The search for rapists' "real" motives.

Author:Bryden, David P.

    Rape is a controversial subject, and never more so than when the topic is the perpetrators' motives. (1) Scholarly theorizing about rapists' motives began in earnest in the 1950s and 1960s, when psychologists propounded several ideas. In the 1970s, feminists articulated their motivational theories, which were later challenged by those of evolutionary psychologists. Ever since the '70s, the central issue has been whether most rapists are primarily motivated by sexual desire or by ulterior aims such as subjugation of women. Although many scholars do not discuss this question, focusing instead on pornography and other possible non-motivational causes of rape, others regard motivations as exceedingly important. (2)

    This continuing interest in rapists' motives has few parallels in mainstream criminology. With rare exceptions, (3) modern criminologists usually examine non-motivational causes of crime such as the criminal's childhood, his personality, his peers, his alcoholism, and--at the societal level--demographic and economic trends as well as policing and sentencing policies. For many years, most criminologists have treated criminals' motives (in the sense of goals) as irrelevant to public policies. (4)

    Equally noteworthy is rape scholars' failure to offer any skeptical critique of the motivation-discerning enterprise. While vigorously criticizing the motivational theories of their disciplinary and ideological rivals, they express no doubts about the feasibility and value of motivational inquiries as such.

    This Article has three purposes: (1) to describe briefly the historical contexts of the most influential theories about rapists' motives, with particular attention to the origins of feminist ideas in the 1970s; (2) to appraise the evidence concerning whether those motives are sexual or nonsexual; and (3) to evaluate the claim, explicit or implicit in generations of motivational speculation, that an understanding of rapists' motives has major descriptive and practical value.

    Although it would be impossible within a single article to analyze the colossal body of literature about rape's possible causes, the line between motives and other causes is often indistinct; inevitably, our treatment of some topics will seem too cursory to one reader and too prolix to another. We wish to emphasize that our historical discussions are not digressions; they are important for all of our purposes. Scholars who criticize what they regard as erroneous theories about rapists' motives commonly attribute the alleged errors either to popular prejudices or to the faults of a rival school of thought--Freudians, feminists, or evolutionary psychologists. Many of these criticisms are telling, but they obscure pervasive faults of motivational analyses that transcend ideological, disciplinary, generational, and even to some extent methodological boundaries. To develop this thesis, we examine early as well as recent scholarly theories. Discussions of authors whose theories were published in the 1970s have the additional justification that many subsequent scholars have been strongly influenced by the motivational ideas espoused by the leading feminist rape scholars of that formative decade.


    Prior to the 1970s, the leading authorities on rapists' motives were psychologists. After World War II, some of them wrote books about "sex offenders" (5)--a heterogeneous category that included rapists but also others such as consenting homosexuals, exhibitionists, pedophiles (along with statutory rapists who displayed no interest in very young children), men guilty of incest, and sometimes miscellaneous "deviates" such as fetishists whose activities were not per se criminal but were unusual and would occasionally lead to a crime such as burglary. (6) At that time, relatively little social-scientific research had been done on possible causes of sex crimes. Without denying the roles of biological or cultural factors, psychotherapists naturally tended to emphasize their clinical impressions, often interpreted through the lens of Freudian motivational theories.

    Freud's prestige reached its peak after World War II, (7) and he had speculated about the origins of some sexual abnormalities. (8) Supplementing Freud's specific etiological theories, some authors employed his general concept of unconscious motives, originating in childhood, to fashion their own neo-Freudian explanations of various crimes. In the usual Freudian manner, these theories treated the more obvious motives (such as obtaining money or sexual pleasure) as products of unconscious motives and therefore superficial. (9)

    Freud himself had said hardly anything about rape, (10) but some psychologists created theories based on their clinical observations. As for many sorts of disorders, bad parenting was a common explanation. (11) Noting that rapists tend to be hostile toward women, some authors attributed this to their excessively lenient, overbearing, rejecting, or inconsistent mothers and sometimes their harsh or remote fathers. (12)

    Rapists, said some, are trying to overcome anxieties about their masculinity. These might be due to "virtually absent" fathers combined with dominant, overly protective mothers, (13) doubts about their attractiveness to women, (14) or repressed homosexual inclinations. (15)

    Many authors invoked the concept of castration anxiety. Freud believed that when young boys first realize that girls do not have penises they assume that girls are created by fathers who castrated their sons. (16) Of course, at a conscious level males outgrow this childish belief, but some unconsciously fail to resolve their castration anxiety. Rape, some Freudians declared, is an effort "to cloak and negate the castration feelings by overriding them." (17) One scholar wrote that castration anxiety, resulting in an inability to resolve the Oedipus complex, leads to a feeling of being rejected by the mother, which in turn causes a rapist to "place[] his victim in an inferior, degrading role and so satisf[y] his need to be sexually dominant." (18)

    Relying on another Freudian concept, some authors asserted that rapists have a Madonna-prostitute complex. (19) Men with this complex divide women into two types: those they love and consider worthy of respect (Madonnas), and those they regard as inferior and seek to defile and degrade (prostitutes). They only enjoy sex with the latter: "Where such men love, they have no desire, and where they desire, they cannot love." (20) As a result, these men cannot be sexually satisfied with their wives or girlfriends, whom they love and respect. So they rape disreputable women toward whom they feel nothing but contempt but with whom they can find sexual satisfaction. (21)

    These are but a sample of psychologists' ideas about rape. (22) Many of their etiological theories were not Freudian or even motivational, and they sometimes included biological and social causes, but since they rarely defined "motive," it was often difficult to tell the difference between a motivational theory and a theory about non-motivational causes. (23)

    By the end of the 1960s, psychoanalytic thought was rapidly losing its cachet. One reason was that epistemological criticisms had accumulated. (24) Critics cited studies finding that when psychoanalysis cures patients, it does so regardless of the method employed--Freudian or non-Freudian. (25) This suggested that specifically Freudian concepts such as castration anxiety were therapeutically and perhaps descriptively invalid.

    Psychoanalysts claimed that their clinical experiences validated their dogmas. Yet, as illustrated by their theories about rape, those experiences led them to various and sometimes seemingly inconsistent conclusions. Are rapists men whose mothers were too warm or too cold? (26) Are they latent homosexuals? (27) Are they trying to overcome castration complexes? (28) Do they worship their girlfriends as "Madonnas," or are they angry (as one study concluded) at promiscuous girlfriends? (29) The usual answer was that there are several types of rapists, but the typologies and explanations differed from one author to another. (30)

    Freudians maintained that skilled analysts know when a Freudian theory such as castration anxiety fits the facts revealed in psychotherapy. Freud himself claimed that experimental tests of his theories were unnecessary "because the wealth of reliable observations on which these assertions rest makes them independent of experimental verification." (31) But to the extent that analysts like Freud relied on their own impressions, their "reliable observations" were obviously subjective and self-serving. When analysts relied instead on patients' confirmations of the analysts' diagnoses, critics pointed to the many ways by which an analyst can subtly influence an analysand's opinion in the desired direction. (32) Besides, psychoanalysts often persisted in a diagnosis even after the patient had repeatedly refused to confirm it--he was, they claimed, "in denial." (33) And even if the analysand's symptoms disappeared after the analysis, how could the analyst know that this would not have occurred if they had discussed food or philosophy instead of dreams and childhood traumas? The dogmatism of the Freudians led some critics to conclude that psychoanalysis was more like sorcery than science. (34)

    Aware of such accusations, some psychologists tried to minimize the subjective element in their constructs. (35) But even when they engaged in quantitative research, Freudians were not sufficiently self-critical. This was the thesis of Hans Eysenck and Glenn Wilson, who edited The Experimental Study of Freudian Theories, a collection of essays about experiments designed to test Freudian concepts. (36) While conceding that the diversity of those concepts (and the lack of sufficient research concerning some of them) made global judgments impossible, Eysenck and...

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