In 2015, Kevin Swartout, an associate professor of psychology at Georgia State University, seemingly confirmed long-held doubts about the demographics of perpetrators of sexual assault when he published his article, “Trajectory Analysis of the Campus Serial Rapist Assumption.” Swartout dismantled clinical psychologist David Lisak’s 2002 study — “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists” — which described assaulters as serial predators, “monsters” lurking among us. Lisak’s study stirred up a storm and influenced sexual assault prevention education for the better part of a decade, but further research on the same issue has identified different results.
In opposition to previous thought, Swartout’s study indicated that college-aged men who perpetrate assault tend to do so only once or twice, and often unknowingly. Moreover, he found that there was a temporally-linked switch: men who had assaulted prior to college often did not continue, and men who had not assaulted prior to college only began after they entered a new social sphere. Swartout sees a crucial environment shift: if men exit an environment tolerant of abuse of women and enter one that repudiates this behavior, they become less likely to offend. Unfortunately, the reverse holds true as well.
So, which is it? Are offenders serial perpetrators? Or are they oblivious individuals who don’t consider the harm they are doing to others? The answer is likely somewhere along a spectrum. Research has established that perpetrators justify their actions through assumptions about entitlement, power and privilege. What we need now is research on how to unlearn those assumptions and how those assumptions create the “monsters” of Lisak’s research.
Before New York Times reporters Meghan Twohey and Jodi Kantor broke their investigative story on Harvey Weinstein’s years of systematic abuse and assault of women in the film industry, I was inclined to believe that most assaults — in college, at least — fell into the category Swartout delineated: men who did not understand the totality of consent and who, often unknowingly, violated their partners. I was inclined to believe that serial perpetration was a myth. Perhaps that was my own naivety at hand, perhaps it was my own blinding desire to trust in the good of people.
Nonetheless, the Harvey Weinsteins, Matt Lauers and President Donald Trumps of the world clearly exist — men in roles of immense power abusing that power to coerce and hurt women, in a sick exercise of social and physical force over another’s body. But so too exist the Aziz Ansaris of the world — men who publicly commit to navigating the pitfalls of relationship dynamics and advocating for feminist causes, who nonetheless exercise their power coercively over another person’s body. A difference exists — many men, including Weinstein, consciously benefit from office cultures that silence conversations around sexual assault — but where does that lead? Is Ansari’s obtuseness and dismissal of Grace’s needs a solemn harbinger of what may ensue should no one illuminate to him how he caused harm?
I’m inclined to believe there may be a breaking point — a point of no return, so to speak — where after a given number of weird nights, uncomfortable extrications of bodies from beds, “C’mon, it’ll be fun”s, the Azizes of the world can morph into something darker. Someone who doesn’t know how to satisfy that desire any other way, someone who even thrives off that exercise of power over another person’s body. But where does that shift occur? On a drunken night after a rager in a basement, upon entering a cutthroat corporate hierarchy or after amassing enough power to silence any whistleblowers? Or is the entitlement to others’ bodies internalized from an early age and simply awakened through too many “I got away with it”s?
More research must be conducted — not just on college-aged men, though that demographic is an excellent locale in which to implement sexual assault prevention education. We need to think more expansively around the trajectory and hierarchy of these crimes. Weinstein and Lauer did not act in a vacuum — they lived and worked in environments that enabled their gross abuse of others. We need to think beyond college campuses as the source of the “assault issue,” adopt a multi-pronged approach to root out this point of no return and integrate a culture of consent into our daily lives. We need to teach from a young age how consent is not an abnormal entity that appears only at the door to a sexual encounter, but a routine component of regular interactions. And on the other end of the equation, restorative justice can be a mechanism by which colleges and workplaces intervene in problematic and violatory behavior so that perpetrators don’t reach that point of no return. Simultaneously, we need to identify the threshold where unlearning entitled, harmful behavior proves impossible.
Swartout’s research forwards that one’s environment factors into these transition points, indicating that fostering a culture of consent in all of our institutions — schools, businesses, governments — is crucial to reducing sexual assault. At Brown, we have begun the steps toward this comprehensive approach — the Undergraduate Council of Students requires that categorized student groups have a trained sexual assault peer educator in their group, and we overhauled our sexual assault prevention orientation. But this type of research can provide a framework as we as a society grapple with how we rehabilitate or castigate perpetrators of sexual assault.
Correction: An earlier version of this op-ed stated that Kevin Swartout seemingly confirmed long-held doubts about the demographics of perpetrators of sexual assault when he published his article, “The company they keep: How men’s social networks influence their sexually aggressive attitudes and behaviors.” In fact, Swartout seemingly confirmed long-held doubts about the demographics of perpetrators of sexual assault when he published his article, "Trajectory Analysis of the Campus Serial Rapist Assumption." An earlier version of this op-ed also stated that further research failed to reproduce the results of David Lisak’s 2002 study — “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists." In fact, further issue on the same issue has identified different results. The Herald regrets the errors.
Shira Buchsbaum ’19 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.