murder, sex killings, etc) is a gruesome display of power, where the perpetrator enacts sexually violent acts on the victim and then kills them, and often mutilates the body. Signs at the murder scene often show that the perpetrator has lost control of their actions, and typically they seek out punishment in order to rectify their guilt (Sadoff, 1986). This is typically done by positioning themselves somewhere that they will be caught by police and brought to justice. The motivation behind this sexual homicide is violence in its most primitive form.

Sexual violence towards children[edit | edit source]

Sexual violence enacted on children is called pedophilia. This type of violence is typically motivated by the inadequacies the perpetrator feels about themselves. By enacting sexual acts on a child, they not only assert a position of power and dominance, but their choice of victim as young, inexperienced, or "clean, virginal" (Sadoff, 1986) enables them to feel competent in a way they cannot experience with sexually experienced individuals. In these cases of sexual violence, the perpetrator seeks to increase self esteem and their feeling of competency which they struggle to gratify in other means.

Female Offenders[edit | edit source]

With female offenders accounting for a very small percentage of sexually violent crimes, they are typically left out of studies in this field. Kaufman, Wallace, Johnson and Reeder, (1995) found that female perpetrators are more likely to be "involved with a co-perpetrator and to exploit", but are less likely to use bribes and are less sexually invasive than male offenders.

Prevention of sexual violence[edit | edit source]

Despite the prevelence sexual violence in our society, there is currently a lack of preventative measures in place. There has been large amounts of research into the best practices in assisting survivors through counselling, support groups, etc, and the positive effects of these and how these can be improved, but there has been minimal research and practical implementation of preventative measures. There are universities in the United States that provide sexual assault prevention programs, but of the 26 universities surveyed in 1990, only two involved a male behaviour focus (Parrot, 1990, as cited in Piccigallo, Lilley, & Miller, 2012). The men in these programs stated that before the program, most males hadn't given the topic of sexual assault much thought and that there was a general lack of awareness, contributing to the idea that sexual violence is "fundamentally a woman's problem" (Piccigallo, Lilley, & Miller, 2012). Dotard and Janus (2011) look into current preventative measures that have been put in place. These preventative measures consist of Megan's Law in the US, which requires convicted sex offenders to be registered and communities notified if there is a registered sex offender living locally, and the sexually violent predator statutes (SVPAs), which enables the state to involuntarily commit a person who is found to be a sexually violent predator, where the person is diagnosed with a "mental abnormality" by a psychiatrist.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Although there is a lot of research into sexual violence cases, there is only a small amount on the motivations for sexual violence. This topic is extremely important as it identifies high risk traits, and can influence preventative measures. The prevalence of sexual violence is still very high, so it is evident that more needs to be done to reduce this type of violence. Understanding within the whole of society about this issue is extremely important, as is the development of preventative measures.

See Also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Australian Bureau of Statistics, (2002 & 2005). Crime and Safety, Australia. Retrieved from

Australian Bureau of Statistics, (2006). Personal Safety, Australia. Retrieved from

Beech, A. R., Bartels, R. M., and Dixon, L., (2013). Assessment and Treatment of Distorted Schemas in Sexual Offenders. Trauma, Violence and Abuse 14(54). DOI: 10.1177/1524838012463970

Beech, A. R., Parrett, N., Ward, T., and Fisher, D., (2009, March 09). Assessing Female Sexual Offenders’ Motivations and Cognitions: An Exploratory Study. Psychology, Crime and Law 15(2-3). 201-206. DOI: 10.1080/10683160802190921

Beech, A. R., Ward, T., and Fisher, D., (2006, December). The Identification of Sexual and Violent Motivations in Men who Assault Women: Implication for Treatment. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 21(12). 1635-1653. DOI: 10.1177/0886260508294242

Douard, J., and Janus, E. S., (2011, May-June). Beyond myth: Designing better sexual violence prevention. International journal of Law and Psychiatry. 34(3). 135-140. DOI: 10.1016/j.ijlp.2011.05.001

Kaufman, K. L., Wallace, A. M., Johnson, C. F., Reeder, M. L., (1995, September). Comparing Female and Male Perpetrator's Modus Operandi: Victim's Reports of Sexual Abuse.Journal of Interpersonal Violence 10(3). 322-333

Muehlenhard, C. L., Powch, I. G., Phelps, J. L., and Giusti, L. M. (1992). Definitions of rape: Scientific and political implications. Joumal of Social Issues, 48, 23-44.

Piccigallo, J. R., Lilley, T. G., and Miller, S. L., (2012). “It’s Cool to Care about Sexual Violence”: Men’s Experiences with Sexual Assault Prevention. ‘’Men and Masculinities’’ ‘’15’’(5). 507-525.

Rada, R. T., (1978) Psychological Factors in Rapist Behaviour. Clinical Aspects of the Rapist.

Robertson, C. A., and Knight, R. A., (2014). Relating Sexual Sadism and Psychopathy to One Another, Non-Sexual Violence, and Sexual Crime Behaviours. Aggressive Behaviors 40. 12-23.

Sadoff, R. L. (1986). Sexual Violence. Retrieved from

Sternberg, R.L., Conway, B.E., Ketron, J.L., and Bernstein, M. (1981). People's conceptions of intelligence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41. 37-55.

Yount, K. M., (2014). Worldwide prevalence of non-partner sexual violence. The Lancet 383(9929). Pp. 1614-1616. DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(13)62333-8