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Most people picture a rapist as looking and acting a certain way, and if questioned would give some version of the following description:

"He's mean looking, and he carries some type of weapon. He stalks his victims like a predator, attacking women at night in parks and dark streets, or breaking into their homes. He leaves them physically brutalized and emotionally scarred."

This is a compelling description of what most people fear. It is also an accurate description of the stereotypical rapist. But in most cases it is absolutely false. Although the actions of all rapists are hideous, they do not necessarily "look mean" any more than Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dohmer did. As discussed in the module on dynamics, most rapists do not carry or use a weapon. Most rapists do not stalk darkened streets and parks, nor do they break into homes. And most rapists leave few if any physical marks on their victims. The only true statement in the description above is that the rapist's victim is indeed left emotionally scarred. The psychological trauma of rape can last a lifetime.


The truth about the rapist is that he can and does look like "any man." He is a doctor, a lawyer, a corporate executive, a college athlete, the "good" Samaritan who offers help to the stranded woman, the handsome guy she meets at a friend's house, and the former boyfriend who still has a key to the victim's apartment.

So, why do these false stereotypes of the rapist still exist?

If the stereotype of a rapist is so far from the truth, why does it continue to be held so widely and so persistently in our society?

  • One reason is that the stereotype of a rapist is actually comforting to many people. If someone thinks that they can spot a rapist by how he looks, and they can avoid him by evading darkened streets and double-locking their doors, then they can give themselves a feeling of safety, even if it is only the illusion of safety.

  • Another reason for the persistence of false stereotypes is that they are fed by high profile cases of serial rapists, cases that terrorize the public and seem to infatuate the media and the public.

These stereotypes have also been perpetuated by decades of research on the incarcerated/detected rapist. For years, social scientists studied detected rapists and published their findings. Many of these rapists were indeed very violent, many used weapons, and many attacked strangers. What was overlooked was the fact that these very characteristics - the use of violence and weapons - were precisely the factors that put these rapists behind bars. The sex offenders who were committing the vast majority of rapes were more clever about their choice of victim (they attacked "acquaintances") and more controlled in their aggression. As a result, these rapists were rarely reported by their victims; if reported, they were rarely prosecuted; if prosecuted, they were rarely convicted. As a result, they were almost never studied by social scientists.

Search on the Undetected Sex Offender

It is only within the past 20 years that the truth about rape and the sex offender has begun to emerge. Studies of victims reveal that barely 10% ever report the crime, and that 80% are raped by men they know to some degree, including men they met at a party, men who picked them up in a bar, men who escorted them home at night, and men who they used to date121. These studies prompted researchers to begin studying "undetected" rapists; criminals who were flying below the radar screens of the criminal justice system.

By using new research methods, gradually more and more has been learned about these offenders, the men who are and always have been responsible for the vast majority of sexual assault crimes. The following summary of research findings paints a far more accurate picture of the "typical" sex offender than the one portrayed by the stereotypes described above.


Sex offenders who attack women they know are sometimes tagged with the misnomer, "date rapist." Often, there is the implication that the man and the woman went out on a date, started having sex, and then "somehow things got out of hand." Actually, these sex offenders typically premeditate the sexual assault with great detail and cunning.

These rapists typically manipulate their victims into positions of vulnerability by getting them alone in a room, a car, or in a secluded area. They ply their victims with alcohol and, increasingly, use so-called "date rape drugs" to disable them entirely.

Perhaps the clearest indicator of the premeditation behind these assaults is the fact that they tend to be repeated. Recent research indicates that, just like incarcerated rapists, undetected rapists are repeat offenders who use violence in many domains.

  • One sample of 122 undetected rapists admitted to 386 rapes, 20 other acts of sexual assault, and 264 acts of battery against intimate partners122.

  • These same 122 rapists also admitted to 365 acts of sexual abuse against children and 91 acts of physical abuse against children123.

Instrumental Violence

A key characteristic of the "undetected" sex offender is that they tend to use only as much violence as is necessary to intimidate their victim and ensure her submission. They use verbal threats, and often in a more sophisticated manner than simply threatening physical harm. For example, they may tell their victims, "you're drunk, no one will believe you," or "if you tell anyone, it's your reputation that will suffer." These offenders will escalate their level of threat and violence as needed, typically using their body weight and arms to pin down their victims and terrify them into submission.

Use of Alcohol

Alcohol is an extremely common ingredient in sexual assaults, often consumed by both the victim and the perpetrator. Many rapists use alcohol to disinhibit themselves and also to render their victim more vulnerable. Many rapes occur when the victim has been rendered either semi-conscious or entirely unconscious from the effects of alcohol.

Sexual Behavior

Undetected rapists have consistently been shown to be more sexually active than other men. Apart from their sexually aggressive behavior, they engage in consensual and coercive sex far more often than is typical for men of their age group. Their sexual activity tends to be an important component of their identities. Thus, rather than being a product of greater sex drive, their increased sexual activity appears to be driven by their view that if they are not very active then they are neither "successful" nor adequate as men.

Attitudes and Beliefs

Sexually aggressive behavior is typically part of a belief system that views women as sexual objects to be conquered, coerced and used for self-gratification. Undetected rapists are much more likely to hold stereotyped beliefs about the "proper" roles for women and men in society, and to rigidly adhere to those beliefs. They adhere to "rape myths" that both justify their aggressive acts and foster them. Their adherence to rape myths and rigid stereotypes frequently allows them to distort their perceptions of their victims' behavior. For example, because they tell themselves that "women say no to sex even when they really want it," they can disregard their victims' obvious signs of terror and resistance.

Underlying Motivations

Undetected rapists have repeatedly been found to harbor chronic, underlying feelings of anger and hostility toward women. They typically feel easily slighted by women, and carry grudges against them. This underlying hostility is easily evoked and colors their distorted perceptions of women as "teasers" who either "secretly" want to be coerced into sex, or else "deserve" it. These men have also consistently been shown to have strong needs to dominate and to be in control of women, and to be particularly fearful of being controlled by women. This characteristic leads them to view sexual relations as "conquests," and all women as potential "targets" of conquests. Consistent with their very stereotyped beliefs about sex roles, undetected rapists are shown to be more emotionally constricted than nonaggressive men. They are less able to label their own emotional experience, and much less emotionally expressive. As a consequence, they are also less capable of resonating with the emotional experience of other people, and are therefore less empathic than nonaggressive men.

Sexually Violent Subcultures

A consistent finding in the research on "undetected," sexually violent men is that most of this violence emerges either directly or indirectly from what have been termed "sexually violent subcultures." Examples of such subcultures include fraternities and delinquent gangs. These subcultures are powerful forces that both reflect the rapist's views about women and sexual conquest, and also help to shape them. For example, at certain college fraternities the use of violent pornography is a frequent form of "entertainment," providing explicit images of rape as being acceptable, noncriminal, and a sign of male virility. Within these subcultures, "sexual conquest" - having sex with as many women as possible - becomes a critical measure of how men view themselves and each other. The greater the number of such conquests, the more manly he is. The use of coercion and violence to secure these conquests is normalized in the subculture and becomes simply another part of the man's "sexual arsenal."


Consistent with their stereotyped and rigid views about the "proper" roles of men and women in society, undetected rapists tend to adopt highly "gendered" identities; that is, they see themselves as hypermasculine; they strive to always behave in rigidly and stereotypically masculine ways. They are always on the alert for any perceived slight to their masculine identities, and they are made very anxious by any situation that might cast doubt on their perceived masculinity. When such deeply held beliefs are combined with the effects of sexually violent subcultures, as described above, the mixture often becomes dangerous. The "power" motivation that underlies the constant striving for sexual conquest mixes with the rapist's underlying hostility toward women and his hypermasculine identity. When a woman resists his coercive sexual pressure, he is very likely to perceive this as a challenge and affront to his masculinity and to react with anger and aggression, behaviors that restore his sense of adequacy.

Developmental Antecedents

While the traditional view about incarcerated rapists was that they harbored deep-seated anger towards their mothers, the evidence indicates that among undetected rapists, anger and disappointment about their fathers is far more salient. For some of these men, damaged relationships with their fathers appears to feed their need to view themselves as hypermasculine, and to drive their rigidity and stereotyped beliefs and behaviors. Another developmental factor that has been associated with sexual aggression is child abuse. The rate of child abuse among undetected rapists, particularly childhood physical abuse, is much greater than it is among nonviolent men.

Implications for Police Investigation

Obviously, there is no one profile or even group of profiles that characterize these undetected sex offenders; in fact, research indicates almost precisely the opposite. They come from all races and ethnic groups, all professions and all socioeconomic classes. However, many of these sex offenders are likely to differ in significant ways from sex offenders who attack strangers. For example:

  • Most undetected sex offenders have committed multiple offenses without ever being confronted by a law enforcement officer.

  • Many of these sex offenders will possess very smooth personal styles. They may have considerable psychological sophistication.

  • If confronted with an accusation, they may quickly and smoothly focus the conversation on the behavior of the victim, subtly undermining her credibility and laying the foundation for the inevitable "consent" defense.

  • For this reason, comments about the victim's promiscuity, or drug use, or prior "false" accusations should be expected.

Research on the Detected Sex Offender

To identify, apprehend, and interview sex offenders, many investigators find it useful to draw on research conducted with detected/incarcerated sex offenders. In fact, this information can be very helpful for a better understanding of sexual assault crimes and dispelling societal stereotypes associated with the rapist. For example, the following statistics illustrate current knowledge on the detected sex offender:

  • It is assumed that these rapists will attack multiple times over the course of a lifetime. Research suggests that many sex offenders show a continued propensity to reoffend.

  • Fifty percent of incarcerated sex offenders are suspected of having a childhood history of sexual or other physical abuses (although many abused children grow up to be non-abusive adults).

  • A variety of federal statistical sources show a remarkable similarity in the characteristics of these rapists: 99 in 100 are male; 6 in 10 are white; and the average age is the early thirties.

  • Rapists and sexual offenders serving time in state prisons were less likely to have had a prior conviction history of violence than other incarcerated violent offenders, though they were substantially more likely to have had a history of convictions for violent sex offenses.

  • Violent sex offenders were substantially less likely than other offenders to have committed their crime with a weapon; however, rapists were about as likely as violent offenders to report having used a knife.

  • About 30% of rapists and less than 15% of other sexual offenders reported that their victims had been strangers to them. In addition, 25% of convicted sexual assault offenders reported that their victim was a child or stepchild.

Clearly, many of these characteristics challenge the stereotypes of "real rape" by suggesting that even incarcerated rapists are less likely than other types of violent offenders to assault a stranger, use a weapon, or report a prior conviction. However some characteristics, such as the likelihood of using a knife, confirm that sex offenders who are incarcerated are more likely than those who remain undetected to have committed something that looks like "real rape." In other words the more an offense looks like "real rape" (e.g., assault by a stranger, with a weapon) the more likely it is that the perpetrator will be convicted for it.

Research on Adolescent Sex Offenders

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 1993, more than 15% of rapes and sexual assaults were committed by juveniles. Other estimates of juvenile sex offending are much higher, some indicating that approximately 30% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by juveniles132. Some investigators have tried a retrospective approach to assess the magnitude of juvenile offending. They have given immunity and then interviewed incarcerated sex offenders, inquiring both about their true number of victims and also about the age at which they began offending. More than half of these men reported that they began sex offending as juveniles, many of them compiling hundreds of victims before being caught and incarcerated as adults.

  • One recent study used the polygraph to ascertain the magnitude of offending in a sample of 36 juvenile sex offenders. These juveniles initially reported a total of 111 victims133. When told that they would be asked the same question under polygraph, however, they admitted to an additional 77 victims and 153 other offenses134. When actually monitored using the polygraph, the numbers of reported offenses again increased with an additional 19 more victims and 359 more incidents.

  • These statistics strongly suggest that juveniles represent a substantial proportion of the sex offending population. Further, they indicate that many juvenile offenders are only beginning a long career of sex offending.

  • When research is used to examine the characteristics of those individuals it reveals that the majority of juvenile sex offenders do not fit the stereotype of the delinquent youth. Most come from two-parent homes and fewer than five percent have been previously diagnosed with a mental disorder. Sixty-five percent had no history of behavior or characteristics that would have indicated any likelihood of offending. However, there appears to be an over-representation among these offenders of a variety of school problems, including learning disabilities, special education needs, truancy and other behavior problems.

For a number of reasons, therefore, adolescent and young adult rapists are often dismissed or sentenced leniently. Partly, this is based on their appearance as "normal kids" who do not fit the profile of the delinquent youth. Partly, this happens because of the mistaken assumption that they are just experimenting sexually and will grow out of it. The bottom line is that sex crimes committed by juveniles should be taken seriously in order to prevent these youth from continuing to commit sexual assault crimes throughout their adulthood.

The Consent Defense and Implications for Police Investigation

Since the vast majority of sexual assault cases will hinge on the issue of "consent," and not on the identity of the alleged assailant, it is often a good tactic in the suspect interview to downplay the seriousness of the situation and the charge. By intimating that the case doesn't sound like "real rape," and that the interviewer shares the suspect's views on women and sex, the interviewer may be able to elicit incriminating statements from the rapist.

For example, many undetected sex offenders adhere to the societal stereotypes associated with the "real rapists" and firmly believe that they are completely different. These offenders may be convinced that using a "little force" is simply "rough sex;" that it is not "real rape" if they had drinks with the victim or if there was previous sexual activity. Thus, as long as the interviewer does not disabuse them of these erroneous beliefs, the rapist may well disclose incriminating statements.

When a rape case hinges on the issue of consent, law enforcement personnel often despairingly refer to it as a "he-said-she-said" situation, a contest of credibility. However, research indicates that most of these previously undetected rapists have committed prior offenses. Therefore, a good tactic in any investigation is to comb the rapist's social circles for other victims. Whether it be favorite bars and clubs, a college campus, or the office where he works, sending out "feelers" may well yield results. Former girlfriends and women he dated may have stories of battery or rape to tell.


Researchers have attempted to classify rapists by their behavior. However, most of this research has been conducted with incarcerated individuals. This research does not accurately reflect the entire population of offenders and tends to be comprised of disproportionately high percentages of violent sexual offenders and "stranger" rapists. Surveys of sexual assault victims continue to confirm that although the vast majority of sex offenses are committed by someone known to the victim, these offenses typically go unreported. They are usually committed by men who are never arrested, let alone convicted and incarcerated for their crimes.

Having said this, it is essential that law enforcement have all the tools and knowledge available when investigating a suspected sex offender. The remainder of this module will discuss the most commonly used personality disorders and characteristics often associated with sex offenders and interviewing techniques essential to a successful investigation.

These characteristics are drawn from research based on criminal personalities and can be used by law enforcement to guide their investigation of a suspect in a sexual assault crime. However it is critical that officers simultaneously maintain an open mind throughout the investigation and dismiss the common stereotypes associated with the "real rapist."

Office on Violence Against Women

Last Updated: 8/17/16