Understanding Sex Offenders: The Logic Behind Fear Based Attacks

Joe and Jack are two soldiers on opposite sides of a battle. When Joe sees Jack, Joe instantly kills him. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Joe and Jack are enemies, and each has been told to shoot anyone on the enemy’s side. Joe and Jack are both armed, and both have the capability to kill each other. Clearly Joe was just trying to defend himself from a very real threat.

In some scenarios, violent assault seems justified and easy to understand. But when it comes to the kind of assaulting that rapists and child molesters do, it’s easy for the general public to feel baffled and horrified. It’s one thing for two armed men wearing symbolic uniforms to attack each other. But what is going on in the mind of a grown man who assaults a little kid? What makes a rapist attack a victim half his size who he doesn’t even know?

An intense fear of being personally harmed is often what drives rapists and molesters to attack. But because that fear is often cloaked in other emotions at the time of assault, the true motivation of sex offenders is often misunderstood and not addressed, which increases the chances of them repeating their offense. While incarcerating sex offenders is needed to protect the public, thrusting already distressed minds into the negative social dynamics that exist in a prison community tends to make the problem worse, not better. It’s rather like me trying to fix the pain in your toe by bashing your knee with a hammer. I might temporarily distract you from your toe by giving you a new crisis to focus on, but when the pain in your knee dies down, you will once again focus on your throbbing toe.

Now suppose a small, hairy spider were to show up on your bedroom wall. You instantly become agitated and decide you can’t relax until you kill the thing. You absolutely hate spiders. Ten years ago, you were bit by a very large, freaky looking specimen whose venom did permanent damage to your nervous system. To this day, you have a lot more pain in your life than you would have had if that spider hadn’t bit you. So you are not calm around spiders. They scare you. They make you feel immensely threatened, as if your whole quality of life is at stake. To you, that fear is quite logical because it was a spider that ruined your life and permanently crippled you. It’s not like you’re just inventing a crisis. Not only was your original attack real, but you are still dealing with the fallout of it today. For all of these reasons, when your friend tells you to “be kind to nature and let the little guy live,” you aren’t the slightest bit moved. You grab your shoe, slam it on the thing’s head, and goodbye spider.

Now suppose your friend is a specialist in spiders and she assures you that Junior there is a totally different species than the monster that bit you and so you needn’t be so brutal. In fact, your friend wants you to just chill out and totally ignore the fact that one of them is hovering on your bedroom wall, just waiting for you to go to sleep at night so it can attack. At least that’s how it seems in your imagination. To you, Junior is gunning for you, and you couldn’t care less about what species he is. He’s a spider and that fact alone makes him deserving of execution.

Symbolically Conquering a Real Life Enemy

For many rapists, the victims they attack are like that tiny spider. The victims themselves could be total strangers to the rapists. Often in these cases, the rapist is attacking a symbol of the person who is the real problem. The reason the rapist is going after symbolic representatives of his true antagonist is because his real antagonist seems untouchable.

Rape is usually an attempt to reclaim power by someone who feels terrifyingly stripped of power. Suppose you get stripped naked in public and you’re so horrified by having your body exposed that you tear clothes away from the first person you can get your hands on. You don’t care who they are–you just need what they have. Things are often this impersonal between the rapist and his victim. The victim is just providing the rapist with an opportunity to feel symbolically triumphant over someone else he desperately fears whose influence he often cannot escape.

Now there are many ways to make someone feel stripped of power. Emotional and verbal abuse can be as effective as physical forms of abuse. In Stefan’s house, his mother and aunt never laid a hand on him, but they poured on the emotional and psychological abuse to the point that Stefan felt terrified in their presence. Encouraged by their female guardians, Stefan’s sisters did physically bully him. The physical harassment was minor, in the sense that there were no lasting marks made. But the style of abuse his sisters used ended up making Stefan feel utterly demoralized and degraded. As a result of this toxic home environment, Stefan develops a deep hatred of females. His aunt, mother and sisters were like that huge spider that seriously crippled you in my earlier metaphor. But now, to Stefan’s mind, all females are like that tiny spider that showed up in your bedroom. Just as you weren’t interested in your friend’s lecture about spider species, Stefan doesn’t distinguish between different types of women. He doesn’t see females as safe versus harmless. He just sees females, the way you just saw a spider. And just as any spider triggered fear for you, any female triggers fear for Stefan. In your case, any spider is scary, but a spider that looks very similar to the one that actually attacked you would trigger even more panic. The same is true for Stefan. Like many rapists, Stefan has a limited trigger group who generally symbolize his real life enemies. Stefan’s panic is only triggered by female teens and female adults, not males or female children. Within Stefan’s limited target group, females who also happen to look very similar to his mom, aunt, or sisters trigger even greater fear within him.

Now when you were afraid of the spider in your room, how did you manage that fear? You had options. You could have fled the scene, which was your bedroom, but then what? What would stop the thing from hunting you down in another area of the house? You could have asked your friend to get rid of it for you, but how could you trust her to do a proper job when she was actually trying to defend the thing? No, in your situation, it seemed clear to you that the most expedient way to resolve your problem was to neutralize the threat yourself. In cases of fear-driven rape, a similar logic is often being used. The rapist feels intensely threatened by the victim because the victim is reminding him too much of his actual enemy. The rapist then attacks the victim to calm himself down again.

Ironically, rape is often an attempt to alleviate panic within the rapist. Many rapists tend to act angry and haughty in the moment, but such behavior is a bluff that is meant to disguise how frightened and vulnerable the rapist actually feels. The use of excessive force, restraints, and weapons are all telltale signs that the rapist isn’t nearly as confident as he is trying to seem. Even in cases where the victim is clearly unable to physically overpower the rapist, the rapist will still perceive himself as being more vulnerable than he actually is. This is because the rapist is emotionally responding to his original attacker–someone who likely has a long history of successfully trouncing him.

In this first scenario, the rapist attacks victims who feel like they are in the same class as his original enemies. Often these links are formed based on very broad associations, like common gender or ethnicity or general age.

Now it’s useful to note that this kind of generalization is common among all humans, not just rapists. A white boy is bullied by a black boy in school. It was just a single black boy with a rude attitude, but the white boy grows up hating all blacks. Is it fair to assume the worst about a large group of people based on your experience of just one person? Of course not, but humans do this all the time. One Christian tries to ram Jesus down your throat and you decide that all Christians are obnoxious and all religions are dumb. One Iranian man bombs a schoolyard near you and you use his actions as justification to hate all Middle Easterners. You have one male boss who hates women and you decide that all men are condescending jerks. You have one entitled girlfriend and you decide all women are stuck up princesses who can’t be pleased. We counselors all it generalization when your mind automatically forms broad, often untrue declarations about large groups of people based on the fact that they have one or two traits in common with a specific individual. All humans generalize, and such stereotyping can be helpful in certain situations. But the point I want to make here is that sex offenders aren’t using a type of logic that is foreign to the rest of us. Instead, they are doing what we all do: using a handful of past experiences to justify their negative actions today. Only in their minds, they are often responding to a very real threat, and they are dealing with severe psychological pain that no one seems to care about.

Humans have a deep need for affirmation and validation. When you’re walking around feeling utterly depressed, it’s easy to feel like everyone else’s life is going better than yours and that the world is a cold, uncaring, lonely place. Our current emotions greatly affect how we see the world. Many rapists have severe psychological trauma that has never been addressed which is causing them constant internal pain. So they aren’t happy. And when they hurt others, it’s easy for them not to care, just as you wouldn’t really care a jot about me if your clothes were on fire. Until your crisis is resolved, you won’t have the margin to listen or care about what is happening in my world. And if you happen to run your car over all of my prize roses while you were attempting to extinguish the flames on your shirt, would you consider all of my sobbing to be valid? It’s far more likely that you’d inwardly consider me to be a sheltered twit who doesn’t have the first clue as to what a real problem is. After all, I just lost some flowers, but you have third degree burns.

Expecting a rapist to be repentant in the early days after his crime is often unrealistic. But this isn’t because rapists are “unfeeling monsters”–it’s because they are humans, and all humans become extra self-focused when they are hurting. You just aren’t going to have the resources to be the attentive, empathetic friend while you feel like someone is trying to break open your skull with a hammer. Until someone comes up with some painkillers, you won’t care about any line of conversation, and you’re going to be quite rude and snippy. In the same way, a traumatized mind who just attacked someone in an effort to calm itself isn’t going to be saying, “Oh, gee, sorry I hurt you. I was desperate, but why should that matter? You’re the one the universe revolves around, not me.” Is this a reasonable way to view a victim’s protests? Of course not, but when we’re hurting, we view the world through a very biased lens, and rapists are often in severe psychological pain.

Strategically Building Defenses

Now let’s go back to the spider metaphor only this time we’ll spin it a different way. This time when you notice Junior scurrying up your wall, you do recognize that he is not the same species as the beast that bit you. You also recognize that this spider is harmless. It has no venom, and it’s not the biting kind. And yet instead of letting it live and comfortably ignoring it, you pick up your shoe and squash the thing. Why? Because in your mind, this is a perfect opportunity to try to develop the skills you need to kill a truly dangerous spider, should one ever cross your path again. The fact that Junior is so defenseless actually attracts you towards him because you are sure that you will have the upperhand. The fact that Junior is the same kind of creature as the beast that bit you still makes you feel a bit unnerved, and yet you push on, determined to overcome your fear of spiders in general.

This example portrays a second kind of logic that rapists use. A very common side effect of trauma is an underlying belief that whatever horrible thing happened to you in the past is guaranteed to happen to you again at some point in the future. Therefore anything you can do to steel yourself for that new horror is not only wise, it’s critical, and you’d better hop to it. Here is where we come to James, a man whose older female cousin raped him when he was a young boy (see Can Men Be Raped By Women?). Now James is a grown man who sneaks about at night, looking for teen girls he can attack. So far he’s gotten away with five assaults and the police haven’t tracked him down yet. James figures it’s due to his clever disguises and use of shadows. But why is a grown man chasing down girls he doesn’t even know? They obviously can’t harm him.

The rapist’s own background and temperament shape his motivations for assault. For James, his victims symbolize his evil cousin. He is automatically drawn towards girls who look to be about the same age that his cousin was at the time she first assaulted him. Today James’ cousin is a grown woman, and while James doesn’t like adult women, he doesn’t feel a desire to rape them. It’s teens between 13-16 that really set him off. When he sees one, he feels an overwhelming desire to attack.

In this kind of scenario we have multiple issues going on. First, we have deep psychological trauma happening with James due to his early life assault. As is very common in cases of sexual assault, James’ mind has formed a strong belief that somehow, somewhere, he’s going to be assaulted again. This isn’t a detailed prophecy in James’ mind–it’s more of a vague, yet very strong and very terrifying gut feeling. And because of this vague premonition, James feels a strong need to prepare to defend himself against his future attacker.

Now here’s where things get even more complicated, because in cases of trauma, victims often feel that the same perpetrator will attack them again, even when that becomes unrealistic. Your father beats you for your whole young life, and as a grown man, you still feel terrified of him, even though you’ve sprouted up into a big, strong fellow while your father has become frail, weak, and slow. In the case of James, his mind is locked onto his cousin as the original perpetrator, and it panics over any female who looks similar to her. If James were to think it out logically, he’d admit that any woman who tried to assault him had better be at least an adult, not a teen. And yet at the same time, James feels it is prudent for him to prepare himself for a future attack by continuing to attack female teens. To him, the teens are like that tiny spider was to you: they present an opportunity to practice scraping up the courage necessary to deal with the coming threat.

Reenacting the Original Trauma

A very common response to being sexually assaulted is to attempt to reenact the original assault while swapping places with your attacker. James is accomplishing this third strategy as well when he attacks girls who feel like symbols of his cousin. When he attacks them, he uses the same level of force his cousin used on him. He also says some of the same ugly things that she said to him. By doing these things, James is trying to undo the damage that was done to him by his cousin.

Suppose I grab your cell phone and smash it for no reason. If you are very attached to the thing, you will feel enraged. If you have a certain kind of temperament, you will instinctively reach out and smash my phone in an attempt to even things out (see Freezing vs. Fighting: Two Strategic Responses to Assault). When humans talk about getting revenge, they often just mean inflicting pain on someone else in order to ease their own pain. This sounds like a good plan until you actually carry it out and discover that hurting someone else really doesn’t make you feel better. Instead, it makes you feel worse. But suppose you have no other ideas for how to help yourself and you are desperate. In such a situation, you might keep lashing out, hoping that if you trash enough people, somehow all of their pain combined will magically cancel out yours.

Traumatized people rarely understand how to help themselves effectively. They know that they are upset, but they often can’t explain why certain situations, people, and things cause them to feel so agitated. This lack of self-awareness is due to the subconscious part of the mind intentionally withholding information from the conscious. The subconscious is a lot tougher than the conscious, and it can manage enormous amounts of stress. But the conscious is easily frazzled and overwhelmed. There is a very close relationship between these two elements of your being, with the subconscious acting like a protective supervisor over the conscious. Often this protection is expressed by shielding the conscious from information that it would find upsetting. As a result, you can have a fellow who feels an overwhelming desire to rape certain victims, yet cannot consciously connect with what his real motivations are for doing so. When the police haul him in for questioning, his vague answers naturally sound like intentional lies, and yet it’s very real for perpetrators to not understand why they do what they do, and to just make up excuses in the moment that sound plausible.

Now while the conscious is being kept out of the loop, the subconscious does know why it’s doing what it’s doing, and it is usually the subconscious that pushes for things like rape and molestation. To the subconscious, these activities are very strategic efforts to manage and possibly even fix ongoing stress. The problem is that the subconscious is wrong. The methods it fixates on are logical from a certain perspective, but they are also ineffective and tend to make things worse over time. Traumatized minds usually need fresh ideas to come from another source that can help them lock onto better healing strategies.

Going Towards A Threat

If a fire breaks out in your house, you can either run away and call a fire department or you can attempt to extinguish it. If you choose to run, you will probably be very upset if your friend chooses to stay. In the world of emergency responses, humans tend to fall into two groups: those who run and those who engage. The runners try to steer clear of trouble by avoiding people and situations who seem threatening. The ones who engage try to neutralize danger by going towards threats and clearly dominating them. I call the runners passives and the other group aggressives. There are major advantages to both styles, but generally you are born as one or the other and you don’t change.

Sex offenders who do real life assaults are behaving like aggressives by going towards the person who causes them to feel threatened and trying to neutralize the threat. In many cases of child molestation, the victims actually remind the molester of himself when he was molested. By molesting the victim, the molester is essentially trying to reduce his own internal stress over what happened to him. There are different ways that minds work this out.

In some cases, the molester is trying to study the victim’s reaction to being attacked so he can compare that reaction to what his own responses were. In these kinds of cases, the mind is often looking for evidence of normality, and there is often a deep fear that the molester was originally targeted because he was some kind of abnormal freak. Why not just leave the victim alone? Because then there would be no comparison available.

In other cases, the molester is trying to reenact his own assault, yet flip roles with his original molester. By reenacting the whole thing, only this time from a position of power, the mind is trying to prove to itself that it is no longer defenseless and powerless.

Suppose you believe that you are stupid at math, and this makes you feel really ashamed. How can you lessen that shame? One method would be to keep working on math problems and persevering until you start getting them right. The new evidence of your success would then help you convince yourself that you’re not stupid after all. This is similar to what some molesters are going for when they role reverse. When they were originally assaulted themselves, they felt defenseless, and that terrified them. Often those feelings of helplessness follow them into adulthood. By reenacting the assault from the position of power, the molester tries to manufacture evidence for himself that he is no longer defenseless. After all, if you can beat up the school bully, obviously you no longer have to fear being beaten up yourself, right? This is the goal the mind goes for, but it doesn’t work. Molesting kids is one of those bad ideas that backfires in unexpected ways, causing the mind even more distress than it had before, which is why so many molesters end up turning to drugs and alcohol as an attempt to block out what they’ve done.

The key point I want you to take away from this post is that there are many situations in which going towards what you’re afraid of seems like the most logical and expedient way to deal with that threat. It is usually passives who find it hardest to understand what’s going on with sex offenders, as the sex offending crimes which involve hands on assault are naturally repulsive to passive temperaments. A passive is much more likely to watch other people doing the assaulting through porn videos–not actually get out there himself and go for it. A passive pedophile can easily be addicted to deviant porn and at the same time be utterly horrified at the idea of ever getting hands on with anyone. This is why the common assumption that all pedophiles are child molesters is false. While many people feel distressed by kids due to those kids reminding them of their own traumas, only some minds will conclude that attacking those kids might be useful. To other minds, attacking a real child (or anyone else) is too stressful to contemplate. The mind’s current stress load, the basic temperament of the person, the nature of the original trauma, and the current environment all play key roles in determining how someone will attempt to manage his stress. But at the end of the day, one thing is true: most sex offenders attack for their own benefit, in a misguided attempt to help themselves out of a very real and overwhelming psychological crisis. Does it make it okay? No, but it makes it understandable. Sex offenders are humans, and their actions remind us of how easily any of us can be driven to do things we despise if we become desperate enough. I certainly don’t condone the things sex offenders do, but I understand the deep and complex mechanics at work in these situations, and I have immense sympathy for both the perpetrators and their victims.

This post was written in response to a request.

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