Theories of Sexual Assault
last updated February 1, 2006

To most effectively provide services to victims of sexual assault and hold perpetrators accountable, members of the community must share a common understanding of sexual assault. Although there are many different contexts in which sexual assault occurs—and thus a variety of causes and complicating factors—it is possible to discuss overall trends in the theories that have been advanced to explain why men rape.

The psychopathology model long dominated approaches to sexual assault. Under this model, rapists were mentally ill or chemically imbalanced individuals who sexually assaulted because they could not control their sexual impulses. Rape and rapists were thought to be relatively rare. Based on the view that rape was a product of illness, the treatment model adopted was medically oriented and included such approaches as castration, psychotherapy, electric shock, and hormone injections. Adapted from Owen D. Jones, Sex, Culture, and the Biology of Rape: Toward Explanation and Prevention, 87 Cal. L.R. 827, 838-39 (1999).

In the United States, such psychopathology models began to be challenged in the 1970s, as feminists and other activists began advocating for increased awareness about issues of sexual assault. Activists began to challenge the notion that rapists were mentally ill or chemically imbalanced. As awareness increased, women began to establish crisis centers and hotlines for victims of sexual assault. These activists found not only that the prevalence of rape and sexual assault was far higher than had been believed, but also that the perpetrators of rape were not mentally ill, and were often people known by the victim.

Although the psychopathology model was eventually abandoned, the belief that rape is a result of irresistible sexual impulses continues to dominate thinking about sexual assault. Under this view, men rape because they cannot control their sexual desires. According to this myth, because men have difficulty controlling themselves, it is women's responsibility avoid "provoking" a rape—they must avoid dressing provocatively or acting in a promiscuous manner. This myth contributes significantly to the "true" and "false" rape dichotomy, according to which there are some (a few) women who are "truly" raped, but many more "false" rapes, situations in which the victim actually "provoked" the assault by failing to take steps to avoid arousing the perpetrator's uncontrollable sexual desire.

In part, the "irresistible impulse" myth about sexual assault is connected to understandings of gender roles. Sexual aggressiveness in men is viewed as both natural and admirable. As a result, behaviors that force or coerce sexual contact are often characterized as something men cannot "help," or dismissed with the phrase, "boys will be boys."

Feminists and activists began to draw these connections between sexual assault and patriarchy. In her 1975 book, Against Our Will, Susan Brownmiller argued that rape is a tool of intimidation used by men to control and ensure the subordinate status of women. These theories eventually coalesced into the current understanding of sexual assault—namely, that rape and other forms of sexual assault are acts of violence, not acts of sexual desire:

Rape is an act of violence which uses sex as a weapon. Rape is motivated by aggression and by the desire to exert power and humiliate. Just as wife battering had to be taken out of the privacy of the home and criminalised in order to effect any change, rape must be taken out of the sexual realm and placed where it rightfully belongs in the domain of violence against women.

From Patricia Weiser Easeal, Violence Prevention Today: Rape (October 1992).

Although sexual desire is sometimes relevant to issues of sexual assault, perpetrators are motivated by a desire for power and domination. "Like other forms of torture, it is often meant to hurt, control and humiliate, violating a person's innermost physical and mental integrity." From Radhika Coomaraswamy, Sexual Violence Against Refugees: Guidelines on Prevention and Response1.1 (1995).

For a collection of research and reports on theories of sexual assault, click here.