Rape and Sexual Assault

Abstract

Since time immemorial, human beings have tried to understand rape and sexual assault, what it encompasses, and what motivates it. As the definition of rape and sexual assault evolved, so did the theories used to describe the two crimes. Despite this evolution, however, numerous questions still abound when analyzing rape and sexual assault. This paper discusses criminology theories and applies them to a real case scenario.

Rape and Sexual Assault

Sexual assault is an umbrella term that describes any form of non-consensual sexual conduct (Williams & Walfield, 2015). Rape is a type of sexual assault. Historically, under common law, the definition of the term rape was restricted to the non-consensual ‘carnal knowledge’ of a woman (Sinisa, 2021). Under this system, therefore, rape could only be proven if the victim was a woman and the perpetrator was a man and the two were neither married nor cohabiting at the time of the incident. This limited definition prevented many survivors of rape whose circumstances did not neatly align with these criteria from receiving justice.

Over time, the definition of rape has evolved to include a variety of sexual offenses previously disregarded. Rape is currently, thus, defined as a type of sexual assault involving the penetration of one’s vagina or anus with any body part or object or the oral penetration by a sex organ of another person without the consent of the victim. (McKeever, 2019). The evolution of the definition of rape is closely linked to the theoretical perspectives on rape. The most prominent theoretical perspectives on rape include the feminist, social learning theories, psychopathological, and evolutionary perspectives. 

The psychopathological theory regards rape as a consequence of psychological or behavioral dysfunction (Chaudhury, 2017). According to the theory, rape is attributable to mental illness and can only be perpetrated by people who are not mentally sane. Normal human beings are, therefore, incapable of raping. Social, cultural and economic factors are not viewed as contributing to rape culture and are, therefore, according to this theory, irrelevant in understanding rape. Rather, the theory posits that in understanding rape, the pathology of the perpetrator should be the focus. 

The main critique of the psychopathological theory of rape stems from this focus on the pathology of the perpetrator (Chaudhury, 2017). While it is true that some individuals who commit rape may have a mental illness or disorder, this theory does not account for the fact that rape is often a crime of opportunity that is enabled by broader social and cultural factors. By focusing solely on the psychological state of the perpetrator, the theory ignores serious underlying issues which account for the vast majority of rape cases. 

On the other hand, the evolutionary theory of rape has been viewed as a theory attempting to justify rape (Schmalleger, 2021). According to this theory, rape is an evolutionary tool used by some men to increase their reproductive success (Schmalleger, 2021). The theory posits that various factors make certain men more sexually desirable than others. This creates a situation in which some men are less likely to find sexual partners and hence their likelihood of reproduction is diminished. These factors include physical attractiveness and social status (Schmalleger, 2021). Accordingly, men who lack these factors view forced intercourse as the only means whereby they can reproduce. v attract sexual partners. 

This theory is a highly controversial theory. It is not backed by evidence and has been criticized as excusing rape and sexual assault. Critiques of this theory cite, first and foremost, the fact that it does not consider socio-cultural systems or power dynamics as factors contributing to rape culture. Further, this theory takes a limited understanding of rape as an offense committed solely by men against women. It does not envision men as victims of rape. The social theories look at rape from socio-cultural perspectives and the relationships between human beings in any given society. Social theories of rape include feminist perspectives, social learning theories and social disorganization theories. According to these theories, rape culture is attributed to social, political, cultural and economic factors. 

  1. Feminist Perspectives on Rape. 

Different feminist theories look at rape from different lenses and hence, propose differing explanations for rape. However, these theories share various underlying principles. At the center of feminist perspectives on rape is the understanding that gender inequality and unequal power dynamics are the main driving forces of rape culture (Rennison, 2014). Rennison (2014) further contends that patriarchal systems in which men are viewed as the dominant gender and women as subordinates promote a culture that normalizes sexual assault against women and encourages the use of rape as a weapon of social control.  

Feminist perspectives on rape are informed in part by the historical evolution of laws criminalizing rape. The first law against rape, for example, enacted in ancient Babylon, only defined rape as forced sexual intercourse by a man against a married woman or a virgin living in her father’s house (Gold & Wyatt, 1978). Under these early legal systems, women and girls were viewed as the property of their fathers or husbands; hence rape was not criminalized because it was a crime against the victim but rather because it caused dishonor to the victim’s husband or father.

In cases where the penalty for rape was monetary compensation, therefore, this was paid to the father or husband of the victim. This kind of legal system also categorized women into two groups, i.e., those who could be victims of rape and those who could not. Falling in the first category were women viewed as honorable hence married women or virgin girls living in their father’s houses. Women falling outside of this category, including commercial sex workers, did not have any honor attached to them and hence were not viewed as possible victims of sexual assault. This legal system further failed to recognize marital rape. Married women, viewed as the property of their husbands, did not have any bodily autonomy; hence, their consent was not required. 

Feminist perspectives on rape have played an important role in the evolution of the understanding of rape. As a starting point, they define rape as a crime against the victim (McPhail, 2016) hence placing it in the category of crimes against the person. Rape is, therefore, punishable not because of the victims’ relationship with male members of society but because an offense is committed against the victim. By framing rape as a crime against the person rather than a property crime, feminists were able to bring attention to the violent and traumatic nature of rape. They helped shift the focus away from the perpetrator’s relationship with the victim and to the harm inflicted upon the victim. Secondly, feminist perspectives have enabled the identification of social structures which promote rape culture, such as patriarchy (McPhail, 2016). The subordination of women to the extent that they were historically, and presently in some cultures are still viewed as a man’s property is particularly problematized under feminist perspectives on rape as one of the factors contributing to the normalization of certain types of rape (Vito et al., 2007).

At the same time, by shedding light on the role of patriarchal power structures in perpetuating rape culture, feminist perspectives have been instrumental in challenging the traditional view of rape as a private matter between individuals and in recognizing it as a broader social problem that requires systemic change (Rennison, 2014). Thirdly, feminist perspectives have enabled the identification of social systems that inform victim blaming (Rennison, 2014). Based on the historical understanding that certain categories of women could not be victims of rape, these social beliefs supported victim blaming in the sense that for women to have been raped, they must have done something to warrant or encourage the attack. By focusing on the perpetrator’s actions rather than the victim’s behavior, feminist perspectives seek to shift the responsibility for rape from the victim to the offender (McPhail, 2016).

Two of the most prominent critiques of feminist perspectives on rape include essentialism and intersectionality. Essentialism argues that by focusing on gender inequality and cultural and socio-economic power dynamics, some feminist theories on rape portray women as passive victims and men as violent aggressors (Rennison, 2014). Such approaches are blind to the complex nature of societal relations and human behavior and experiences. By oversimplifying gender dynamics and the motivations of perpetrators of sexual violence, they seek merely to propagate a single narrative, one which may not be true in all instances of rape.

Intersectionality, on the other hand, argues that feminist perspectives on rape focus mainly on the mainstream narrative hence speaking mainly to the situations of empowered women who are able to speak out. It highlights the ways in which multiple social identities intersect to create unique experiences of oppression. As McPhail (2016) notes, these complexities are often overlooked by feminist perspectives, which, as a result, fail to take into account the experiences of marginalized women, including women of color and LGBTQ+ individuals and when these perspectives discuss the experiences of marginalized communities, it does so from the perspective of non-marginalized women. 

  1. Social Learning Theories of Rape

This theory proposes that aggression is a learned behavior that is, thereafter, sustained through intermittent reinforcement (Schmalleger, 2021). According to this theory, people who have been previously continuously exposed to certain behaviors or experiences which normalized sexual violence are likely to become perpetrators of sexual assault. Schmalleger (2021) further reiterates that social learning occurs mostly through direct personal experiences. In this instance, a victim of rape later becomes the perpetrator. Social learning can also occur as a result of witnessing or becoming aware of another person’s experience, in this case, sexual assault (Schmalleger, 2021). This happens particularly when the initial perpetrator or the observer is rewarded. For example, a child who witnesses sexual assault is likely to later on become a perpetrator of sexual assault (Schmalleger, 2021)

The social learning theory posits that cultural and social norms largely contribute to and promote rape culture. According to this theory, such cultures and socialization of rape desensitize perpetrators to the violent nature of rape and its impact on the victim. Norms are the accepted and expected behaviors and attitudes that are prevalent in a society or culture. They shape how individuals perceive and react to different situations and guide their actions. In the case of sexual assault, social and cultural norms that promote aggression, dominance, and sexual objectification of women can lead to the development and reinforcement of beliefs and behaviors that encourage sexual violence. For example, some cultures may view sexual aggression as a display of masculinity, and men who engage in such behavior may be seen as strong and powerful. Such cultural beliefs may normalize sexual aggression and make it acceptable or even expected in certain situations. 

At the same time, the objectification of women in media and the portrayal of women as sexual objects may normalize sexual violence and hence, contribute to the occurrence of rape (Schmalleger, 2021). Similar to feminist perspectives, social learning theory gives certain types of pornography as an example of media in which women are objectified and which, in turn, portray women as beings existing merely for the pleasure of men, thereby contributing to the occurrence of rape. 

Social learning theory has been criticized due to its failure to consider factors such as psychological disorders. Focusing solely on environmental factors as the cause of rape, social learning theory ignores certain mental and behavioral disorders which may account for some occurrences of rape. Similarly, social learning theory is critiqued for not taking into consideration cognitive processes. This critique argues that social learning theory ignores factors such as memory and decision-making. 

  1. Social Disorganization Theory of Rape

Another social theory of rape is the social disorganization theory. This theory suggests that high levels of social disorganization in a community, such as poverty, lack of social cohesion, and high mobility, can increase the likelihood of rape (Porter, Capellan, & Chintakrindi, 2015). Due to these conditions, societal structures that govern conduct within these communities are destroyed. For example, a lack of social cohesion may lead to the reduction of informal social controls which prohibit sexual assault in the community. This increases the risk of sexual assault against community members. Similarly, due to factors such as poverty, a community may lack access to formal justice systems, including the police and the courts.

One major critique of the social disorganization theory is that it does not acknowledge the impact of power dynamics in the occurrence of rape. It does not take into consideration the fact that some vulnerable community members, including children and persons with disabilities, are more at-risk. It also fails to take into consideration the power of more affluent and more influential community members in justice systems. 

Various criminology theories can be applied to the Karla Homolka case. This highly controversial case brought into question the role that women can play in rape cases. In this case, Karla and her husband, Paul Bernado, drugged, sexually assaulted and murdered several young women. Whereas initially Karla was coerced into committing the offense by Bernardo through promises of marriage, later she became a willing accomplice. Karla and Bernardo’s behavior can be examined through the lenses of various theoretical perspectives on rape. 

Feminist theories can be applied to this case to discuss the role played by power dynamics in the commission of crimes. In the sexual assaults committed by Karla and Bernardo, power and control played a central role. Power and control are depicted in the way that Karla and Bernardo chose their victims and in particular, by looking at the ages of the victims vis a vis the ages of the couple. Karla and Bernardo chose young girls showing that the couple specifically targeted vulnerable and underage girls. Karla and Bernardo used their age and authority to exert control over their victims. The first victim, for example, Karla’s younger sister, was fifteen years old at the time of her sexual assault and murder. Karla presumably had the power to influence her due to their relationship and her young age, making her an easy target. 

Karla’s participation in the crimes can also be analyzed using the feminist perspective lens. The existence of unequal power dynamics in the relationship between Karla and Bernardo is clear. To coerce Karla into complying with the sexual assault and murder of her sister, Bernardo exploits these power dynamics. Karla’s desire to get married to Bernardo also makes her susceptible to his coercion. In the first instance, Bernardo exploits this desire. Having the power to decide whether the marriage occurs, he coerces Karla into victimizing her sister. Feminist theories on rape emphasize the importance of understanding the nuances of power and control in cases of sexual violence. Feminist theories, in this instance, do not absolve Karla of her participation in the crimes but simply attempt to explain why she participated. 

The psychopathology theory, suggesting that individuals who engage in violent behavior or criminal activity may have underlying psychological issues, is also useful in understanding the criminal behavior exhibited by Karla and Bernardo and their motivations. This theory suggests that the couple’s actions were driven by their own personal psychological issues and not necessarily by external factors such as social or cultural norms. In the case of Karla Homolka, her behavior can be analyzed from a mental health perspective in that certain personality disorders, such as borderline or narcissistic personality disorder, can be said to have contributed to her involvement in the sexual assault and murder of the victim. Borderline personality disorder and narcissistic disorders would affect Karla’s thinking and her feelings towards herself and others hence explaining her apathy towards the sexual assault and murder of her sister. 

The social learning theory can also be used to analyze Karla and Bernardo’s actions. Whereas Bernardo’s history is not given as part of the case, looking at his childhood and early adulthood could clarify why he ended up as a serial rapist. For example, if he was a victim of sexual assault as a child, this could make him more prone to committing the crime. The social learning theory, proposing that individuals learn behaviors through observation, modeling, and reinforcement, can also be used to explain Karla’s involvement in the perpetration of sexual assaults. This theory suggests that Karla’s actions may have been influenced by the environment and social norms around her. For example, she may have been influenced by the abusive relationship she had with Paul Bernardo or by the culture of sexual violence that was normalized in their social circle. This theory also suggests that the sense of power and control may have reinforced the actions she gained from her involvement in the crimes.

Conclusion

Various theories can be applied to explain sexual assault, depending on the circumstances of the case. No single theory can sufficiently provide a blanket analysis of all scenarios. At the same time, available criminology theories do not sufficiently discuss the various factors that encourage sexual assault and rape. There is a need, therefore, to continue research to ensure a better understanding of the causes of and motivations for sexual assault and rape to enable its prevention. 

References

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