Meet The Predators, which featured a 2002 study co-authored by psychology professor David Lisak, has attracted a lot of attention and links in the last few weeks. To all those who have picked this up and discussed his findings, thank you. I think what he was able to show, and what McWhorter’s Navy study replicated, is very, very important stuff and the more exposure it gets the more difference it can make.
Lisak is not new to rape and interpersonal violence research, however. It is a major topic of his career-long body of work. Melissa McEwen at Shakesville (who linked Meet the Predators) has posted about Lisak’s work before, and I’ve been doing some more reading.
The last time I discussed Lisak’s work, I focused on the proportion of the population are the serial predators: a limited group within the population who are recidivist rapists, and who account for the overwhelming majority of rapes, and for a large portion of the child abuse and molestation and the intimate partner violence.
Cara (my fellow Yes Means Yes blog and book contributor), over at her regular blog The Curvature, noted important qualifications to Lisak’s 2002 results, which is that they only capture the undetected rapists who fall within the four questions of his survey. I agree with that, so this is an undercount and a limited set. There are methodological limitations that are going to fail to capture some rapists in any survey, and so the 2002 study should be read with its limitations in mind.
That said, Lisak has other important work out there. He has analyzed who these men are in some depth. Like the population figures, I suspect his analysis will come as confirmation rather than new information to many of our readers here.
[Trigger warning — discussion of rape including modus operandi]
The analysis I want to focus on is this paper, Understanding The Predatory Nature Of Sexual Violence. It is on the web in several locations, though I have not seen a journal cite for it anywhere. A review of the references shows, however, that it is based on peer-reviewed literature, including Lisak’s own prior work.
Lisak says that the research on the psychological characteristics of incarcerated rapists also applies to the undetected:
Many of the motivational factors that were identified in incarcerated rapists have been shown to apply equally to undetected rapists. When compared to men who do not rape, these undetected rapists are measurably more angry at women, more motivated by the need to dominate and control women, more impulsive and disinhibited in their behavior, more hyper-masculine in their beliefs and attitudes, less empathic and more antisocial.
Guys with rigid views of gender roles and an axe to grind against women in general are overrepresented among rapists. That won’t come as a surprise to most readers here, I expect. But it is important confirmation. Guys who seem to hate women … do. If they sound like they don’t like or respect women and see women as impediments to be overcome … they’re telling the truth. That’s what they think, and they will abuse if they think they can get away with it.
Lisak doesn’t actually say this, but having read some of his work in depth now, I really think the major difference between the incarcerated and the non-incarcerated rapists are that the former cannot or do not confine themselves to tactics that are low-risk to them. The undetected rapists overwhelmingly use minimal or no force, rely mostly on alcohol and rape their acquaintances. They create situations where the culture will protect them by making excuses for them and questioning or denying their victims. Incarcerated rapists, I think, are just the ones who use the tactics that society is more willing to recognize as rape and less willing to make excuses for.
It is the modus operandi that keeps the undetected rapist undetected: they correctly identify a methodology that will put them under the protection of the rape culture. They are unlikely to be convicted because the story doesn’t fit the script. In fact, they are unlikely to be arrested because the story doesn’t lead to easy convictions. In fact, they are unlikely to be reported because rape survivors know that the tactics these men use leave them with little real recourse. In fact, these rapists may put the victim in a position where she is so intoxicated or terrified or just isolated and defeated that she never even says “no,” and because the culture overwhelmingly refuses to call these tactics what they are, even the victims themselves may be unable to call it rape for a very long time afterward, if ever.
Lisak describes the characteristics of their methodology:
In the course of 20 years of interviewing these undetected rapists, in both research and forensic settings, it has been possible for me to distill some of the common characteristics of the modus operandi of these sex offenders. These undetected rapists:
• are extremely adept at identifying “likely” victims, and testing prospective victims’ boundaries;
• plan and premeditate their attacks, using sophisticated strategies to groom their victims for attack, and to isolate them physically;
• use “instrumental” not gratuitous violence; they exhibit strong impulse
control and use only as much violence as is needed to terrify and coerce their victims into submission;
• use psychological weapons – power, control, manipulation, and threats – backed up by physical force, and almost never resort to weapons such as knives or guns;
• use alcohol deliberately to render victims more vulnerable to attack, or completely unconscious.
This isn’t quite a user’s guide to finding the rapists at a party, but it is an identifiable set of characteristics that have some implications and allow some educated guesses.
As Lisak says:
This picture conflicts sharply with the widely-held view that rapes committed on university campuses are typically the result of a basically “decent” young man who, were it not for too much alcohol and too little communication, would never do such a thing. While some campus rapes do fit this more benign view, the evidence points to a far less benign reality, in which the vast majority of rapes are committed by serial, violent predators.
My first takeaway from this is that it may help some survivors to know this. I’ve seen and heard so many women beat themselves up about what they could or should have done — usually with no end of “help” in the self-flagellation. It might help some survivors of these kinds of rapes to know that they were not stupid and they didn’t make a mistake; that they were in overwhelming probability targeted and harmed deliberately by someone who has planned and maybe practiced a routine of testing, intoxication and isolation. Survivors shouldn’t feel like suckers.
My second takeaway is the implications for prevention. In a culture where women bear all the responsibility for preventing rape, it is difficult to even talk about rape prevention. I like this approach, which puts the responsibility where it should be — on the rapist. It’s clever. But as Lisak says (see below), rapists are not doing it by accident, and educating them is not going to make them stop. Telling women to walk to their cars with keys in their hands and all the other stranger rape advice deals with just the one kind of rape that is a small sliver of the total, and that has the greatest probablility of being reported and successfully prosecuted — so even if those tips were all very useful in that context, it ignores the much more common context: the serial predators that go after women they know, and use alcohol as their main tool.
Finally, while it’s easy for me as a teetotaler to say that we all shouldn’t drink, telling women not to use the social drug that this society overwhelmingly incorporates into its rituals is basically returning to a Victorian separate-spheres notion. That’s second-class citizenship, and using the threat of violence to enforce second-class citizenship is terrorism. We cannot negotiate with terrorists.
But simply saying, “there’s nothing women can do” is defeatist. I’ve said many times in response to the usual “I’m not blaming her but she …” trolling that women are already doing everything they know how to keep from getting raped, short of giving up living their lives. And that’s true. However, Lisak’s research may provide more know-how in identifying and escaping rapists.
Avoiding a rapist does more than just cause him to pick another target. If rapists can’t rape at minimal risk, they have a choice between either raping fewer victims, or using tactics that put them at more risk of being reported and punished. Either is a move in the right direction.
Lisak’s work also provides messages not just for women to identify when these tactics are directed at them, but also for bystanders, as he himself says:
Prevention efforts geared toward persuading men not to rape are very unlikely to be effective. Lessons can be drawn from many decades of experience in sex offender treatment, which have demonstrated that it is extremely difficult to change the behavior of a serial predator even when you incarcerate him and subject him to an intensive, multi-year program. Rather than focusing prevention efforts on the rapists, it would seem far more effective to focus those efforts on the far more numerous bystanders – men and women who are part of the social and cultural milieu in which rapes are spawned and who can be mobilized to identify perpetrators and intervene in high-risk situations.
In other words, look for the tactics and interrupt the routine. Spot the rapist deliberately getting the woman drunk or angling to get the drunk woman alone in an unfamiliar place, and intervene. A guy offering a drunk woman a ride home may just be offering a ride, but if he is insistent when someone else offers a ride, this ought to raise a flag.
In the last post on Lisak’s work I said that men need to listen, and to change the culture to take away the rapists’ social license to operate. I wrote there about the language of supportive attitudes that tell the rapist he will be coddled and trusted and his victim will be rejected, interrogated and disbelieved. But there’s more, and more concrete, work to be done. Bystanders can look for the pattern and interfere with the pattern. If a guy is antagonistic towards women and places a lot of emphasis on sex as scoring or conquest, and he’s violating a woman’s boundaries and trying to end up with her drunk and alone, we don’t have to be sure what he’s doing to be concerned, and to start trying to give her exit ramps from his predatory slide.
Get in the middle, get in the way, and block the stalk. It’s concrete and it’s doable. It doesn’t take a hero. It takes a human.
As usual on this blog, rape-supportive commenters will last about as long as a snowball in hell.