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Rape is a sex act performed without the consent of the person to whom it is being done.


Definition and history


The origin of the word is the Latin rapere, to seize or take by force. Originally, the word rape was akin to rapine, and referred to the more general violations— looting, destruction, and capture of citizens— inflicted upon a town or city during war.


In its original sense - dating back to antiquity - to rape a person meant to capture the person for the purpose of enslavement, and was common in ancient warfare. In this context, the willingness of the victim is irrelevant to categorisation of the act as "rape". The "Rape of the Sabine Women" was a "rape" in this context.

In Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock, the word "rape" is used in hyperbolically in a similar context, exaggerating a trivial violation against a person.

Though the sexual connotation is today dominant, the word "rape" is sometimes used in a non-sexual context. For example, environmental destruction is sometimes described as "raping the earth", and the Rape of Nanking describes a violation both against a town as well as the people. Another example is "the rape of the Silmarils" in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion

The term "rape" is also sometimes used for dysphemistic purposes, for example, "they raped his name in the media" or "I got raped on that test". When this is discernably or unambiguously a reference to sexual rape, e.g. "I got anally raped by that class", the reference is usually considered distasteful.

Common law

In the United Kingdom and the United States common law, "rape" traditionally described a man who forces a woman to have sexual intercourse with him. Forced sex by a husband against his wife was not considered rape, or even a crime, throughout most of history, since as part of the marriage both partners were deemed to have given implicit informed consent in advance to a lifelong sexual relationship. Modern criminal law eliminates this exception and includes acts of sexual violence other than vaginal intercourse, such as forced anal intercourse, which were traditionally barred under sodomy laws.

The term "rape" is sometimes considered "loaded" and many jurisdictions recognize, in its stead, broader categories of sexual assault or sexual battery.

United States Uniform Crime Reports

In the United States, the Uniform Crime Reports use the term "forcible rape" only to describe rapes perpetrated by men against women. States, however, often expand the definition. Male-on-male rapes are usually recognized as such, and (rare) female-perpetrated rapes.

English law

Under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which came into force in April 2004, rape in England and Wales was redefined from non-consensual vaginal or anal intercourse and is now defined as non-consensual penile penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth of another person. The changes also made rape punishable by a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Although a woman who forces a man to have sex cannot be prosecuted for rape under English law, she can be prosecuted for causing a person to engage in sexual activity without consent, a crime which also carries a maximum life sentence if it involves penetration of a mouth, anus or vagina. The statute also includes a new sexual crime called "assault by penetration" which also has the same punishment as rape and is committed when someone sexually penetrates the anus or vagina with a part of his or her body, or anything else, without that person's consent.

Aspects of rape

Violent rape

Violent rape is considered the worst sort of rape, and involves one person dominating the other, either by physical force or threat of harm, and forcing sexual intercourse. It may occur between strangers in a random assault, or the victim may already know the assailant.

Statutory rape

National and/or regional governments, citing an interest in protecting minors, consider people under a certain age to be unable to give informed consent. The age at which individuals are considered competent to give consent is the age of consent. Sexual contact with an individual below the age of consent is considered to be rape even if that person agrees to the sexual activity. The limits set by each state vary in accordance with local standards of morality, and range from 13 to 21. Sex which violates age-of-consent law but is neither violent nor physically coerced is described as statutory rape, usually a legally-recognized category.

Acquaintance ("date") rape

The term acquaintance (or date) rape refers to sexual activity or rape between people who are already acquainted, or who know each other socially - friends, acquaintances, people on a date, or even people in an existing romantic relationship, where it is alleged that consent for sexual activity was not given, or was given under duress. In most jurisdictions, there is no legal distinction between rape committed by a stranger, or by an acquaintance, friend or lover.

There is often more difficulty in securing conviction against an assailant who was know at the time. This is due to the "grey" nature of the situation (see "Grey" rape); the standard of proof required for non-consensual sexual activity is often harder to meet (or easier to deny), than when two strangers meet or there has been violence.

In general, some evidence suggests that rapists are far more likely to know their victims than not [1]. Other reports suggest that it can work both ways, not only acquaintance rape is more common than previously thought, but also situations of this kind can give rise to false allegations more often than had been expected (see False reporting).

"Grey rape"

Some cases of date rape are colloquially described as "grey rape" cases because, while the alleged victim expresses displeasure at the encounter, he or she cannot demonstrate nonconsent. The expression "grey rape" refers to the absence of information - there is nothing actually "grey" in the act itself: if the act was nonconsensual then it is considered rape, even if not actionably so. Contributing factors to "grey" rape include poor communication by either party, misleading or (deliberately) misread body language, or the feeling by one party of being unsure or unable to express what one wishes (which may be for many reasons).


Hypnotic agents such as flunitrazepam and GHB, known as "date rape drugs", have been used by rapists, particularly those who are also necrophiliacs, to render their victims unconscious before raping them. These drugs are extremely dangerous and may kill or render comatose the victim.

However, in one study of 44 'drug rape' cases, the only substance found in the victim's system was excessive alcohol (large amounts of alcohol have the same effects as "date rape" drugs, causing victims to lose consciousness and memory), and that the effects were probably more often due to binge drinking than deliberate spiking. Police said that the blood-alcohol level of most of the subjects was significantly higher than the women themselves expected, based on their assessment of the amount of drinks consumed, and commented:

"The results suggest that a fair proportion of drink spiking is just an urban myth ... It seems that a proportion of young women are getting incredibly intoxicated and using drink spiking as an excuse to explain behaviour they are not happy with." [2]

Male rape

Males can also be raped (more commonly by other males, but also by females). It is a myth that a man cannot be forced into sex, and the effects are as traumatic as for female victims. In many countries rape of males is legally classified under a different law or name, however the nature of the incident, and its consequences, are similar or identical. It is said that rape of males is taken less seriously due to the stereotypical views held about males in modern society.

Common myths - Male victims, like female victims, do not all "want sex", nor does the physiological effect of erection or orgasm mean that sex was "really wanted" or "liked". (A capable assailant can force these physical responses in the majority of males, given appropriate planning for their assault). Rape of a male by a male means a victim is violated, not that a victim is "gay". There is help.

This article discusses female rape, as this is the most common form, however most statements made in respect of female rape also hold just as true if the victim is male.

Custodial and prison rape

Research carried out by Cindy Struckman-Johnson and David Struckman-Johnson of the University of South Dakota has found that 22% - 25% of male prisoners in the United States have been the victim of sexual assault, 10% have been the victim of rape, and 6% have been the victim of gang rape. Women prisoners are especially vulnerable to assault by guards and other staff members, and the incidence in the United States has been denounced by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Rape and sexual torture

In circumstances where torture is being employed as a means of military or governmental policy, rape of both female and male detainees is a common element of that torture. It is used often as a means to "soften" detainees for interrogation or to intimidate them into compliance. In societies with strong social taboos on sexuality, sexual torture is commonly used to destroy the credibility and influence of politically dissident individuals.

Rape under such circumstances often has even more profoundly negative psychological effects than under circumstances in which sexual assaults usually happen.

Gang rape

Gang-rape (also known as "pack rape" or "gang bang") occurs when a group of people participates in the rape of a single victim. It is far more damaging for the victim, and in some jurisdictions is punished more severely than rape by one person. "Gang bang" is also a slang term for consensual group sex.

According to Roy Hazelwood, a profiler of sexual crimes, "Gang rape involves three or more offenders and you always have a leader and a reluctant participant. Those are extremely violent, and what you find is that they're playing for each other's approval. It gets into a pack mentality and can be horrendous."


There is considerable debate as to what constitutes proper and complete consent in a sexual relationship. How explicit consent should be, how frequently it needs to be established, and what constitutes diminished capacity (usually due to drugs or alcohol) are all subjects of some disagreement. These debates take place both on moral and ethical grounds, and as a legal issue, since rape can only be convicted as a crime with intent in many jurisdictions, and the erroneous belief of consent is a common defense.


A proportion of violent sexual assaults end with the death or serious injury of the victim. Other consequences can include pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.

The most common effect of rape on victims is psychological. In the past, survivors of rape and sexual assault were often diagnosed with Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS), then considered an psychological disorder. RTS is no longer considered a diagnosis, but rather a set of normal psychological and physiological reactions that a victim is likely to experience. These include, but are not limited to, feelings of guilt and shame, tension, anger, eating disturbances, and sometimes depression. The reactions are very similar to those that would be experienced by a survivor of any other traumatizing experience. The psychological trauma is cited as one of the reasons that rape is usually not reported to the authorities.

Because of the sexual nature of rape crimes, victims often suffer serious psychological trauma. This is especially true in societies with strong sexual customs and taboos. For example, a woman (and especially a virgin) who is raped may be deemed "damaged" by society: she may suffer isolation, may be prohibited to marry, be divorced if she was married or even killed. She may also feel "dirty" or as if the crime was her fault.

The process to denounce and eventually convict an offender is often hindered by similar psychological effects. Victims frequently feel shame when describing what has happened (especially if the victim is male or a female victim must report the incident to a male law officer). Also, the intimate questions and medical examinations required for prosecution can make the victim uncomfortable. In societies that do not accord equal civil rights to women and men, this process is even more difficult for female victims.

Medical emergency information

According to the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) in the USA, rape is a medical emergency. [3]. Medical and law enforcement professionals often strongly recommend that a victim call for help and report it. A victim seeking medical attention as soon as possible will allow prompt treatment for possibly life threatening injuries and disease, and preserve evidence. Many recommend that victims should not bathe or clean themselves before the exam; not only to prevent the loss of physical evidence but to also not delay medical attention.

Physical injuries such as gynecologic, rectal or internal hemorrhage may have resulted. Additionally, emergency contraception and preventative treatment against sexually transmitted diseases may be required, in particular prophylactic treatments to prevent HIV infection. In many locations, emergency medical technicians, emergency room nurses and doctors are trained in how to help rape victims. Some emergency rooms have rape kits which are used to collect evidence.

AIDS prophylaxis is possible within 48 hours but not always deemed appropriate given the extremely small chance of transmission in many cases (0.1 - 0.3%, or between 1 in 300 and 1 in 1000), the lack of certainty of any effective results (it reduces rather than removes the risk), and the often severe side effects of drugs required. This would usually be a clinical decision based upon circumstances. [4]

RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network)

Some groups also operate hotlines to offer advice and psychological first aid. In the US, one of the most prominent hotlines for rape victims is operated by the organizaton RAINN, or The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. RAINN is the only completely toll-free, completely-confidential 24-hour hotline in America. Their telephone number is 1-800-656-HOPE.


Rapist profiles

Dr. Nicholas Groth, author of Men Who Rape: The Psychology of the Offender, described four types of deliberate rapists, based on their motivations and behaviour patterns. Forensic scientists, criminologists, and law enforcement agencies often use these profiles to analyse rapists and prevent future rapes.

Since rapes are predominantly perpetrated by men, a male perpetrator is assumed in these profiles.

  • The power-assertive rapist: This is argued to be the most common type of rapist, accounting for about 40 percent of all reported rapes. An alpha male, he tends to value machismo and physical aggression. Often, he will commit date rape against victims he meets in places like bars, but he may pose as or be an authority figure. Power-assertive rapists do not intend to kill their victims, but to traumatize and humiliate them. They rarely target specific people for rape, and often have average to above-average intelligence.
  • The power-reassurance rapist: This type of individual is usually socially deficient and unable to develop interpersonal or romantic relationships. Usually not physically aggressive, he will select and stalk a victim before committing the crime, and this victim is usually a neighbor or work acquaintance. Power-reassurance rapists often force the victim to emulate foreplay and take "trophies" of the rape, and may record the event in a personal journal. Power-reassurance rapists usually have average intelligence, insecurities about their masculinity, and tend to be the least violent type of rapist. They also often fantasize about consensual sexual relationships with women, rather than violent conquest. Law enforcers describe this type of rapist, responsible for about 27.5% of reported rapes, as the "gentleman rapist".
  • Anger-retaliatory rapist: Responsible for about 28% of rapes, this type of individual is often a substance abuser with impulsive behaviour and anger-related pathologies. This type of rapist does not target specific victims, and often feels animosity toward women in general. The anger-retaliatory rapist's attacks are usually spontaneous and brutal, and, while he does not intend to kill the victim, may beat her to death if she resists. This rapist usually has below-average intelligence and is likely to leave more evidence than other types of rapists.
  • The anger-excitation rapist: This type of rapist, considered the most dangerous and elusive, accounts for about 4.5 percent of rapes. The anger-excitation rapist exhibits behaviour characteristic of antisocial personality disorder, and is therefore often perceived as charming and intelligent. This makes such rapists difficult to catch. The anger-excitation rapist may or may not choose victims selectively. Often sadistic, he will often torture or murder his victim to prevent her from identifying him, or for his own sexual gratification. Ted Bundy was an example of this type of rapist.

Warning signs

It is very difficult to predict who may or may not be a potential rapist. Considering rapists have many personality types and use many different methods, it might seem impossible. However, certain behavioural characteristics have been observed in some rapists. These should be used cautiously as "warning signs", since non-rapists and other innocent people may also show similar behaviours.

  • Extreme emotional insensitivity and egotism.
  • Habitual degradation and verbal devaluation of others.
  • Tries to tell others what they are feeling and thinking as though it is his decision and not theirs. "She said no, but she meant yes".
  • Consistently uses intimidation in language or threatening behaviour to get his way. Uses words like "bitch" and "whore" to describe women.
  • Excessive, chronic, or brooding anger.
  • Becomes obsessed with the object of his romantic affections long after his advances have been rejected.
  • Extreme mood swings.
  • Violent outbursts; lack of impulse control.
  • Aggressive and violent.
  • Under the influence of alcohol or drugs, cruel behaviour is seen.

Rape and punishment

Punishment of assailant

Most societies consider rape a grave offense, and punish it accordingly. The United States punishes it with imprisonment, but until the 20th century would apply the death penalty for the crime, as is still done in many societies. Castration is sometimes a punishment for rape and, controversially, some U.S. jurisdictions allow shorter sentences for sex criminals who agree to voluntary "chemical castration."

Racist communities in the Southern states of the U.S. often used phony rape charges to justify vigilante groups (known as "lynch mobs") to seize and kill African American men without due process or trial. The assailants were rarely prosecuted or punished for these mob killings. In some communities, any sexual interaction between an African-American man and a Caucasian woman was characterized as rape, which resulted in a large number of (presumably) innocent men being unjustly murdered. Today, some Americans support reinstating the death penalty for rape, but due to this past use in racial pogroms, many people are against this proposal.

Prison sentences for rape are not uniformly long or severe. A study by a statistician from the U.S. Department of Justice, involving about 80 percent of the prison population, found that based on prison releases in 1992, the average sentence for convicted rapists was 9.8 years, while the actual time served was 5.4 years. This follows the typical pattern for violent crimes in the US, where those convicted typically serve no more than half of their sentence. [5] In Australia in 2002-2003, more than 1 in 10 convicted rapists served a wholly suspended sentence and the average total effective sentence for rape was seven years. [6]

Punishment of victims

While this practice is condemned as barbaric by modern societies, some societies punish the victims of rape as well as the perpetrators. According to such cultures, being raped dishonors the victim and, in some cases, the victim's family. In Middle Eastern societies, rape victims may be killed in "honor killings" to "restore" a family's name.

In the Shakespeare drama Titus Andronicus, the titular protagonist kills his raped, maimed daughter in what he believes to be a mercy killing.



According to the 1999 United States National Crime Victimization Survey only 39% of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to law enforcement officials. For male rape, less than 10% are believed to be reported.

The most common reasons given by victims for not reporting rapes are the belief that it is a private or personal matter and that they fear reprisal from the assailant. Fisher "... found that many women do not characterize their sexual victimizations as a crime for a number of reasons (such as embarrassment, not clearly understanding the legal definition of rape, or not wanting to define someone they know who victimized them as a rapist) or because they blame themselves for their sexual assault."

Rape-related advocacy groups have suggested several tactics to increase reporting of sexual assaults, most aimed at lessening the psychological trauma often suffered by rape victims following their assault. Many police departments now assign female police officers to deal with rape cases. Advocacy groups also argue for preservation of the victim's privacy during the legal process; it is standard practice among mainstream American news media outlets to not divulge the names of alleged rape victims in news reports.

Overreporting and false reporting

A 1997 article in the Columbia Journalism Review deals with the debate surrounding false reporting, and notes that wildly different figures, from 2% to 85% of all rape reports, are widely presented. "...One explanation for such a wide range in the statistics might simply be that they come from different studies of different populations...But there's also a strong political tilt to the debate. A low number would undercut a belief about rape as old as the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife: that some women, out of shame or vengeance...claim that their consensual encounters or rebuffed advances were rapes. If the number is high, on the other hand, advocates for women who have been raped worry it may also taint the credibility of the genuine victims of sexual assault." [7]

In 1994, Dr. Eugene J. Kanin of Purdue University investigated the incidences in one small metropolitan community of false rape allegations made to the police between 1978 and 1987. The falseness of the allegations was not decided by the police, or by Dr. Kanin; they were "... declared false only because the complainant admitted they are false." The number of false rape allegations in the studied period was 45; this was 41% of the 109 total complaints filed in this period. In Dr. Kanin's research, the complainants who made false allegations did so (by their own statements during recantation) for three major reasons: providing an alibi, a means of gaining revenge, and/or a platform for seeking attention/sympathy. Dr. Kanin's small study is widely reported and quoted.

Michelle J. Anderson of Villanova University School of Law, in her work "The Legacy of the Prompt Complaint Requirement, Corroboration Requirement, and Cautionary Instructions on Campus Sexual Assault", states: "As a scientific matter, the frequency of false rape complaints to police or other legal authorities remains unknown." [8]

In the 1996 FBI UCR, it is stated that 8% of reports of forcible rape were determined to be unfounded upon investigation. [9]

Victim blaming

"Victim blaming" is holding the victim of a crime to be in whole or in part responsible for what has happened to them. For example a motorist who leaves his/her car unlocked with the keys in the ignition may be held partly responsible if the car is stolen. In the context of rape, this concept refers to popular attitudes that certain victim behaviours (such as flirting or wearing sexually provocative clothing) may encourage rape, analogous to leaving ones car with the keys in the ignition or provoking an assault by "winding up" the assailant. In extreme cases victims are said to have "asked for it" simply by not behaving demurely. In most Western countries the defence of provocation is not accepted in mitigation of rape.

A global survey of attitudes toward sexual violence by the Global Forum for Health Research [10] shows that victim-blaming concepts are least partially accepted in many countries.

Many commentators emphasise that victim blaming encourages under reporting. However, Camile Paglia and some sociobiologists have argued that victim blaming should not be totally dismissed in all cases, since some sociological models suggest it may be genetically inbuilt for a certain proportion of men and women to act in ways which would tend to raise the chances of rape occurring, and that this may be a biological feature of the species. This is a very controversial view.

In some countries victim blaming is more common, and women who have been raped are sometimes deemed to have behaved improperly. Often these are countries where there is a significant social divide between the freedoms and status afforded to men and women.

It has been proposed that one cause of victim blaming is the so-called Just World" Hypothesis. People who believe the world has to be fair, may find it hard or impossible to accept a situation in which a person is hurt unfairly and badly for no cause or reason. So this leads to a sense that somehow, the victim must have surely done 'something' to deserve their fate.

In terms of responsibility, a more mainstream view is that everybody has the theoretical right to feel safe at all times, but that prevention and minimising the risk of being in a dangerous situation are largely up to the individual. The question of a victim on this basis would never be whether or not they 'deserved' to be raped, because nobody "deserves" to be the victim of crime. But certain common and safe practices can be established which reduce risk to a lower level, and this is as true for rape as for any other crime.

Sexual fantasy

Many people assume that people aroused by rape fantasies must be more likely than others to commit the actual act, or that victims with rape fantasies actually want to become victims of sexual assault. This does not correspond with observed scientific evidence, however; while rapists usually fantasize about rape, so do normal psychologically healthy people.

In fact, an inability to use sexual fantasies for gratification is often regarded by law enforcement and other professionals as a more alarming warning sign than the presence of sexual fantasies of rape or sadism. Millions of normal people fantasize about rape, or being raped without wanting it to happen in reality.

Sociobiological analysis of rape

Some animals appear to show behaviour which resembles rape in humans, in particular combining sexual intercourse with violent assault, such as observed in ducks and geese.

It is difficult to determine to what extent the idea of rape can be extended to intercourse in other animal species, as the defining attribute of rape in humans is the lack of informed consent, which is difficult to determine in other animals.

However, it is clear that sometimes an animal is sexually approached by another animal and penetrated while it is clear that it does not want it, e.g. it tries to run away.

Some sociobiologists argue that our ability to understand rape and thereby prevent and treat it is severely compromised because its basis in human evolution has been ignored. They argue that rape as a reproductive strategy is encountered in many instances in the animal kingdom, including among the great apes and presumably among early humans. Some studies indicate it is an attempt by the male of the species to increase his reproductive fitness when he is lacking in ability to persuade the female by non-violent means (Thornhill & Thornhill, 1983). Such sociobiological theories regarding rape as adaptive are highly controversial, and not accepted by all mainstream scientists.


The Supreme Court of California had this to say on a case involving a woman who was raped by a police officer:

"Along with other forms of sexual assault, it belongs to that class of indignities against the person that cannot ever be fully righted, and that diminishes all humanity."
Mary M. v. City of Los Angeles 54 Cal.3d 202,222 (1991) [285 Cal.Rptr. 99; 814 P.2d 1341]

One Supreme Court of the United States opinion included:

"By its very nature, rape displays a 'total contempt for the personal integrity and autonomy' of the victim; '[s]hort of homicide, [it is] the "ultimate violation of self".'
Coker v. Georgia 433 U.S. 584, 597, 603 (1977) [53 L.Ed.2d 982, 996, 97 S.Ct. 2861] (plur. opn. of White, J.; conc. and dis. opn. of Powell, J.).)

Related articles

Books and publications

Academic and reference books

  • Smith, M. D. (2004). Encyclopedia of Rape. USA: Greenwood Press.
  • Macdonals, John (1993). World Book Encyclopedia. United States of America: World Book Inc.
  • Kahn, Ada. (1992). The A- Z of women's sexuality : a concise encyclopedia. Alameda, Calif.: Hunter House.
  • Kanin, Eugene J. (1994). False Rape Allegations. Archives of Sexual Behavior.
  • Gowaty, P.A. and N. Buschhaus. (1997). Functions of aggressive and forced copulations in birds: female resistance and the CODE hypothesis. American Zoologist (in press).
  • Thornhill, Randy and Palmer, Craig T. A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion. MIT Press, 2001.


  • Gavin de Becker - The Gift of Fear ISBN 0440226198, (recognising and handling dangerous people and situations)

External links

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