Why do men sexually assault women?
For most of us, sexual desire is exciting and affirming when reciprocated. Why, then, do some men want to have sex with people who do not desire them?
When I asked Mr Jackson (not his real name) to explain how he had become a sexual offender, he began by recounting the various ways he was beaten and tortured by his mother as a child. As he revealed the stark details of her cruelty, his eyes welled up. For much of his life, he said, he took out the rage he felt toward his mother on other women.
“I did the same thing to women because I hated women. I didn’t trust them. I looked at them as objects, not as human beings. I didn’t want women to control my life, so I’d control them. I’d be the dominant one at all times. That’s how I was able to abuse women physically and sexually.”
Mr Jackson was a middle-aged man who committed a violent sexual assault many years earlier. Following a long prison sentence he was civilly committed to a sex offender treatment facility and was in his fifth year of treatment.
All sexual offenders suffer from a severely compromised capacity to empathize with their victims. This was true for Mr Jackson, too. He told me: “I wanted her to suffer the same pain I went through … I never knew anything about empathy back then.”
In order to develop empathy and substantially mitigate their risk of reoffending, sexual offenders must know how and why they became sexually violent. But first they must acknowledge and take responsibility for their assaultive behavior.
First they must acknowledge and take responsibility for their assaultive behavior
Men who commit sexual assaults need to know what happened in their lives and minds that impaired their ability to empathize with the people they abused. Many perpetrators must understand how they were psychologically damaged, stunted and/or traumatized in their early lives – and how they learned to degrade and dehumanize women, men or children.
They need to move beyond feeling humiliated by the public exposure and its consequences like job loss, status, relationships and criminal prosecution, and develop a greater tolerance for feelings of shame and guilt.
The wish to feel powerful is a prime motive for many sexually abusive men. Some very successful men believe they are entitled to have what they want. When they face limits or rejection they may feel impotent and become indignant in response – and then coerce sex to restore a feeling of power.
Similarly, marginalized, disempowered men – often plagued with feelings of powerlessness – sometimes coerce sex to feel powerful.
Trauma and its aftermath is frequently a critical influence in the early lives of men who perpetrate sexual offenses. In the men I evaluate, I almost always discover a devastating childhood history – rampant with sexual abuse, physical violence and emotional neglect – that laid the groundwork for their sexual aggression.
As boys, their displays of emotional vulnerability were ridiculed and sometimes met with physical abuse. Moreover, the betrayal, shame, despair, dread and fury they felt in response to maltreatment were rarely recognized by anyone, including their parents or caretakers. They suffered alone and had to rely on scant resources to manage overwhelming feelings. When their parents or caretakers were the perpetrators, it compounded their anguish.
Childhood experience, however – no matter how awful – never excuses a man’s sexually aggressive behavior nor does it sufficiently explain it. Most men with childhood trauma do not abuse others. Some remain relatively unscathed by their dark pasts. Many become depressed, addicted to substances or scared of intimacy; others sabotage themselves in work or relationships.
Numerous famous men have revealed childhood histories of abuse and recounted the harm it caused. Two examples are Gabriel Byrne, the actor who suffered from alcoholism and depression after he was sexually abused as a child, and Scott Brown, the former US senator who was physically, emotionally and sexually abused as a child, and became a repetitive shoplifter until he was arrested at age 12.
These men – unlike abuse victims who become sexually abusive – faced their demons and grew more resilient. As Brown put it in his autobiography, Against All Odds: “Like a fractured bone, I have knit back stronger in the broken places.”
Courage, willpower, empathy and the ability to be emotionally vulnerable play pivotal roles in the choice to not sexually abuse others. Although the minds, experiences, and histories of men who commit sexual violence are unique – this is true of all perpetrators – good treatment can help offenders develop these essential capacities and never perpetrate again.
- Don Greif is a psychologist/psychoanalyst affiliated with the William Alanson White Institute. He practices in New York City and evaluates, treats and writes about sexual offenders.