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Juvenile Sex Offenders: Opportunity for Early Intervention
10 CEUs Juvenile Sex Offenders: Opportunity for Early Intervention

Section 23
Rape and Sexual Motivation

Question 23 | Test | Table of Contents | Conduct Disorders CEU Courses
Psychologist CEs, Counselor CEUs, Social Worker CEUs, MFT CEUs

As the literature cited above demonstrates, the social science theory of rape rests on the assumption that a non-sexual motivation (such as a desire for power, control, domination, and/or violence) is both necessary and sufficient for a rape to occur. Aside from ignoring evolution and the ultimate level of explanation, this assumption can be accepted only if one accepts a bizarre definition of 'sex', suspends logic in the evaluation of supporting arguments, and abandons all skepticism in evaluating evidence. As the literature cited above, in Palmer 1988a, and in Palmer et al. 1999 demonstrates, many social scientists still imply that sexual desire is not sufficient or even necessary as a motivation for rape. This position, which remains at the heart of the social science explanation of rape, is routinely used to make pronouncements on what individuals ought to do to prevent rape.

There is no question that multiple motivations may be involved in any human behavior. An individual rapist may be motivated by a desire for revenge against a particular woman who turned down his earlier sexual advances, by a desire to humiliate or inflict pain on a particular woman or on women in general out of hatred for his own mother, by a desire to impress other males by losing his virginity, or by any of a countless number of other possible motivations. But have social scientists really demonstrated that any rapist is not at least partially motivated by sexual desire? Indeed, could any rape really take place without any sexual motivation on behalf of the rapist? Isn't sexual arousal of the rapist the one common fac tor in all rapes, including date rapes, pedophilic rapes, rapes of women under anesthesia, and rapes committed by soldiers during war? Further, would a rapist have to have any of the possible non-sexual motivations in order to commit a rape? Isn't it possible for a male's sole motivation for committing a rape to be a desire for sexual gratification?

One reason these seemingly obvious points have been obscured is that social scientists typically present the issue in terms of whether rape is "an act of" sex, "an act of" violence, or both. Perhaps by intention, use of the phrase "an act of" blurs the difference between the goals that provide the motivation for rape and the tactics used to accomplish those goals. Rape is obviously not the same act as consensual copulation, because by definition rape implies the use of certain distinct tactics (e.g., force or the threat of force). But that doesn't mean that the motivation of the male necessarily differs.

The importance of distinguishing between the goals that motivate a behavior and the tactics used to accomplish those goals becomes clear when one considers prostitution. The act of prostitution includes both a person giving money to another person and a sexual act. Does this mean that a man who goes to a female prostitute is motivated by a desire to give money to a woman? Does it even mean that the man is motivated by both a desire for sex and a desire to give his money to a woman? A man might have numerous motivations for going to a prostitute, but isn't it possible that the man lacks any desire to give his money to the woman? Isn't it indeed likely that the man gives his money to the woman only as a tactic to gain the desired goal of sex, which is the sole motivation of his behavior? Further, isn't it possible that the man would much prefer to have sex with the woman without having to give her money? lithe same "logic" that has been used in the social science explanation of rape were to be applied to prostitution, people would be asserting that going to a prostitute is an "act of altruism, not sex;' or at least that it is "an act of both altruism and sex?'

A Critique of the Arguments
We now offer a critique of the arguments that are most often used to support the claim that rapists are not sexually motivated.

Argument 1: "When they say sex or sexual, these social scientists and feminists [who argue that rape is not sexually motivated] mean the motivation, moods, or drives associated with honest courtship and pair bonding. In such situations, males report feelings of tenderness, affection, joy and so on…. It is this sort of pleasurable motivation that the socioculturalists (and feminists) denote as sexuality…." (Shields and Shields 1983, p. 122)

The sociocultural definition of 'sex' is inaccurately and unnecessarily restricted. In view of the more common usage of the word 'sex', it is, according to Hagen (1979, pp. 158-159), "abundantly self evident…. that a large percentage of males have no difficulty in divorcing sex from love," and "whistles and wolf-calls, attendance at burlesque shows, [and] patronizing of call girls and prostitutes" are all "probably manifestations of a sexual urge totally or largely bereft of romantic feelings."

Argument 2: Rape is not sexually motivated, because "most rapists have stable sexual partners" (Sanford and Fetter 1979, p.8)

This argument hinges on the assumption that a male's sexual desire is exhausted by a single partner. In addition to being contrary to our knowledge of the evolution of human sexuality, this assumption is obviously inconsistent with Symons's observation (1979, p.280) that "most patrons of prostitutes, adult bookstores, and adult movie theaters are married men, but this is not considered evidence for lack of sexual motivation."

Argument 3: Rape is not sexually motivated, because rapes are often "premeditated" (Brownmiller 1975; Griffin 1971).

This argument hinges on the assumption that all acts that are truly sexually motivated are spontaneous. The assumption is obviously untrue: many highly planned affairs, rendevous, and seductions are considered to be sexually motivated (Symons 1979, p.279).

Argument 4: The age distribution of rapists demonstrates that rape is a crime of violence and aggression rather than a crime of sex: "…the violence prone years for males extend from their teenage years into their late forties, this is the age range into which most rapists fall. Unlike sexuality, aggression does diminish with age and, therefore, a male's likelihood of committing a rape diminishes with the onset of middle age." (Groth and Hobson 1983, p. 161)

Contrary to this assertion, the peak age distribution of rapists (teens through twenties; see Thornhill and Thornhill 1983) is perfectly consistent with the view that rapists are sexually motivated, since it closely parallels the age distribution of numerous other types of male sexual activity and of maximum male sexual motivation in general (Kinsey et al. 1948; Goethals 1971).

Argument 5: The fact that rape is common in war demonstrates that rape is motivated by hostility rather than sex (Brownmiller 1975, pp. 31-113; Card 1996).

The high frequency of rape during war does not necessarily indicate that the rapists are not sexually motivated. The exceptionally high vulnerability of females during war may account for the greater frequency of rape by sexually motivated men. Theft is also frequent during war situations, owing to the fact that punishment is unlikely (Morris 1996), but this does not imply that the thieves are not motivated by desire for the stolen objects. Furthermore, the patterns of rape during war are consistent with the view that the rapist soldiers are sexually motivated and inconsistent with the view of rape as simply a tool of political domination. Throughout recorded history, the pattern in large-scale warfare has been to spare and rape the young non-pregnant women and to slaughter everyone else (Shields and Shields 1983; Hartung 1992). Brownmiller (1975) sees rape in large-scale war as stemming in part from the frenzied state of affairs and the great excitement of men who have just forcefully dominated the enemy. That hypothesis predicts that soldier rapists would be indiscriminate about the age of the victims. But they are not; they prefer young women. Similarly, Brownmiller's view that rape in war-like rape in general-is a strategy of men to dominate women predicts that men would rape older women, who tend to have more resources and more social dominance.

Argument 6: Rather than a sexually motivated act, rape is a form of "social control" because it is used as a form of punishment in some societies (Brownmiller 1975, p. 285).

The flaw in this argument is that the use of rape as a punishment "does not prove that sexual feelings are not also involved, any more than the deprivation of property as punishment proves that the property is not valuable to the punisher" (Symons 1979, p. 280).
- Thornhill PhD, Randy and Craig T. Palmer, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion; The MIT Press: Massachusetts, 2000

Personal Reflection Exercise #10
The preceding section contained information about rape and sexual motivation. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Assink, M., van der Put, C. E., Meeuwsen, M. W. C. M., de Jong, N. M., Oort, F. J., Stams, G. J. J. M., & Hoeve, M. (2019). Risk factors for child sexual abuse victimization: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 145(5), 459–489.

Barra, S., Bessler, C., Landolt, M. A., & Aebi, M. (2018). Testing the validity of criminal risk assessment tools in sexually abusive youth. Psychological Assessment, 30(11), 1430–1443. 

Cleveland, K. C., & Quas, J. A. (2018). Parents’ understanding of the juvenile dependency system. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 24(4), 459–473.

What is the flaw in Thornhill's argument number six stating, "Rather than a sexually motivated act, rape is a form of "social control" because it is used as a form of punishment in some societies"? Record the letter of the correct answer the Test.

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