Who is the Typical College Rapist?

Rapists are more likely to be someone that we know.

Most men don’t rape. But the men that do rape, tend to rape repeatedly. Lisak & Miller (2002) surveyed close to 2000 male students at a midsize urban commuter university and found that out of the 6% of the participants who admitted to attempted rape or sexual assault, 63% admitted to committing more than one rape, averaging six rapes per male. The repeat rapists in this study also admitted to committing other forms of interpersonal violence, which is typical of many sex offenders.

Lisak's research is often cited in discussions on rape on college campuses. But statistically speaking, serial rapists aren’t the biggest threat on college campuses. According to more recent research by Swartout et al. (2015), serial rapists are in the minority (23%) and are not the group with the highest risk of perpetrating rape in college. Most of the men (75%) in Swartout’s research admitted to committing rape during one year in college.

Who’s likely to be committing most of the rapes on campus? Sex offenders who are seemingly in denial about rape, and/or whom subscribe to common rape myths (e.g., “She really wanted it”). A study by Edwards, Bradshaw & Hinsz (2014) found that men are more likely to admit to sexual coercion than rape. In other words, men in this study admitted to having sex with a woman without her consent (which is rape) but when the word “rape” was used in the context of their behavior, they denied it. This research isn’t new information, in fact this study supports (and cites) earlier research by Mary Koss (1998). These sex offenders are more likely to hold attitudes of benevolent sexism: for example, believing that women are weak, and need to be protected (Glick & Fisk, 1996) or only “bad girls” get raped (Viki & Abrams, 2002).

Denial isn’t unusual among rapists (Nunes, et al., 2007). Consider the Brock Turner case. Of course we don’t know if Brock Turner’s refusal to acknowledge the rape is denial or defense attorney tactics. But Turner isn’t the only one possibly in denial. The collective unconscious of our culture holds on to the belief that all rapists are violent, scary men that lurk in dark corners and jump out of bushes. While that’s true for a small minority of rapists, what’s more true is that rapists are more likely to be someone that we know. What Turner’s father, friends, and even the presiding judge neglected to consider is that Brock can be smart, a superior athlete, a good cook, the “nice guy” who sits next to you in class, AND simultaneously hold on to sexist beliefs and attitudes that support the idea that a drunk and unconscious woman is fair game, even if she’s passed out behind a dumpster. Brock Turner looks like the boy next door, but represents a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Athletic ability, privilege, and education don’t cancel out the deleterious effects of sexism.

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  • Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (1996). The ambivalent sexism inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(3), 491-512.

  • Lisak, D & Miller, P.M. (2002). Repeat rape and multiple offending among undetected rapists. Violence and Victims, 17(1), 73-84.

  • Nunes, K. L., Hanson, R. K., Firestone, P., Moulden, H. M., Greenberg, D. M., & Bradford, J. M. (2007). Denial predicts recidivism for some sexual offenders. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 19(2), 91-105

  • Swartout KM, Koss MP, White JW, Thompson MP, Abbey A, Bellis AL. Trajectory Analysis of the Campus Serial Rapist Assumption. JAMA Pediatr. 2015;169(12):1148-1154. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.0707.

  • Viki, G. T., & Abrams, D. (2002). But she was unfaithful: Benevolent sexism and reactions to rape victims who violate traditional gender role expectations. Sex Roles, 47(5-6), 289-293.

Joanne Bagshaw