“The whole thing took maybe five seconds,” Michael adds. “That’s one year in prison per second.” I ask if he feels his sentence was unfair. “I don’t for one minute say I wasn’t wrong,” he answers, shooting another glance at Dr. Choy. “I’m not saying I didn’t violate this woman, because I did. Anyway,” he adds, smiling, “I enjoyed my time in prison. I went to church in there one day, and I heard the Lord’s voice really clear. From that day forward, instead of counting the days, I made the days count. The day I asked Jesus for help was the day my life changed for the better.”
According to the U.S. Justice Department, a woman is raped in this country every two minutes. More than 787,000 women have been raped or sexually assaulted in the past two years; only 26% of those assaults were reported to the police.
Although most rapes are committed by men known to their victims—28% by husbands or boyfriends, 40% by acquaintances, dates, or other relatives—nearly one-third are perpetuated by strangers. As Michael did, most rapists attack between 6 pm and 6 am; unlike Michael, most rapists cause injuries requiring their victims to seek medical care. Poor women are more likely to be raped than affluent women are; white women are more likely to be raped than are women of color.
Experts agree that although their methods differ, men who rape strangers share similar motivations with rapists who attack women they know. “There is a whole constellation of factors that cause men to rape,” says Dr. Mary Koss, Professor of Public Health at the University of Arizona, and co-chair of the American Psychological Association Task Force on Male Violence, “including the clues men get from society about who is an acceptable target. It’s hard to convince men—rapists or not—that women have a right to be treated as equal human beings in relationships, when there’s such a huge power differential between men and women in America. We have few top elected officials who are women, few parental leave policies that allow fathers to participate equally in raising their children, and few areas in which women can earn as much money as their male counterparts.”
The media, Dr. Koss says, contributes to this power differential, perpetuating roles of men as powerful sexual initiators and women as passive gatekeepers. “In most movies and TV shows, men are depicted as the one who spots the girl, the one who initiates the first kiss,” she says. “In bedroom scenes the man is usually shown as being on top; that’s proof of his masculinity. This kind of cultural script helps set up the tension that leads to rape.”
But not every man who watches TV becomes a rapist, I argue. So how can we predict which men might? Dr. Koss answers flatly, “We can’t.” There is no clear profile of a rapist, she says; no class, cultural, or racial identity that might warn a woman away from a man. “Despite stereotypes about rape being mostly a lower-class phenomenon,” she says, “rape is not a ‘not-us’ problem.”
Although there are no definitive predictors, Dr. Koss says, there are indicators. “The most dangerous men are the most traditional ones, with the most rigid gender role beliefs,” she says. “They don’t acknowledge characteristics in themselves that are considered feminine, like compassion and empathy. That removes barriers to committing sexual assault. And the only way to identify these guys is to talk—and especially, to listen—to them.”
The most significant contributing factor of all, Dr. Koss and most experts agree, is an abusive family background. “Although there are more men who grow up in violent homes and don’t become abusers than men who do, we know that exposure to violence and abuse in the home is a major predictor of every form of violence, including sexual assault.”