The Psychology Behind Sexual Assault

The Psychology Behind Sexual Assault

"She gave me the 'I'd f*** you' look."
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One of the requirements to attend Indiana University was to take this course called "My Student Body" prior to welcome week. My Student Body courses are designed to reduce risky student behavior using strategies that research has shown are most effective—motivational, attitudinal, and skill-training interventions; such as doing drugs, drinking alcohol, and being involved in sexual violence. I thought the course was unnecessary and unproductive. However, I was proven wrong this week.

A few days ago, on September 11, 2017, a student has reported that he or she was sexually assaulted during Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity's party on the fraternity's property around 11:30 PM Saturday night. The suspect was identified, and the IUPD is working on this case to further study what happened that night. Not only was this case bad for the fraternity's image, but it has also jeopardized both parties' future. Although the university has made the My Student Body course mandatory for all new incoming students, it was clear that the online course was not taken seriously by the perpetrator of this incident. My condolences go out to the party that was affected and I thank him or her for their bravery to come out and seek help.

This case marks the fourth sexual assault case that has happened since the start of the school year. As horrifying as these cases are, I wanted an explanation; what was their motivation. If these perpetrators, after taking the My Student Body course, should have realized that consent was important and what kind of punishment they would face if they are arrested. But why did they do it? Even if they thought the course was pretty stupid, like many people did, they should have at least learned some of the consequences of such offenses. Why would they do it?

There are many excuses and motives to why the perpetrators commit such crimes. According to the case study done by Jaydip Sarkar of Institute of Mental Health of Singapore, the perpetrators rationalize their actions by stating that the other party was triggering the perpetrator to display molesting behavior. Sarkar states that upon evaluation of the rape offenders, they used the five theories to rationalize their past behaviors, which Sarkar refers to them as cognitive distortion:

  1. Women are unknowable: Rapists believe that women are fundamentally different from me and, therefore, cannot be understood. Encounters with women will, therefore, be adversarial and women will be deceptive about what they really want. An example of such a CD might be ”…she is dressed in hot pants and her cleavage is visible. This means she wants sex and it is okay for me to have sex with her” when she says “no” she actually wants to turn me on further.” (Sarkar 2013)
  2. Women are sex objects: The CD is that women are constantly receptive to men's sexual needs but are not necessarily always conscious of this. Their body language is more important than what they say and women cannot be hurt by sexual activity unless they are physically harmed, that is being beaten or punched. An example of this might be ”…when she looks furtively at me when I make lewd comments, she is actually interested in me. So when she says “no” she is actually playing with me to turn me on further. (Sarkar 2013)
  3. Male sex drive is uncontrollable: Men's sexual energies can build up to dangerous levels if women do not provide them with sexual opportunities and once they are aroused it is difficult not to progress to orgasm. In India, with its culture-bound syndromes of “male sexual weakness” or dhat syndrome, one manifestation of such a CD might be “… I am going to become weak if my “dhat” (semen) flows out (premature ejaculation while molesting or sexually harassing a woman) and a woman does not offer herself to me.” (Sarkar 2013)
  4. Entitlement: Men's needs, which include sexual needs, should be met on demand by women. In a nation like India with major gender-based inequalities, such CDs of male entitlement, especially if the victim is from lower status for whatever reason (socioeconomics, caste, etc.) can lead to marital rape (recommended to be considered a crime in the Verma Commission report). (Sarkar 2013)
  5. Dangerous world: The world is a hostile and threatening place and people need to be on their guard, but there is no safe haven. An example is “…. I have been wronged in many ways, and so it is not wrong for me to do wrong to others." (Sarkar 2013)

Although this case study was primarily focusing on the population and culture of India, different studies have shown that similar triggers were found to be motivating perpetrators to engage in sexual assault.

"Tested 3 explanations of findings that sexually aggressive men perceive women's communications differently than less aggressive men. The 1st suggests that aggressors are incompetent in decoding women's negative emotions. The 2nd posits that they fail to make subtle distinctions between women's friendliness and seductiveness and between assertiveness and hostility. The 3rd explanation contends that sexual aggressors use a suspicious schema and therefore discount the veridicality of women's communications" (Malamuth 1994).

Both studies highlighted one crucial point: lack of clear communication made rape cases more prevalent. Such point is obvious because the way men and women communicate is quite different, as we experience every day. For example, the couples with communication problems end up splitting if they cannot overcome that obstacle. These couples and the sexual assault case victims have one thing in common: they are not clear about their message. Couples with communication problems often fight because the way one person delivers their message is not clearly understood by the other party, thus emotionally disturbing the other. Similarly, the victims of rape may have said no, but to the other party, whether they have the intention of sexually harassing or hurting the victim or not, they might convey it as a playful, thus engaging in the activity. Therefore, without worrying about killing the mood or the vibe, if one person doesn't want to engage in such activity and the other partner is not clearly understanding the message, the person that doesn't want to engage has to put their foot down and make a statement to stop the sexual activity. If that does not work, they have to seek help by leaving the place or calling for help.

The same principle applies to the party that wants to engage in sexual activity. If the other person is unsure or displays any behavior or action that signals that they don't want to engage in the activity, they have to stop. If the other partner says no or anything similar, stop to talk and make sure that the other partner's statement is what they actually mean or something that they are saying to be playful. If you are the one who wants to engage in such activity, you've got to make sure to understand the other person's actions and words. Asking for consent does not kill the vibe, it makes sure that both parties enjoy the experience. You have to realize that pursuing such activity without consent is like punching, hurting and killing that person you like or even love.

In many cases, perpetrators are someone that the victim knows from their workplace, school, and etc. Today's media and social standards are partially to blame. The media and social standards have made sexual activity something that happens instantly, like lightning, and something that is required to become a cool person, rather than a process that takes time and effort to show how they truly love the other.

It is time to end this. It is time to bring back our civility.

We have to understand, and help others understand, that it is not all about engaging in sexual activities, feeling pleasure and etc, like the movies and tv shows portray. It is about both parties enjoying the same activities. It doesn't have to be sexual. Both parties have to agree to do anything. That is the only way both parties have fun and want to repeat the process. Right?

Credits:

Malamuth, N. M., & Brown, L. M. (1994). Sexually aggressive men's perceptions of women's communications: Testing three explanations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(4), 699-712. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.67.4.699

Sarkar, J. (2013). Mental health assessment of rape offenders. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 55(3), 235–243. http://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5545.117137


Cover Image Credit: blickpixel

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