*This research was supported by a grant (R01 MH33013) from the National Center for the Prevention and Control of Rape, National Institute of Mental Health. The authors thank the Virginia Department of Corrections for their cooperation and assistance in this research. Correspondence to: Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Virginia Commonwealth University, 312 Shafer Court, Richmond, VA 23284.
This paper analyzes the excuses and justifications which a sample of convicted, incarcerated rapists used to explain themselves and their crimes. Excuses consisted of appeals to forces outside of their control which, the men argued, compelled them to rape. Justifications attempted to present their own behavior as situationally appropriate and, using a number of common rape stereotypes, to make their victims appear culpable. We demonstrate how these excuses and justifications allowed the majority of these rapists to view themselves as either non-rapists or “ex-rapists.” Finally, through their narrative accounts, we explore convicted rapists’ own perceptions of their crime.
Psychiatry has dominated the literature on rapists since “irresistible impulse” (Glueck, 1925:323) and “disease of the mind” (Glueck, 1925:243) were introduced as the causes of rape. Research has been based on small samples of men, frequently the clinicians’ own patient population. Not surprisingly, the medical model has predominated: Rape is viewed as an individualistic, idiosyncratic symptom of a disordered personality. That is, rape is assumed to be a psychopathologic problem and individual rapists are assumed to be “sick.” However, advocates of this model have been unable to isolate a typical or even predictable pattern of symptoms that are causally linked to rape. Additionally, research has demonstrated that fewer than 5 percent of rapists were psychotic at the time of their rape (Abel et al., 1980).
We view rape as behavior learned socially through interaction with others; convicted rapists have learned the attitudes and actions consistent with sexual aggression against women. Learning also includes the acquisition of culturally derived vocabularies of motive, which can be used to diminish responsibility and to negotiate a non-deviant identity.
Sociologists have long noted that people can, and do, commit acts they define as wrong and, having done so, engage various techniques to disavow deviance and present themselves normal. Through the concept of “vocabulary of motive,” Mills (1940:904) was among the first to shed light on this seemingly perplexing contradiction. Wrongdoers attempt to reinterpret their actions through the use of a linguistic device by which norm-breaking conduct is socially interpreted. That is, anticipating the negative consequences of their behavior, wrongdoers attempt to present the act in terms that are both culturally appropriate and acceptable. [Kurt Eichenwald. Jeffrey Goldberg. Jamil Smith.]
Following Mills, a number of sociologists have focused on the types of techniques employed by actors in problematic situations (Hall and Hewitt, 1970; Hewitt and Hall, 1973; Hewitt and Stokes, 1975; Sykes and Matza, 1957). Scott and Lyman (1968) describe excuses and justifications, linguistic “accounts” that explain and remove culpability for an untoward act after it has been committed. Excuses admit the act was bad or inappropriate but deny full responsibility, often through appeals to accident, or biological drive, or through scapegoating. In contrast, justifications accept responsibility for the act but deny that it was wrong-that is, they show in this situation the act was appropriate. Accounts are socially approved vocabularies that neutralize an act or its consequences and are always a manifestation of an underlying negotiation of identity.
Stokes and Hewitt (1976:837) use the term “aligning actions” to refer to those tactics and techniques used by actors when some feature of a situation is problematic. Stated simply, the concept refers to an actor’s attempt, through various means, to bring his or her conduct into alignment with culture. Culture in this sense is conceptualized as a “set of cognitive constraints--objects--to which people must relate as they form lines of conduct” (1976:837), and includes physical constraints, expectations and definitions of others, and personal biography. Carrying out aligning actions implies both awareness of those elements of normative culture that are applicable to the deviant act and, in addition, an actual effort to bring the act into line with this awareness. The result is that deviant behavior is legitimized.
This paper presents an analysis of interviews we conducted with a sample of 114 convicted, incarcerated rapists. We use the concept of accounts (Scott and Lyman, 1968) as a tool to organize and analyze the vocabularies of motive which this group of rapists used to explain themselves and their actions. An analysis of their accounts demonstrates how it was possible for 83 percent (n=114)  of these convicted rapists to view themselves as non-rapists.
When rapists’ accounts are examined, a typology emerges that consists of admitters and deniers. Admitters (n=47) acknowledged that they had forced sexual acts on their victims and defined the behavior as rape. In contrast, deniers  either eschewed sexual contact or all association with the victim (n=35),  or admitted to sexual acts but did not define their behavior as rape (n=32).
The remainder of this paper is divided into two sections. In the first, we discuss the accounts which the rapists used to justify their behavior. In the second, we discuss those accounts which attempted to excuse the rape. By and large, the deniers used justifications while the admitters used excuses. In some case, both groups relied on the same themes, stereotypes, and images: some admitters, like most deniers, claimed that women enjoyed being raped. Some deniers excused their behavior by referring to alcohol or drug use, although they did so quite differently than admitters. Through these narrative accounts, we explore convicted rapists’ own perceptions of their crimes.
METHODS AND VALIDITY
From September 1980 through September 1981, we interviewed 114 male convicted rapists who were incarcerated in seven maximum or medium security prisons in the Commonwealth of Virginia. All of the rapists had been convicted of the rape or attempted rape (n=8) of an adult woman, although a few had teenage victims as well. Men convicted of incest, statutory rape, or sodomy of a male were omitted from the sample.
Twelve percent of the rapists had been convicted of more than one rape or attempted rape, 39 percent also had convictions for burglary or robbery, 29 percent for abduction, 25 percent for sodomy, and 11 percent for first or second degree murder. Eighty-two percent had a previous criminal history but only 23 percent had records for previous sex offenses. Their sentences for rape and accompanying crimes ranged from 10 years to an accumulation by one man of seven life sentences plus 380 years; 43 percent of the rapists were serving from 10 to 30 years and 22 percent were serving at least one life term. Forty-six percent of the rapists were white and 54 percent were black. Their ages ranged from 18 to 60 years; 88 percent were between 18 and 35 years. Forty-two percent were either married or cohabiting at the time of their offense. Only 20 percent had a high school education or better, and 85 percent came from working-class backgrounds. Despite the popular belief that rape is due to a personality disorder, only 26 percent of these rapists had any history of emotional problems. When the rapists in this study were compared to a statistical profile of felons in all Virginia prisons, prepared by the Virginia Department of Corrections, rapists who volunteered for this research were disproportionately white, somewhat better educated, and younger than the average inmate.
All participants in this study were volunteers. We sent a letter to every inmate (n=3500) at each of the seven prisons. The letters introduced us as professors at a local university, described our research as a study of men’s attitudes toward sexual behavior and women, outlined our procedures for ensuring confidentiality, and solicited volunteers from all criminal categories. Using one follow-up letter, approximately 25 percent of all inmates, including rapists, indicated their willingness to be interviewed by mailing an information sheet to us at the university. From this pool of volunteers, we constructed a sample of rapists based on age, education, race, severity of current offenses, and previous criminal records. Obviously, the sample was not random and thus may not be representative of all rapists.
Each of the authors - one woman and one man - interviewed half of the rapists. Both authors were able to establish rapport and obtain information. However, the rapists volunteered more about their feelings and emotions to the female author and her interviews lasted longer.
All rapists were given an 89-page interview, which included a general background, psychological, criminal, and sexual history, attitude scales, and 30 pages of open-ended questions intended to explore their perceptions of their crimes, their victims, and their selves. Because a voice print is an absolute source of identification, we did not use tape recorders. All interviews were hand recorded. With some practice, we found it was possible to record much of the interview verbatim. While hand recording inevitably resulted in some lost data, it did have the advantage of eliciting more confidence and candor in the men.
Interviews with the rapists lasted from three hours to seven hours; the average was about four and-one-half hours. Most of the rapists were reluctant to end the interview. Once rapport had been established, the men wanted to talk, even though it sometimes meant, for example, missing a meal.
Because of the reputation prison inmates have for “conning,” validity was a special concern in our research. Although the purpose of the research was to obtain the men’s own perceptions of their acts, it was also necessary to establish the extent to which these perceptions deviated from other descriptions of their crimes. To establish validity, we used the same technique others have used in prison research: comparing factual information, including details of the crime, obtained in the interview with pre-sentence reports on file at the prisons (Athens, 1977; Luckenbill, 1977; Queen’s Bench Foundation, 1976). Pre-sentence reports, written by a court worker at the time of conviction, usually include general background information, a psychological evaluation, the offender’s version of the details of the crime, and the victim’s or police’s version of the details of the crime. Using these records allowed us to clarify two important issues: first, the amount of change that had occurred in rapists’ accounts from pre-sentencing to the time when we interviewed them; and, second, the amount of discrepancy between rapists’ accounts, as told to us, and the victims’ and/or police versions of the crime, contained in the pre-sentence reports.
The time between pre-sentence reports and our interviews (in effect, the amount of time rapists had spent in prison before we interviewed them) ranged from less than one year to 20 years; the average was three years. Yet despite this time lapse, there were no significant changes in the way rapists explained their crimes, with the exception of 18 men who had denied their crimes at their trials but admitted them to us. There were no cases of men who admitted their crime at their trial but denied them when talking to us.
However, there were major differences between the accounts we heard of the crimes from rapists and the police’s and victim’s versions. Admitters (including deniers turned admitters) told us essentially the same story as the police and victim versions. However, the admitters subtly understated the force they had used and, though they used words such as violent to describe their acts, they also omitted reference to the more brutal aspects of their crime.
In contrast, deniers’ interview accounts differed significantly from victim and police versions. According to the presentence reports, 11 of the 32 deniers had been acquainted with their victim. But an additional four deniers told us they had been acquainted with their victims. In the pre-sentence reports, police or victim versions of the crime described seven rapes in which the victim had been hitchhiking or was picked up in a bar; but deniers told us this was true of 20 victims. Weapons were present in 21 of the 32 rapes according to the pre-sentence reports, yet only nine men acknowledged the presence of a weapon and only two of the nine admitted they had used it to threaten or intimidate their victim. Finally, in at least seven of the rapes, the victim had been seriously injured, but only three men admitted injury. In two of the three cases, the victim had been murdered; in these cases the men denied the rape but not the murder. Indeed, deniers constructed accounts for us which, by implicating the victim, made their own conduct appear to have been more appropriate. They never used words such as violent, choosing instead to emphasize the sexual component of their behavior.
It should be noted that we investigated the possibility that deniers claimed their behavior was not criminal because, in contrast to admitters, their crimes resembled what research has found the public defines as a controversial rape, that is, victim an acquaintance, no injury or weapon, victim picked up hitchhiking or in a bar (Burt, 1980; Burt and Albin, 1981; Williams, 1979). However, as Table I indicates, the crimes committed by deniers were only slightly more likely to involve these elements.
This contrast between pre-sentence reports and interviews suggests several significant factors related to interview content validity. First, when asked to explain their behavior, our sample of convicted rapists (except deniers turned admitters) responded with accounts that had changed surprisingly little since their trials. Second, admitters’ interview accounts were basically the same as others’ versions of their crimes, while deniers systematically put more blame on the victims.
Deniers attempted to justify their behavior by presenting the victim in a light that made her appear culpable, regardless of their own actions. Five themes run through attempts to justify their rapes: (1) women as seductresses; (2) women mean “yes” when they say “no”; (3) most women eventually relax and enjoy it; (4) nice girls don’t get raped; and (5) guilty of a minor wrongdoing.
(1) Women as Seductresses
Men who rape need not search far for cultural language which supports the premise that women provoke or are responsible for rape. In addition to common cultural stereotypes, the fields of psychiatry and criminology (particularly the subfield of victimology) have traditionally provided justifications for rape, often by portraying raped women as the victims of their own seduction (Albin, 1977; Marolla and Scully, 1979). For example, Hollander (1924:130) argues:
Considering the amount of illicit intercourse, rape of women is very rare indeed. Flirtation and provocative conduct, i.e., tacit (if not actual) consent is generally the prelude to intercourse.
Since women are supposed to be coy about their sexual availability, refusal to comply with a man’s sexual demands lacks meaning and rape appears normal. The fact that violence and, often, a weapon are used to accomplish the rape is not considered. As an example, Abrahamsen (1960:61) writes:
The conscious or unconscious biological or psychological attraction between man and woman does not exist only on the part of the offender toward the woman but, also, on her part toward him, which in many instances may, to some extent, be the impetus for his sexual attack. Often a woman unconsciously wishes to be taken by force consider the theft of the bride in Peer Gynt.
Like Peer Gynt, the deniers we interviewed tried to demonstrate that their victims were willing and, in some cases, enthusiastic participants. In these accounts, the rape became more dependent upon the victim’s behavior than upon their own actions.
Thirty-one percent (n=10) of the deniers presented an extreme view of the victim. Not only willing, she was the aggressor, a seductress who lured them, unsuspecting, into sexual action. Typical was a denier convicted of his first rape and accompanying crimes of burglary, sodomy, and abduction. According to the pre-sentence reports, he had broken into the victim’s house and raped her at knife point. While he admitted to the breaking and entry, which he claimed was for altruistic purposes (“to pay for the prenatal care of a friend’s girlfriend”), he also argued that when the victim discovered him, he had tried to leave but she had asked him to stay. Telling him that she cheated on her husband, she had voluntarily removed her clothes and seduced him. She was, according to him, an exemplary sex partner who enjoyed it very much and asked for oral sex “Can I have it now?” he reported her as saying. He claimed they had spent hours in bed, after which the victim had told him he was good-looking and asked to see him again. “Who would believe I’d meet a fellow like this?” he reported her as saying.
In addition to this extreme group, 25 percent (n=8) of the deniers said the victim was willing and had made some sexual advances. An additional 9 percent (n=3) said the victim was willing to have sex for money or drugs. In two of these three cases, the victim had been either an acquaintance or picked up, which the rapists said led them to expect sex.
(2) Women Mean ‘Yes’ When They Say ‘No’
Thirty-four percent (n=11) of the deniers described their victim as unwilling, at least initially, indicating either that she had resisted or that she had said no. Despite this, and even though (according to pre-sentence reports) a weapon had been present in 64 percent (n=7) of these 11 cases, the rapists justified their behavior by arguing that either the victim had not resisted enough or that her “no” had really meant “yes.” For example, one denier who was serving time for a previous rape was subsequently convicted of attempting to rape a prison hospital nurse. He insisted he had actually completed the second rape, and said of his victim: “She semi-struggled but deep down inside I think she felt it was a fantasy come true.” The nurse, according to him, had asked a question about his conviction for rape, which he interpreted as teasing. “It was like she was saying, ‘rape me.’” Further, he stated that she had helped him along with oral sex and “from her actions, she was enjoying it.” In another case, a 34-year-old man convicted of abducting and raping a 15-year-old teenager at knife point as she walked on the beach, claimed it was a pickup. This rapist said women like to be overpowered before sex, but to dominate after it begins.
A man’s body is like a coke bottle, shake it up, put your thumb over the opening and feel the tension. When you take a woman out, woo her, then she says no, I’m a nice girl,” you have to use force. All men do this. She said “no” but it was a societal no, she wanted to be coaxed. All women say “no” when they mean, “yes” but it’s a societal “no,” so they won’t have to feel responsible later.
Claims that the victim didn’t resist or, if she did, didn’t resist enough, were also used by 24 percent (n=11) of admitters to explain why, during the incident, they believed the victim was willing and that they were not raping. These rapists didn’t redefine their acts until some time after the crime. For example, an admitter who used a bayonet to threaten his victim, an employee of the store he had been robbing, stated:
At the time, I didn’t think it was rape. I just asked her nicely and she didn’t resist. I never considered prison. I just felt like I had met a friend. It took about five years of reading and going to school to change my mind about whether it was rape. I became familiar with the subtlety of violence. But at the time, I believed that as long as I didn’t hurt anyone it wasn’t wrong. At the time, I didn’t think I would go to prison. I thought I would beat it.
Another typical case involved a gang rape in which the victim was abducted at knife point as she walked home about midnight. According to two of the rapists, both of whom were interviewed, at the time they had thought the victim had willingly accepted a ride from the third rapist (who was not interviewed). They claimed the victim didn’t resist and one reported her as saying she would do anything if they would take her home. In this rapist’s view, “She acted like she enjoyed it, but maybe she was just acting. She wasn’t crying, she was engaging in it.” He reported that she had been friendly to the rapist who abducted her and, claiming not to have a home phone, she gave him her office number-a tactic eventually used to catch the three. In retrospect, this young man had decided, “She was scared and just relaxed and enjoyed it to avoid getting hurt.” Note, however, that while he had redefined the act as rape, he continued to believe she enjoyed it.
Men who claimed to have been unaware that they were raping viewed sexual aggression as a man’s prerogative at the time of the rape. Thus they regarded their act as little more than a minor wrongdoing even though most possessed or used a weapon. As long as the victim survived without major physical injury, from their perspective, a rape had not taken place. Indeed, even U.S. courts have often taken the position that physical injury is a necessary ingredient for a rape conviction.
(3) Most Women Eventually Relax and Enjoy It
Many of the rapists expected us to accept the image, drawn from cultural stereotype, that once the rape began, the victim relaxed and enjoyed it.6 Indeed, 69 percent (n=22) of deniers justified their behavior by claiming not only that the victim was willing, but also that she enjoyed herself, in some cases to an immense degree. Several men suggested that they had fulfilled their victims’ dreams. Additionally, while most admitters used adjectives such as “dirty,” “humiliated,” and “disgusted,” to describe how they thought rape made women feel, 20 percent (n=9) believed that their victim enjoyed herself. For example, one denier had posed as a salesman to gain entry to his victim’s house. But he claimed he had had a previous sexual relationship with the victim, that she agreed to have sex for drugs, and that the opportunity to have sex with him produced “a glow, because she was really into oral stuff and fascinated by the idea of sex with a black man. She felt satisfied, fulfilled, wanted me to stay, but I didn’t want her.” In another case, a denier who had broken into his victim’s house but who insisted the victim was his lover and let him in voluntarily, declared “She felt good, kept kissing me and wanted me to stay the night. She felt proud after sex with me.” And another denier, who had hid in his victim’s closet and later attacked her while she slept, argued that while she was scared at first, “once we got into it, she was ok.” He continued to believe he hadn’t committed rape because “she enjoyed it and it was like she consented.”
(4) Nice Girls Don’t Get Raped
The belief that “nice girls don’t get raped” affects perception of fault. The victim’s reputation, as well as characteristics or behavior which violate normative sex role expectations, are perceived as contributing to the commission of the crime. For example, Nelson and Amir (1975) defined hitchhike rape as a victim-precipitated offense.
In our study, 69 percent (n=22) of deniers and 22 percent (n=10) of admitters referred to their victims’ sexual reputation, thereby evoking the stereotype that “nice girls don’t get raped.” They claimed that the victim was known to have been a prostitute, or a “loose” woman, or to have had a lot of affairs, or to have given birth to a child out of wedlock. For example, a denier who claimed he had picked up his victim while she was hitchhiking stated, “To be honest, we [his family] knew she was a damn whore and whether she screwed one or 50 guys didn’t matter.” According to pre-sentence reports this victim didn’t know her attacker and he abducted her at knife point from the street. In another case, a denier who claimed to have known his victim by reputation stated:
If you wanted drugs or a quick piece of ass, she would do it. In court, she said she was a virgin, but I could tell during sex [rape] that she was very experienced.
When other types of discrediting biographical information were added to these sexual slurs, a total of 78 percent (n=25) of the deniers used the victim’s reputation to substantiate their accounts. Most frequently, they referred to the victim’s emotional state or drug use. For example, one denier claimed his victim had been known to be loose and, additionally, had turned state’s evidence against her husband to put him in prison and save herself from a burglary conviction. Further, he asserted that she had met her current boyfriend, who was himself in and out of prison, in a drug rehabilitation center where they were both clients.
Evoking the stereotype that women provoke rape by the way they dress, a description of the victim as seductively attired appeared in the accounts of 22 percent (n=7) of deniers and 17 percent (n=8) of admitters. Typically, these descriptions were used to substantiate their claims about the victim’s reputation. Some men went to extremes to paint a tarnished picture of the Victim, describing her as dressed in tight black clothes and without a bra; in one case, the victim was portrayed as sexually provocative in dress and carriage. Not only did she wear short skirts, but she was observed to “spread her legs while getting out of cars.” Not all of the men attempted to assassinate their victim’s reputation with equal vengeance. Numerous times, they made subtle and offhand remarks like, “She was a waitress and you know how they are.”
The intent of these discrediting statements is clear. Deniers argued that the woman was a “legitimate” victim who got what she deserved. For example, one denier stated that all of his victims had been prostitutes; pre-sentence reports indicated they were not. Several times during his interview, he referred to them as “dirty sluts,” and argued “anything I did to them was justified.” Deniers also claimed their victim had wrongly accused them and was the type of woman who would perjure herself in court.
(5) Only a Minor Wrongdoing
The majority of deniers did not claim to be completely innocent and they also accepted some accountability for their actions. Only 16 percent (n=5) of deniers argued that they were totally free of blame. Instead, the majority of deniers pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. ‘Mat is, they obfuscated the rape by pleading guilty to a less serious, more acceptable charge. They accepted being over-sexed, accused of poor judgment or trickery, even some violence, or guilty of adultery or contributing to the delinquency of a minor, charges that are hardly the equivalent of rape.
Typical of this reasoning is a denier who met his victim in a bar when the bartender asked him if he would try to repair her stalled car. After attempting unsuccessfully, he claimed the victim drank with him and later accepted a ride. Out riding, he pulled into a deserted area “to see how my luck would go.” When the victim resisted his advances, he beat her and he stated:
I did something stupid. I pulled a knife on her and I hit her as hard as I would hit a man. But I shouldn’t be in prison for what I did. I shouldn’t have all this time [sentence] for going to bed with a broad.
This rapist continued to believe that while the knife was wrong, his sexual behavior was justified.
In another case, the denier claimed he picked up his under-age victim at a party and that she voluntarily went with him to a motel. According to pre-sentence reports, the victim had been abducted at knife point from a party. He explained:
After I paid for a motel, she would have to have sex but I wouldn’t use a weapon. I would have explained I spent money and, if she still said no, I would have forced her. If it had happened that way, it would have been rape to some people but not to my way of thinking. I’ve done that kind of thing before. I’m guilty of sex and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, but not rape.
In sum, deniers argued that, while their behavior may not have been completely proper, it should not have been considered rape. To accomplish this, they attempted to discredit and blame the victim while presenting their own actions as justified in the context. Not surprisingly, none of the deniers thou lit of himself as a rapist. A minority of the admitters attempted to lessen the impact of their crime by claiming the victim enjoyed being raped. But despite this similarity, the nature and tone of admitters and deniers accounts were essentially different.
In stark contrast to deniers, admitters regarded their behavior as morally wrong and beyond justification. They blamed themselves rather than the victim, although some continued to cling to the belief that the victim had contributed to the crime somewhat, for example, by not resisting enough.
Several of the admitters expressed the view that rape was an act of such moral outrage that it was unforgivable. Several admitters broke into tears at intervals during their interviews. A typical sentiment was,
I equate rape with someone throwing you up against a wall and tearing your liver and guts out of you.... Rape is worse than murder ... and I’m disgusting.
Another young admitter frequently referred to himself as repulsive and confided:
I’m in here for rape and in my own mind, it’s the most disgusting crime, sickening. When people see me and know, I get sick.
Admitters tried to explain their crime in a way that allowed them to retain a semblance of moral integrity. Thus, in contrast to deniers’ justifications, admitters used excuses to explain how they were compelled to rape. These excuses appealed to the existence of forces outside of the rapists’ control. Through the use of excuses, they attempted to demonstrate that either intent was absent or responsibility was diminished. This allowed them to admit rape while reducing the threat to their identity as a moral person. Excuses also permitted them to view their behavior as idiosyncratic rather than typical and, thus, to believe they were not “really” rapists. Three themes run through these accounts: (1) the use of alcohol and drugs; (2) emotional problems; and (3) nice guy image.
(1) The Use of Alcohol and Drugs
A number of studies have noted a high incidence of alcohol and drug consumption by convicted rapists prior to their crime (Groth, 1979; Queen’s Bench Foundation, 1976). However, more recent research has tentatively concluded that the connection between substance use and crime is not as direct as previously thought (Ladouceur, 1983). Another facet of alcohol and drug use mentioned in the literature is its utility in disavowing deviance. McCaghy (1968) found that child molesters used alcohol as a technique for neutralizing their deviant identity. Marolla and Scully (1979), in a review of psychiatric literature, demonstrated how alcohol consumption is applied differently as a vocabulary of motive. Rapists can use alcohol both as an excuse for their behavior and to discredit the victim and make her more responsible. We found the former common among admitters and the latter common among deniers.
Alcohol and/or drugs were mentioned in the accounts of 77 percent (n=30) of admitters and 84 percent (n=21) of deniers and both groups were equally likely to have acknowledged consuming a substance-admitters, 77 percent (n=30); deniers, 72 percent (n=18). However, admitters said they had been affected by the substance; if not the cause of their behavior, it was at least a contributing factor. For example, an admitter who estimated his consumption to have been eight beers and four “hits of acid” reported:
Straight, I don’t have the guts to rape. I could fight a man but not that. To say, “I’m going to do it to a woman,” knowing it will scare and hurt her, takes guts or you have to be sick.
Another admitter believed that his alcohol and drug use brought out what was already there but in such intensity it was uncontrollable. Feelings of being dominant, powerful, using someone for my own gratification, all rose to the surface.
In contrast, deniers’ justifications required that they not be substantially impaired. To say that they had been drunk or high would cast doubt on their ability to control themselves or to remember events as they actually happened. Consistent with this, when we asked if the alcohol and/or drugs had had an effect on their behavior, 69 percent (n=27) of admitters, but only 40 percent (n=10) of deniers, said they had been affected.
Even more interesting were references to the victim’s alcohol and/or drug use. Since admitters had already relieved themselves of responsibility through claims of being drunk or high, they had nothing to gain from the assertion that the victim had used or been affected by alcohol and/or drugs. On the other hand, it was very much in the interest of deniers to declare that their victim had been intoxicated or high: That fact lessened her credibility and made her more responsible for the act. Reflecting these observations, 72 percent (n=18) of deniers and 26 percent (n=10) of admitters maintained that alcohol or drugs had been consumed by the victim. Further, while 56 percent (n=14) of deniers declared she had been affected by this use, only 15 percent (n=6) of admitters made a similar claim. Typically, deniers argued that the alcohol and drugs had sexually aroused their victim or rendered her out of control. For example, one denier insisted that his victim had become hysterical from drugs, not from being raped, and it was because of the drugs that she had reported him to the police. In addition, 40 percent (n=10) of deniers argued that while the victim had been drunk or high, they themselves either hadn’t ingested or weren’t affected by alcohol and/or drugs. None of the admitters made this claim. In fact, in all of the 15 percent (n=6) of cases where an admitter said the victim was drunk or high, he also admitted to being similarly affected.
These data strongly suggest that whatever role alcohol and drugs play in sexual and other types of violent crime, rapists have learned the advantage to be gained from using alcohol and drugs as an account. Our sample was aware that their victim would be discredited and their own behavior excused or justified by referring to alcohol and/or drugs.
(2) Emotional Problems
Admitters frequently attributed their acts to emotional problems. Forty percent (n=19) of admitters said they believe an emotional problem had been at the root of their rape behavior, and 33 percent (n=15) specifically related the problem to an unhappy, unstable childhood or a marital-domestic situation. Still others claimed to have been in a general state of unease. For example, one admitter said that at the time of the rape he had been depressed, feeling he couldn’t do anything right, and that something had been missing from his life. But he also added, “being a rapist is not part of my personality.” Even admitters who could locate no source for an emotional problem evoked the popular image of rapists as the product of disordered personalities to argue they also must have problems:
The fact that I’m a rapist makes me different. Rapists aren’t all there. They have problems. It was wrong so there must be a reason why I did it. I must have a problem.
Our data do indicate that a precipitating event, involving an upsetting problem of everyday living, appeared in the accounts of 80 percent(n=38) of admitters and 25 percent (n 8) of deniers. Of those experiencing a precipitating event, including deniers, 76 percent (n=35) involved a wife or girlfriend. Over and over, these men described themselves as having been in a rage because of an incident involving a woman with whom they believed they were in love.
Frequently, the upsetting event was related to a rigid and unrealistic double standard for sexual conduct and virtue which they applied to “their” woman but which they didn’t expect from men, didn’t apply to themselves, and, obviously, didn’t honor in other women. To discover that the 4 6 pedestal” didn’t apply to their wife or girlfriend sent them into a fury. One especially articulate and typical admitter described his feeling as follows. After serving a short prison term for auto theft, he married his “childhood sweetheart” and secured a well-paying job. Between his job and the volunteer work he was doing with an ex-offender group, he was spending long hours away from home, a situation that had bothered his wife. In response to her request, he gave up his volunteer work, though it was clearly meaningful to him. Then, one day, he discovered his wife with her former boyfriend “and my life fell apart.” During the next several days, he said his anger had made him withdraw into himself and, after three days of drinking in a motel room, he abducted and raped a stranger. He stated:
My parents have been married for many years and I had high expectations about marriage. I put my wife on a pedestal. When I walked in on her, I felt like my life had been destroyed, it was such a shock. I was bitter and angry about the fact that I hadn’t done anything to my wife for cheating. I didn’t want to hurt her [victim], only to scare and degrade her.
It is clear that many admitters, and a minority of deniers, were under stress at the time of their rapes. However, their problems were ordinary the types of upsetting events that everyone experiences at some point in life. The overwhelming majority of the men were not clinically defined as mentally ill in court-ordered psychiatric examinations prior to their trials. Indeed, our sample is consistent with Abel et al. (1980) who found fewer than 5 percent of rapists were psychotic at the time of their offense.
As with alcohol and drug intoxication, a claim of emotional problems works differently depending upon whether the behavior in question is being justified or excused. It would have been counterproductive for deniers to have claimed to have had emotional problems at the time of the rape. Admitters used psychological explanations to portray themselves as having been temporarily “sick” at the time of the rape. Sick people are usually blamed for neither the cause of their illness nor for acts committed while in that state of diminished capacity. Thus, adopting the sick role removed responsibility by excusing the behavior as having been beyond the ability of the individual to control. Since the rapists were not “themselves,” the rape was idiosyncratic rather than typical behavior. Admitters asserted a non-deviant identity despite their self-proclaimed disgust with what they had done. Although admitters were willing to assume the sick role, they did not view their problem as a chronic condition, nor did they believe themselves to be insane or permanently impaired. Said one admitter, who believed that he needed psychological counseling: “I have a mental disorder, but I’m not crazy.” Instead, admitters viewed their “problem” as mild, transient, and curable. Indeed, part of the appeal of this excuse was that not only did it relieve responsibility, but, as with alcohol and drug addiction, it allowed the rapist to “recover.” Thus, at the time of their interviews, only 31 percent (n=14) of admitters indicated that “being a rapist” was part of their self-concept. Twenty eight percent (n=13) of admitters stated they had never thought of themselves as rapists, 8 percent (n=4) said they were unsure, and 33 percent (n=16) asserted they had been a rapist at one time but now were recovered. A multiple “ex-rapist,” who believed his “problem” was due to “something buried in my subconscious” that was triggered when his girlfriend broke up with him, expressed a typical opinion:
I was a rapist, but not now. I’ve grown, up, had to live with it. I’ve hit the bottom of the well and it can’t get worse. I feel born again to deal with my problems.
(3) Nice Guy Image
Admitters attempted to further neutralize their crime and negotiate a non-rapist identity by painting an image of themselves as a “nice guy.” Admitters projected the image of someone who had made a serious mistake but, in every other respect, was a decent person. Fifty-seven percent (n=27) expressed regret and sorrow for their victim indicating that they wished there were a way to apologize for or amend their behavior. For example, a participant in a rape-murder, who insisted his partner did the murder, confided, “I wish there was something I could do besides saying ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ I live with it 24 hours a day and, sometimes, I wake up crying in the middle of the night because of it.” [Martin Indyk. Hillary Clinton. Aaron David Miller.]
Schlenker and Darby (1981) explain the significance of apologies beyond the obvious expression of regret. An apology allows a person to admit guilt while at the same time seeking a pardon by signaling that the event should not be considered a fair representation of what the person is really like. An apology separates the bad self from the good self, and promises more acceptable behavior in the future. When apologizing, an individual is attempting to say: “I have repented and should be forgiven,” thus making it appear that no further rehabilitation is required.
The “nice guy” statements of the admitters reflected an attempt to communicate a message consistent with Schlenker’s and Darby’s analysis of apologies. It was an attempt to convey that rape was not a representation of their “true” self. For example,
It’s different from anything else I’ve ever done. I feel more guilt about this. It’s not consistent with me. When I talk about it, it’s like being assaulted myself I don’t know why I did it, but once I started, I got into it. Armed robbery was a way of life for me, but not rape. I feel like I wasn’t being myself.
Admitters also used “nice guy” statements to register their moral opposition to violence and threatening women, even though, in some cases, they had seriously injured their victims. Such was the case of an admitter convicted of a gang rape:
I’m against hurting women. She should have resisted. None of us were the type of person that would use force on a woman. I never positioned myself on a woman unless she showed an interest in me. They would play to me, not me to them. My weakness is to follow. I never would have stopped, let alone pick her up without the others. I never would have let anyone beat her. I never bothered women who didn’t want sex; never had a problem with sex or getting it. I loved her like all women.
Finally, a number of admitters attempted to improve their self-image by demonstrating that, while they had raped, it could have been worse if they had not been a “nice guy.” For example, one admitter professed to being especially gentle with his victim after she told him she had just had a baby. Others claimed to have given the victim’s money to get home or make a phone call, or to have made sure the victim’s children were not in the room. A multiple rapist, whose pattern was to break in and attack sleeping victims in their homes, stated:
I never beat any of my victims and I told them I wouldn’t hurt them if they cooperated. I’m a professional thief. But I never robbed the women I raped because I felt so bad about what I had already done to them.
Even a young man, who raped his five victims at gun point and then stabbed them to death, attempted to improve his image by stating:
Physically they enjoyed the sex [rape]. Once they got involved, it would be difficult to resist. I was always gentle and kind until I started to kill them. And the killing was always sudden, so they wouldn’t know it was coming.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
Convicted rapists’ accounts of their crimes include both excuses and justifications. Those who deny what they did was rape justify their actions; those who admit it was rape attempt to excuse it or themselves. This study does not address why some men admit while others deny, but future research might address this question. This paper does provide insight on how men who are sexually aggressive or violent construct reality, describing the different strategies of admitters and deniers.
Admitters expressed the belief that rape was morally reprehensible. But they explained themselves and their acts by appealing to forces beyond their control, forces which reduced their capacity to act rationally and thus compelled them to rape. Two types of excuses predominated: alcohol/drug intoxication and emotional problems. Admitters used these excuses to negotiate a moral identity for themselves by viewing rape as idiosyncratic rather than typical behavior. This allowed them to reconceptualize themselves as recovered or “ex-rapists,” someone who had made a serious mistake which did not represent their “true” self.
In contrast, deniers’ accounts indicate that these men raped because their value system provided no compelling reason not to do so. When sex is viewed as a male entitlement, rape is no longer seen as criminal. However, the deniers had been convicted of rape, and like the admitters, they attempted to negotiate an identity. Through justifications, they constructed a “controversial” rape and attempted to demonstrate how their behavior, even if not quite right, was appropriate in the situation. Their denials, drawn from common cultural rape stereotypes, took two forms, both of which ultimately denied the existence of a victim.
The first form of denial was buttressed by the cultural view of men as sexually masterful and women as coy but seductive. Injury was denied by portraying the victim as willing, even enthusiastic, or as politely resistant at first but eventually yielding to “relax and enjoy it.” In these accounts, force appeared merely as a seductive technique. Rape was disclaimed: Rather than harm the woman, the rapist had fulfilled her dreams. In the second form of denial, the victim was portrayed as the type of woman who “got what she deserved.” Through attacks on the victim’s sexual reputation and, to a lesser degree, her emotional state, deniers attempted to demonstrate that since the victim wasn’t a “nice girl,” they were not rapists. Consistent with both forms of denial was the self-interested use of alcohol and drugs as a justification. Thus, in contrast to admitters, who accentuated their own use as an excuse, deniers emphasized the victim’s consumption in an effort to both discredit her and make her appear more responsible for the rape. It is important to remember that deniers did not invent these justifications. Rather, they reflect a belief system which has historically victimized women by promulgating the myth that women both enjoy and are responsible for their own rape.
While admitters and deniers present an essentially contrasting view of men who rape, there were some shared characteristics. Justifications particularly, but also excuses, are buttressed by the cultural view of women as sexual commodities, dehumanized and devoid of autonomy and dignity. In this sense, the sexual objectification of women must be understood as an important factor contributing to an environment that trivializes, neutralizes, and, perhaps, facilitates rape.
Finally, we must comment on the consequences of allowing one perspective to dominate thought on a social problem. Rape, like any complex continuum of behavior, has multiple causes and is influenced by a number of social factors. Yet, dominated by psychiatry and the medical model, the underlying assumption that rapists are “sick” has pervaded research. Although methodologically unsound, conclusions have been based almost exclusively on small clinical populations of rapists-that extreme group of rapists who seek counseling in prison and are the most likely to exhibit psychopathology. From this small, atypical group of men, psychiatric findings have been generalized to all men who rape. Our research, however, based on volunteers from the entire prison population, indicates that some rapists, like deniers, viewed and understood their behavior from a popular cultural perspective. This strongly suggests that cultural perspectives, and not an idiosyncratic illness, motivated their behavior. Indeed, we can argue that the psychiatric perspective has contributed to the vocabulary of motive that rapists use to excuse and justify their behavior (Scully and Marolla, 1984).
Efforts to arrive at a general explanation for rape have been retarded by the narrow focus of the medical model and the preoccupation with clinical populations. ‘Me continued reduction of such complex behavior to a singular cause hinders, rather than enhances, our understanding of rape.
1. These numbers include pretest interviews. When the analysis involves either questions that were not asked in the pretest or that were changed, they are excluded and thus the number changes.
2. There is, of course, the possibility that some of these men really were innocent of rape. However, while the U.S. criminal justice system is not without flaw, we assume that it is highly unlikely that this many men could have been unjustly convicted of rape, especially since rape is a crime with traditionally low conviction rates. Instead, for purposes of this research, we assume that these men were guilty as charged and that their attempt to maintain an image of non-rapist springs from some psychologically or sociologically interpretable mechanism.
3. Because of their outright denial, interviews with this group of rapists did not contain the data being analyzed here and, consequently, they are not included in this paper.
4. It was sometimes difficult to determine the full extent of victim injury from the pre-sentence reports. Consequently, it is doubtful that this number accurately reflects the degree of injuries sustained by victims.
5. It is worth noting that a number of deniers specifically mentioned the victim’s alleged interest in oral sex. Since our interview questions about sexual history indicated that the rapists themselves found oral sex marginally acceptable, the frequent mention is probably another attempt to discredit the victim. However, since a tape recorder could not be used for the interviews and the importance of these claims didn’t emerge until the data was being coded and analyzed, it is possible that it was mentioned even more frequently but not recorded.
6. Research shows clearly that women do not enjoy rape. Holmstrom and Burgess (1978) asked 93 adult rape victims, “How did it feel sexually?” Not one said they enjoyed it. Further, the trauma of rape is so great that it disrupts sexual functioning (both frequency and satisfaction) for the overwhelming majority of victims, at least during the period immediately following the rape and, in fewer cases, for an extended period of time (Burgess and Holmstrom, 1979; Feldman-Summers et al., 1979). In addition, a number of studies have shown that rape victims experience adverse consequences prompting some to move, change jobs, or drop out of school (Burgess and Holmstrom, 1974; Kilpatrick et al., 1979; Ruch et al., 1980; Shore, 1979).
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