The fundamental truth about rape, as everyone knows, is that it has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with power and domination -- rapists are compelled not by lust but by hatred and anger.
But this widely accepted argument is wrong, say two researchers at the State University of New York at Albany. With their forthcoming book Aggression and Coercive Actions: A Social-Interactionist Perspective, sociologist James Tedeschi and psychologist Richard Felson have stoked controversy in academic and feminist circles. The chapter on sexual coercion begins by illustrating their premise that "the most prevalent motivation for the use of sexual coercion is to produce sexual compliance and gain sexual satisfaction."
Felson -- who prefers the term "sexual coercion," as rape is only one type (and perhaps not the most prevalent) of coercive sex -- says their conclusion is just one of several surprising findings following years of a scientific quest he describes as "either very brave or very foolish." Rape research has felled others who attempted to challenge the prevailing wisdom. "They just give up," Felson says. "The heat they get is too much." Graduate students won't take Felson's class. "There are others who, when they read my research, come in furious, saying they can't and won't continue." But, he adds cheerfully, "I've been doing this kind of research for 15 years. I knew I'd catch flack, but I figured I've already destroyed my reputation, so what the hell?"
But for Felson and coauthor Tedeschi, the preeminent issue is one of scientific accountability. "We can think of no other assertion in the social sciences," they write, "that has achieved such wide acceptance based on so little evidence."
Felson and Tedeschi pioneered the "social-interactionist perspective," which underlies their research on all types of aggression. This perspective is itself controversial, because it analyzes how an aggressor and a victim interact to create a violent situation. "People get furious over this, because they think it means we're blaming the victim," Felson says. "But the point I keep hammering home is that cause is not the same as blame. There is a reason why you are picked as a target, but that doesn't mean it was your fault the aggressor attacked you."
According to Felson, "the rapist doesn't just want sex; he wants sex with that particular person." His research, which spans anthropological, sociological and psychological aspects of the crime, finds that men who become rapists have very high "sexual aspirations." Many will use a variety of techniques to gain sexual satisfaction: seduction, promises, persuasion, alcohol and, when all else fails, coercion.
Such men, he points out, may desire sex because they perceive a rise in social standing gained from having sex with many attractive partners. The situation is intensified, Felson notes, by the fact that the supply of attractive, sexually available women is far lower than the demand, so men who "use coercion have an almost unlimited choice of sexual partners."
Felson also analyzes male rape in prison, noting that prisons tend to be filled with men who use coercion to get what they want -- from money to drugs to cooperation in crimes. However, he cites a 1980 book by Daniel Lockwood, Prison Sexual Violence, which reported that even in prison, sexual coercion generally is used as a last resort. Furthermore, surveys show that men who are raped in prison usually are young, slender and attractive -- as are most female rape victims.
"The relationship between attractiveness and the likelihood of being the victim of sexual coercion has never been directly examined," Felson claims, probably because of resistance to the idea that rape is sexually driven. But according to the latest National Crime Victimization Survey (published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics), almost all female rape victims are younger than 35, and numerous studies document a correlation between youthfulness and attractiveness. …