Sexual abuse has both sexual and non-sexual causes

Created 4 Jan 2014 • Last modified 11 May 2018

The idea that sexual abuse is an act of desperation by sexually deprived men is not supported. However, sexual abuse does seem to be motivated by sexual interest in the victim and by less selective sexual preferences (specifically, a tendency not to be sexually inhibited by expressions of non-consent). In terms of non-sexual causes, abuse seems to share the causes of non-sexual crimes and antisocial behavior, and it is enabled by cultural environments in which women are less powerful and by sexist attitudes. What all this means for prevention and treatment is unclear.

N.B. See the section "Preliminaries" in the previous chapter for definitions of terms like "abuse" and "consent".


One of the most important questions about sexual abuse—particularly about the relationship between sexual abuse and sexuality—is the cause of sexual abuse. Here I will examine several possible causes, which vary in their plausibility and amount of relevant research. This is by no means an exhaustive review (Tharp et al., 2013, list 67 distinct constructs that have been studied as associates of sexual abuse). The focus is on sexuality-related causes, with additional treatment of two causes unrelated to sexuality that to me seem particularly important.

As I mentioned in the preface, the best kind of research design for making causal inferences is a true experiment, in which subjects are randomly assigned to different values of the supposed causal variable. But obvious ethical concerns make true experiments difficult or impossible to design for many hypotheses related to sexual abuse, so we'll have to rely on non-experimental research for most of this chapter.

Sexual deprivation

There are a number of arguments people have put forth that somehow pin the blame on insufficient sexual expression (well, insufficient non-abusive sexual expression).

A direct form of this argument relies upon the construct of sex drive. The thinking goes like this: if people have a hunger-like drive to seek sexual stimulation that increases over time until sufficient stimulation is acquired, then a particularly desperate person might resort to rape, just as starving people may resort to cannibalism. But I argued against the existence of a sex drive in the chapter on practices.

I don't doubt the existence of sexual desire itself, of course. And so one could argue instead that abuse results merely from intense sexual desire without a better target. But what could be more convenient than masturbation? And many petabytes of pornography are readily available on the Internet. Even the difficulty, expense, and risk involved in getting a prostitute in places where prostitution is illegal is arguably more convenient than rape. One needs to believe one of the following:

  1. The rapist's sexual desire is less diffuse and more targeted at the rape victim. (In this case, the argument has ceased to be about general sexual deprivation and thus no longer falls under this heading.)
  2. The rapist's sexual desire is diffuse enough not to be specific to the victim, but still picky enough to demand real sex, so masturbation and pornography don't suffice.1
  3. Rape is still somehow the path of least resistance (perhaps because, in some cultures, it is more socially acceptable than masturbation!).

Whatever the exact form of the deprivation argument, we can examine the general notion that people's sexual inhibition or lack of sexual experience makes them more likely to commit abuse.

On the subject of sexual experience, Lalumière, Harris, Quinsey, and Rice (2005) list several studies in which admissions of sexual abuse were associated with greater sexual experience and greater sexual promiscuity, particularly casual sex (e.g., Dean & Malamuth, 1997; Christopher, Owens, & Stecker, 1993; Lalumière & Quinsey, 1996; Lalumière, Chalmers, Quinsey, & Seto, 1996; Senn, Desmarais, Verberg, & Wood, 2000; there is also a finding of this kind in Peterson, Janssen, & Heiman, 2010). In Lalumière et al.'s (2005) words (p. 76):

This literature provides no support for the often-proposed idea that men who do not have access to consensual sexual partners are more likely than other men to engage in rape: Sexually coercive men, as a group, appear to be more, rather than less, sexually experienced than other men. Sexually coercive men are not just more sexually experienced; they also seek greater partner variety and more casual sex than other men. Indeed, Lalumière et al. (1996) found that a measure of preference for partner variety and casual sex was related to a history of sexual coercion even when a composite measure of sexual experience was statistically controlled.

So, that idea is not tenable.

As for sexual inhibition, Peterson et al. (2010) conducted an online survey of 1,240 heterosexual-identified men. Subjects completed two scales of sexual inhibition, one measuring inhibition due to the threat of performance failure (e.g., "When I have a distracting thought, I easily lose my erection") and one measuring inhibition due to consequences (e.g., "If I realize there is a risk of catching a sexually transmitted disease, I am unlikely to stay sexually aroused"). The latter kind of inhibition was negatively associated with sexual abuse. That is, men who said they were less likely to have sex due to undesirable consequences of sex admitted to committing less abuse. On the other hand, inhibition due to threat of performance failure was positively related to abuse. Peterson et al. (2010) suggest this may be because men with erection problems want to rush their partners into sex before they go flaccid, or because men avoid the threat of rejection that causes their performance difficulties by coercing their partner into sex. Similarly, Carvalho, Quinta-Gomes, and Nobre (2013) found that male Portuguese college students who had sexually abused others had more erectile and orgasmic difficulties. Perhaps contrary to Peterson et al. (2010), Carvalho et al. (2013) also found that abusers were higher in "sexual embarrassment" (e.g., "I find it difficult to sexually let myself go in front of the other person"). Finally, Jones, Rossman, Wynn, and Ostovar (2010) surveyed 569 female rape victims and found that 8% said their assailants had had erectile impotence. I'm not sure what figures to compare this to, but 8% sounds high.

The grandest form of the deprivation argument is that however things work at the individual level, restrictive sexual attitudes inherent in society ("sexual repression") tend to increase rape. But cross-cultural research has produced no support for this idea. Sanday (1981) found no significant correlations between the frequency of rape in a society and four variables she related to sexual repression: the duration of the postpartum sex taboo, attitude towards premarital sex, men's age at marriage, and the number of "taboos reflecting male avoidance of sexuality". I preformed my own analysis of this kind (see appendix: using about 65 societies coded as part of the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample. Similarly to Sanday, I failed to predict rape using the frequency of premarital sex or using attitudes about children's sexual expression.

In summary, the deprivation argument has not fared well empirically. Abusers have more, not less, sex than non-abusers, and cross-culturally, sex-negative cultural attitudes are not clearly related to rape. Only some kinds of sexual inhibition at the individual level, related to performance anxiety and embarrassment, seem to be associated with rape, and it is not obvious how to interpret these relationships. I don't know of anybody, lay or scholarly, who's argued that performance anxiety is an important cause of sexual abuse.

Sexual desire

At the opposite extreme from the claim that sexual deprivation causes rape is the claim that sexual desire plays no causal role in rape at all. In fact, some writers have said that rape isn't sex, or that it shouldn't be called "sex". Strongly anti–rape-as-sex ideologies like these were mainstream in psychology in the 1970s and 1980s (Palmer, 1988; Bryden & Grier, 2011) and remain a frequent sight in feminist writing today (enter "rape isn't sex" into your favorite Web search engine for plenty of fresh examples in non-academic feminist writing).2

But there is a variety of evidence of the role of sexual affect in rape. This is not to say that sexual desire or sexual attraction suffice for rape (that would tend towards the deprivation argument I just rejected), or even that they are strictly necessary. I am only making the weak claim that sexual desire is a common motive for sexual abuse, at least for men's rape of women, in the same simplistic way that desire for goods is a common motive for theft. This idea is in addition to any more complex roles of sexual affect in abuse.

One piece of evidence is the literature on rapists' sexual experience and interest in casual sex discussed in the previous section. This implies that rapists indeed have the motive of sexual gratification, with a hint that they aren't demanding of intimacy in their sexual relationships. Then there are experiments suggesting that sexual stimuli or sexual arousal increase men's chances of committing sexual abuse. In Ariely and Loewenstein (2006) (discussed earlier in the chapter on cognition), men who were masturbating and looking at nudes while they answered a questionnaire rated themselves as more likely to commit abuse such as "slip[ping] a woman a drug to increase the chance that she would have sex with you". In Loewenstein, Nagin, and Paternoster (1997), men who looked at nudes were more likely to say they would try to coax a woman who says "she thinks she is not interested in having sex" into undressing. Bouffard (2002) and Bouffard and Miller (2014), using the same hypothetical scenario as Loewenstein et al. (1997), found (mostly) no significant effect of the sexual-stimulus condition on stated likelihood of abuse, but self-reported sexual arousal was associated with abuse.

Goetz, Easton, Lewis, and Buss (2012) found evidence that men are particularly attracted to women who appear vulnerable to being sexually exploited. Men looked at a large variety of pictures of (clothed) women and rated the women on various characteristics. Higher ratings of attractiveness were associated with higher ratings of abuse vulnerability (e.g., "How easy would it be for a man to sexually assault this woman?") and 19 of 22 visual cues rated by separate judges (e.g., "flirty", "revealing clothing", "intoxicated", "sleepy") that correlated with vulnerability ratings also correlated with attractiveness in the same direction. So, far from men not being sexually interested in rape, it seems that perceived ease of victimizing a woman is part of what determines how attractive she is.

See below for research on the effects of the victim's sexual attractiveness.

Finally, it should be pointed out that claims that rape is a form of violence instead of sex are wrongheaded in assuming that sex and violence are antithetical. Experiments I reviewed in the chapter on cognition demonstrate that sexual stimuli can make people more aggressive.

See Palmer (1988) for additional nit-picking on the issue of whether rape is sexually motivated.

Sexual preferences

Some writers have suggested that rapists are not merely especially interested in sex, but have a particular sexual interest in rape, or some other quirk of their sexual preferences that makes rape especially appealing to them.

This sort of question is a natural opportunity for the use of phallometry, the measurement of penile erection, usually by fitting a strain gauge around the subject's penis and recording changes in circumference. Greater increases in penis size are interpreted as more sexual interest. The value of phallometry, in theory, is that it is more difficult for men to control their erectile response than to lie about their subjectively experienced sexual preferences, and deceit is an obvious concern when we are trying to measure such socially charged variables such as sexual interest in children (subjects may even fear, e.g., that parole could be denied on the basis of their sexual preferences). This is not to say that phallometry is immune to fakery, but steps can be taken to reduce subjects' voluntary control over their erections, as by requiring them to press a button every time they hear a sex-related word in a story (Seto, 2008, p. 34). Phallometry does have the weakness of being inapplicable to female subjects. Measurement of genital arousal in women is possible, but genital arousal is not as clearly related to self-reported subjective arousal in women as in men (Chivers, Seto, Lalumière, Laan, & Grimbos, 2010), suggesting trouble for use of such measurement to assess sexual preferences.

Phallometric studies have indeed found that sexual abusers, compared to non-abusers, have greater erectile response to abuse-relevant stimuli. For example, a meta-analysis by Hall, Shondrick, and Hirschman (1993) found that abusers of women exhibit "slightly more" arousal to stimuli depicting rape than comparison subjects. A meta-analysis by Lalumière and Quinsey (1994), using men known to have forcibly raped an adolescent or adult woman, found a larger effect in the same direction. Lalumière, Quinsey, Harris, Rice, and Trautrimas (2003), in a review of five studies conducted since these two meta-analyses, argued that the conclusion of rapists having greater erectile response to rape than non-rapists did was upheld. Similarly, studies of child abusers (Freund & Blanchard, 1989; Blanchard et al., 2006; Barbaree & Marshall, 1989) find that child abusers have greater erectile response to pictures of nude prepubescents or stories of adult–child sex than comparison subjects (either nonoffenders or offenders against adult women).

A potential problem with the phallometric literature is the emphasis on documented and often convicted sex offenders as opposed to ordinary people, who, I argued in the previous chapter, are responsible for the majority of abuse incidents. But there have been a handful of studies on people drawn from ordinary subject pools (e.g., college undergraduates) who admit to abusing or being willing to abuse, and the findings are generally congruent (Malamuth, 1986; Lohr, Adams, & Davis, 1997; Bernat, Calhoun, & Adams, 1999). Also, in keeping with the lower rate of abuse victimization among prepubescent children than adults, substantial sexual interest in prepubescents seems to be uncommon; Seto (2008) (p. 6–8), from a review of the few relevant studies, estimates that less than 5% of men, and still less women, have such interest. A small degree of arousal to prepubescent girls, greater than that to males of any age, may be reasonably common in men (e.g., Hall, Hirschman, & Oliver, 1995).

You may now be suspecting that abusers' lust for abusive sex is a chief cause of abuse. But the evidence I've discussed so far is also compatible with another theme. The question, to be precise, is whether abusers prefer abusing others to consensual sex (perhaps also having little to no interest in consensual sex), or whether they are merely less deterred by lack of consent than non-abusers while still preferring consensual sex. This latter idea, which I think can be credited to Blader and Marshall (1989), appears to be better supported. For example, in Bernat et al. (1999) and Harris, Lalumière, Seto, Rice, and Chaplin (2012), abusers, like non-abusers, had fuller erections to consensual than non-consensual stimuli. The latter study, which orthogonally manipulated violent, non-consensual, and sexual themes in the stories read to subjects, found similarly that abusers' arousal was inhibited by violence and injury, albeit less so than in non-abusers. Outside phallometry, Heilbrun and Loftus (1986) had male undergraduates rate the sexual attractiveness of women posing six facial expressions of emotion. The bulk of subjects (44 out of 50) found happiness most attractive, but abusers found fear, anger, disgust, and sadness less unattractive than non-abusers did.

There are some studies (e.g., 9 of the 16 reviewed by Lalumière & Quinsey, 1994) that do find greater erectile response among rapists to rape than consensual stimuli. Without doing my own meta-analysis, my impression is that this is not the rule, and I would expect it to be even less common among abusive ordinary people than documented sex offenders. Unfortunately, a lot of phallometric studies (e.g., Freund & Blanchard, 1989; Blanchard et al., 2006) only report data that has been processed and standardized in such a way that positive interest in abuse and reduced inhibition can't be distinguished. There seems to be more faith in the positive-interest idea for the case of child abusers than adult abusers (see, e.g., the discussion section of Harris et al., 2012), but I don't see a lot of evidence for it. In Barbaree and Marshall (1989), for example, only 35% of subjects who had abused unrelated children, and no subjects who had abused their own children, had a phallometric profile suggesting a preference for prepubescents over adults.

I described earlier how abusers are more sexually promiscuous in general. This dovetails with the idea that they have a greater breadth of sexual interest than non-abusers rather than their interest requiring abusive themes. On that note, consider Seto and Lalumière (2010), a meta-analysis of studies comparing male adolescent sex offenders to male adolescents who had committed other crimes. The biggest estimated difference, although there were relatively few studies on the topic, was in "atypical sexual interests", a heterogeneous group of variables ranging from interest in rape to general hypersexuality to interest in cross-dressing. Not mentioned in Seto and Lalumière (2010) is that Daleiden, Kaufman, Hilliker, and O'Neil (1998) found that abusers, compared to non-abusers, were more likely to identify as bisexual and less to identify as heterosexual.

A "Consent Is Sexy" poster. It reads "Why is it sexy? The practice of consent shows you care about the desires and the boundaries of each other. When consent is given freely, with no pressure, intimidation or fear—then it's clear that both partners willingly, enthusiastically desire each other. And that's sexy. Consent will naturally create a more caring, intimate, loving sex life. Sex with consent is sexy. Sex without consent is rape. Respect yourself. Respect your partner."

Figure 1. Unfortunately for the Consent Is Sexy campaign, rapists may already agree that consent is sexy. They are merely less picky.

Sex-related features of the victim

It's hard to say which I've seen more of, claims that women's sexual attractiveness, particularly their choice of clothing, can provoke abuse, or denials of the same. There is plenty of research on people's beliefs about this issue (e.g., Cassidy & Hurell, 1995; DeJong, 1999; Kanekar & Kolsawalla, 1980), and Burt (1980) includes "When women go around braless or wearing short skirts and tight tops, they are just asking for trouble." as a rape myth. But, infuriatingly, there is little research to help settle the question of which side is actually right. And the issue has been clouded by confusion of the empirical question of the effects of victims' behavior with the ethical question of whether victims deserve any blame for their own rape. In my view, mere revealing clothing or seductive behavior does not merit blame for being raped, any more than wearing jewelry in a dangerous neighborhood merits blame for being robbed of it.

I know of only one study that has examined the empirical question regarding clothing. Flowe, Stewart, Sleath, and Palmer (2011) had 157 heterosexual-identified men imagine they were in a sexual encounter with a woman whose photograph they saw. The randomly-assigned photograph had the woman wearing either revealing or non-revealing clothing. Subjects read through a 29-line story in which the encounter got progressively closer to coitus but also the woman evinced progressively less consent. At each line, subjects chose whether to continue or to stop. 22% of subjects shown revealing clothing chose to continue even after the woman said outright she wanted to stop, compared to 4% of subjects shown conservative clothing. Thus this experiment supports the notion that revealing clothing increases one's odds of being raped.

Relatedly, but less directly, Guéguen (2011) conducted a field study of men who approached a female confederate in a bar who wore either sexually suggestive or conservative clothing. Men were quicker to approach the suggestively clad confederate and rated themselves as more likely to successfully obtain a date and more likely to have sex on the first date. Also recall that Goetz et al. (2012) found that men rated women who wore revealing clothing in a photograph as both more attractive and easier to "sexually assault". If more suggestive clothing makes men perceive women as more sexually receptive or easier to rape, perhaps it will also make them more likely to attempt date rape.

Two women look at each other askance. One wears sunglasses and a bikini and the other wears a burqa. The woman in a bikini thinks "Everything covered but her eyes. What a cruel male-dominated culture!" The woman in a burqa thinks "Nothing covered but her eyes. What a cruel male-dominated culture!"

Figure 2. Whether revealing or conservative clothing is better for society or more liberating for women is debatable. The best choice, I suspect, would be a happy medium in which people's bodies are neither on display nor neurotically hidden.

Another relevant finding is that women at more conventionally attractive ages (young adulthood and adolescence) are more likely to be raped. This theme is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the studies of robbery reports conducted by Felson and Krohn (1990) and Felson and Cundiff (2012). The closer female victims of robbery were to young adulthood, the likelier they were to be raped by the robber.

I know of a single study on the issue of whether people rated as more attractive by independent judges are more likely to be sexually abused. It obtained mixed results. Petersen and Hyde (2009) asked children in 5th, 7th, and 9th grade (aged about 10, 12, and 14 respectively) about their history of sexual abuse (at the hands of other children, not adults) and also rated their visual attractiveness. Attractiveness was associated with being sexually abused by other children among 7th-grade girls, but significant results were not found for 7th-grade boys or any students in 5th or 9th grade.

The popular belief that more sexually active or promiscuous women are more likely to be abused is supported by a wealth of studies. Greene and Navarro (1998), in a survey of 274 undergraduate women, found that being sexually abused was positively associated with number of sex partners and positive attitudes towards sexual pleasure. Testa and Dermen (1999), in a community sample of 198 women, found that being abused was positively related to a history of casual sex. Kennair and Bendixen (2012), in a representative sample of 1,199 Norwegian high school students, found that being abused was positively related to causal sex and unrestricted sexual attitudes for both boys and girls. Finally, Vicary, Klingaman, and Harkness (1995), in a sample of 112 adolescent girls, found that those who had been abused described themselves as more sexually active and had more sexually active female friends.

Unfortunately, these sexual-activity results are made much more difficult to interpret by a measurement problem. In all four of the studies just cited, the measure of how much sexual abuse victims had experienced was based on a count of incidents or a time-based rate. The problem with such a measure for comparing the rates of abuse against subjects with differing numbers of sex partners or rates of sexual activity is that a great deal of abuse is committed by dates and significant others, and it stands to reason that the more people you date, the greater the odds that at least one of your dates will abuse you. What is needed is some kind of per-partner or per-encounter measure of being abused.


This book is about sexuality, so I've spent quite a few words in the last few sections talking about causes of sexual abuse that are specific to sexual affect. But now, almost as a revenge of the rape-isn't-sex idea, consider sexual abuse as just another crime. Or, more correctly, think of it as antisocial behavior. Although the word "antisocial" is often mistakenly used to mean something like "reclusive", in psychology, its meaning is closer to "evil". Antisocial behavior is behavior that is selfish and harmful to other people or destructive to human welfare; antisociality is a tendency to commit antisocial acts. Now, some writers (e.g., Lalumière et al., 2005) make strong claims about antisociality as a reified personality trait that is caused by individual differences in genetics and in turn causes antisocial behavior such as rape. I will avoid such difficult questions about unobservable constructs and instead make the weak claim that sexual abuse is largely caused by whatever causes other antisocial behavior; in other words, in some respects, sexual abuse is just another crime.

Sexual abuse can be construed as a typical crime as follows. Think of a crime as a thing somebody does that gives them some personal benefit at the expense of somebody else's interests. If Bob steals Alice's wallet, for example, he has enriched himself while impoverishing Alice. If Bob strikes Alice during a heated argument, he has gratified his anger at her while causing her pain. And if Bob rapes Alice, he has gotten sexual gratification while causing her distress. This perspective suggests that a sexual motive is (usually) necessary for sexual abuse, but far from sufficient. The causal factor of interest is not Bob's desire to have sex with Alice—people want to have sex with other people, and yet refrain from abusing them, all the time!—but Bob's willingness to do something antisocial. The question is not why rapists are motivated to rape but why they're willing to do it.

The frequency and demographics figures for abuse that I discussed earlier turn out not to be too specific to abuse. Just as most abusers are men, most criminals are men: "male criminal participation in serious crimes at any age greatly exceeds that of females, regardless of source of data, crime type, level of involvement, or measure of participation" (Blumstein, Cohen, Roth, & Visher, 1986, p. 40). This may be related to how males are more physically aggressive than females across cultures and primate species (Fry, 1998); across human cultures, boys are more physically aggressive than girls even in prepubescence (Best & Williams, 1997, p. 185). Victimization rates also seem roughly similar for sexual and non-sexual crimes. Black et al. (2011) found that about 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men were violently assaulted by a partner; compare this to 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men "experienc[ing] unwanted sexual contact" short of penetration in the same study. Vrana and Lauterbach (1994) found that of 440 undergraduates, 13% had experienced "sexual assault/rape" and 10% had experienced "violent crime". Dansky, Brewerton, Kilpatrick, and O'Neil (1997), in a nationally representative sample of women, found that 14% had experienced forcible rape and 9% had experienced non-sexual violent assault.3 Writers who report substantially different rates for violent crime and sexual abuse tend to give the former the larger figure (Koppel, 1987; Truman & Planty, 2012). Perhaps, overall, it is less correct to say the US has a rape crisis than that it has a crime crisis. Finally, in general, rape rates are positively correlated with the rates of other crimes over time and across cultures (Lalumière et al., 2005, p. 62). Sanday (1981), using a large sample of cultures, found that the degree of interpersonal violence in a culture correlated positively (+.47) with its rape frequency.

There is also an association between sexual abusiveness and overall antisociality at the individual level, at least for males. A literature review by Tharp et al. (2013) found that aggression and lack of empathy were generally associated with sexual abuse. Voller, Long, and Aosved (2009) asked male college students how appealing they found committing sexual abuse as well as committing non-sexual crimes, such as bank robbery. Interest in non-sexual crimes was positively related both to interest in sexual abuse and a history of actual abusiveness. Lalumière and Quinsey (1996), in a study of 99 young men, found that antisocial attitudes were positively related to both stated likelihood of abusing and stated history of abusing. Lalumière et al. (1996), using a sample of 156 male university students, also found the relationship between antisocial attitudes and history of abusing was positive in direction, albeit nonsignificant. Calhoun, Bernat, Clum, and Frame (1997) found another relationship of this kind among 65 young adult males in rural Georgia.

Regarding child abuse, a meta-analysis by Whitaker et al. (2008) concluded that risk factors for abusing children and adults are largely the same.


Feminists have long argued that rape is enabled by, or even helps to maintain (Brownmiller, 1975), society-wide woman-oppressing attitudes and male dominance over women. Cross-cultural research indeed supports an association between the status of women and rape (men's rape of women, at least). Sanday (1981) found that the presence of an "Ideology of Male Toughness" correlated positively (+.42) with rape. Again, I did my own analyses (see appendix: with about 45 societies from the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample. I found that an "Ideology of Male Superiority" predicts more rape. Using another variable, I found that among cultures with a belief that women are generally inferior to men, rape is likely to be reasonably common or institutionalized. Among cultures without such a belief, on the other hand, rape rates vary more widely. Schlegel and Barry (1987) found an association between rape and a more indirect indicator of the status of women. In a sample of 30 preindustrial societies, the greater women's contribution to subsistence (which one could construe as a measure of economic importance), the less likely rape was.

Possibly the most common kind of psychological study of rape is one in which people's self-reported beliefs and attitudes related to gender and sex are related to willingness to abuse or a history of abusing. There are so many such studies that I will defer to Tharp et al.'s (2013) review (p. 24–25). Among the beliefs and attitudes that have been studied are endorsement of "rape myths" (beliefs or attitudes specifically concerning rape), hostility towards women, adversarial or exploitative views of sexual relationships, endorsement of traditional gender roles, and focus on maintaining one's own masculinity. Overall, these variables have been found to be positively related to reported abusiveness. In summary, anti-feminist beliefs and attitudes are associated with sexual abuse.

A word about rape myths. In lay language, the term "myth" often means claims of fact that are known to be false, such as "Most rape victims are raped by strangers." But included in the beliefs assessed by scales of rape-myth endorsement, specifically the original scale created by Burt (1980) that seems to have remained the most popular one, one also finds ethical claims (e.g., "Women who get raped while hitchhiking get what they deserve.") and claims of fact that are certainly not known to be true but I do not know of empirical evidence falsifying them (e.g., "Many women have an unconscious wish to be raped, and may then unconsciously set up a situation in which they are likely to be attacked."). Perhaps the problem is just that "myth" is the wrong word, but there is also a suggestion that it may be helpful to use tests that are more homogeneous, such as one measuring explicit victim-blaming and another measuring beliefs about who gets raped. As Lonsway and Fitzgerald (1994) observe, there is widespread disagreement among researchers about what exactly rape myths are and how to measure them.

This literature focuses on male abuse of women, since that's what the theory is all about. Studies concerning other gender combinations are sparse, but Tharp et al. (2013) point out that Lacasse and Mendelson (2007) found that female sexual abusers endorsed traditional gender roles less than female controls. I'm not sure what to make of this.

Conclusion and a caveat

The studies reviewed here suggest that sexual abuse is due to a variety of causes. Abuse is motivated by sexual interest in the victim and less selective sexual preferences (specifically, a tendency not to be sexually inhibited by expressions of non-consent), and enabled by antisocial tendencies and sexist or woman-disempowering culture and attitudes. Notice that explanations favored by Darwinists as well as feminists have been supported, showing that the ideological struggle between these factions is something of a false dichotomy (Vandermassen, 2011, explains how the gap can be further bridged at a theoretical level). The only major category of explanation I have rejected is explanations in terms of the rapist's sexual deprivation.

By and large, this is good news. Humanity seems on the way to understanding sexual abuse at a scientific level. As for the practical matter of preventing and treating abuse, though, this research is less helpful than it might seem. As Bryden and Grier (2011) observe (p. 264–273), theorists' policy proposals have rarely been original enough to require the theory as inspiration, and the policies themselves have rarely fared well empirically. The biggest contribution to rape policy has been by feminists, who have done a great deal to open the public's eyes to the ubiquity and danger of abuse, as well as reduce victim-blaming. But these benefits have come more from consciousness-raising about demographic facts of abuse and winning sympathy for victims than from popularizing feminist theory about the causes of abuse.

To prevent and treat sexual abuse, it is not enough to understand its causes. We will need to empirically examine actual policies and therapies. Such research is more difficult, more expensive, and more potentially harmful to participants than basic research, but it's what we need to counter abuse.


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This is reminiscent of a concept of sex drive that Apfelbaum (1984) mocks:

Freud may even have had a hidden assumption that "excitation" must build up in order to create an adequate discharge [of sexual urges], and thus the "masturbator" who discharges "the smallest quantity of excitation" may be getting a "faulty" result.[…] If this indeed was Freud's assumption, these vesicular nerve endings begin to look unusually demanding. They may well want foreplay and even romance.


Brownmiller (1975) is sometimes credited for making this idea mainstream, but she doesn't seem to believe it herself. Although she clearly rejects arguments in terms of sex drive or sexual deprivation ("…rape is not a crime of irrational, impulsive, uncontrollable lust, but is a deliberate, hostile, violent act of degradation and possession on the part of the would-be conqueror, designed to intimidate and inspire fear…", p. 361), she devotes a lot of space to the eroticization of rape in fiction and the news, suggesting some role for sexual affect in rape.


These percentages are row margins of Table 1 of Dansky et al. (1997).