Application of General Strain Theory Essay

Rape: Application of General Strain Theory


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Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990, pp. 36-7) description of the “typical” rape scenario is telling: “The woman is alone and out of public view. A lone offender either lies in wait or follows and attacks her. The attack may take place on the spot or after the victim has been forced to a more remote setting.” These authors also state that the elements necessary for a rape to occur are (1) the victim must be attractive; (2) the victim must be accessible; (3) the victim must be unwilling to engage in sexual activity; (4) the victim must be unable to fight off the offender; (5) the offender must be unrestrained (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990, p. 37). Yet what is missing in their description is a motivation or rationale that would explain why the offender is male and the victim is female.

Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) are also incorrect in their description of what the “typical” rape scenario entails. It is difficult to determine the extent of rape, as it is a crime that goes largely unreported to the police. While 95,136 rapes were officially reported in 2002, 247,720 women claimed they were victims of rape in the same year (National Crime Survey, 2003) according to national statistics. The difference may be even greater. Holmes and Holmes (2002, p. 179) estimate that only 10% of rapes are ever reported to the police.

Peterson and Muehlenhard (2004) contends that rape has political, legal, and scientific definitions. This is the concept of rape held largely by members of the general public. The next section will explore various definitions of rape that currently exist (and are sometimes at odds with one another) in the United States. Then different myths related to rape will be discussed. It is necessary to understand the construction of rape as a concept prior to understanding how it has been used theoretically. For understanding rape will be used General Strain Theory, and it will be examined in the third section. Finally, some prevention and coping strategies are reviewed.

Definition of Rape

Legal Definition
The English common law definition of rape that comprised the United States definition until the 1960s conceptualized rape as “carnal knowledge of a woman not one’s wife by force or against her will” (Epstein and Langenbahn 1994, p. 6). In 1962, the United States Model Penal Code was established and the definition of rape was modified slightly: “A man who has sexual intercourse with a female not his wife is guilty of rape if he compels her to submit by force or threat of force or threat of imminent death, serious bodily injury, extreme pain, or kidnapping, he has substantially impaired her power to appraise or control her conduct by administering or employing without her knowledge drugs, intoxicants or other means for the purpose or preventing resistance, the female is unconscious, or the female is less than 10 years old” (Model Penal Code §213.1(1) 1962). In addition to maintaining the idea that rape cannot occur between a husband and wife, this code also had a strict continuum that treated rape by a nonstranger as less serious than rape by a stranger.

The rape law reforms that began in the 1970s were designed to target many areas in their eradication of gender bias in the prosecution of rape. As mentioned, one major target was the definition of rape itself. Reforms sought to expand the definition of rape to incorporate sexual offenses that had long been normalized, to grant equal protection to victims who before would have been treated as “unrapable,” to equalize the standards for evidence in rape cases to those in cases of other violent crimes, and to standardize judges’ decision-making power so that case outcomes would be more predictable (Epstein and Langenbahn, 1994).

The Social Definition of Rape
Embodied within the social definition of rape is the question of whether it is a normal or abnormal practice. Rape is one of the most abhorred crimes in United States culture, yet it is one of the most commonly committed violent crime. It also remains narrowly defined socially around the idea of a stranger violating a woman whom he does not know, which does not appear to be the norm statistically (Fisher, Cullen and Turner, 2004).

Ideas that lock us culturally into a script about how a “typical” rape proceeds become what are known as “rape myths” (Burt, 1980) and serve to reinforce a restrictive and mostly incorrect cultural definition of rape. An early definition of rape myths described them as “prejudiced, stereotyped, or false beliefs about rape, rape victims, and rapists” (Burt, 1980, p. 217). Lonsway and Fitzgerald (1994), however, point out that these types of definitions mask the most important element of a myth—its function.  Some of these functions operate at the individual level. Messerschmidt (1993, p. 13) claims that rape myths “allow people to feel safe by believing that rape does not really happen or at least not often, or that if it does, it is because the women secretly wanted to be raped. The myths enable us to maintain our belief that we live in a just world. They allow us to believe we can prevent future rapes.”

Other functions of rape myths, however, operate not at the individual level, but at the societal level to reinforce social and cultural patterns that currently exist (Lonsway and Fitzgerald, 1994) and to reassure a society’s participants that social change is unnecessary (Peterson and Muehlenhard, 2004). Lonsway and Fitzgerald (1994) further claim that the veracity of rape myths is not relevant to their societal functions because some of the myths may actually contain trace elements of truth that are embellished to justify a society’s actions.

The “truth,” therefore, is not important; it is only important that people believe in the myth, regardless of the reality. Lonsway and Fitzgerald (1994) define rape myths as “attitudes and beliefs that are generally false but widely and persistently held, and that serve to deny and justify male sexual aggression against women” (Lonsway and Fitzgerald, 1994, p. 134). Thus, it is important to recognize that the individual and the societal functions of rape myths are linked. Without widespread individual belief in the myths, the societal patterns could not be maintained. At the same time, because they are maintained, they reinforce individual personal beliefs that the world is a just place where if women are raped, they themselves must have personally made an error in judgment or done something inappropriate.

Rape myths have several dimensions, including “rape as a deviant act,” “male intention,” “motivation for rape,” “victim precipitation,” “victim’s responsibility for prevention of rape,” “victim miscommunication,” “victim credibility,” and “rape as a trivial act” (Lonsway and Fitzgerald, 1994). These myths translate, roughly, into cultural stereotypes about male and female behavior: she was asking for it by doing something she did; she was raped because some aspect of her behavior or demeanor did not fit the cultural prescription for a female gender role; he cannot control his sex drive because he is a man; she gave him mixed signals; he did not mean to do it; no harm was done, or it was not rape because “real rape” rarely occurs and/or she is lying. These myths have varying degrees of support behind them (Lonsway and Fitzgerald, 1994).

Rape as a Deviant Act
The “rape as a deviant act” myth claims that rape is a rare event. As previously established, although rape is rarely reported, it appears to be a fairly common crime (Fisher, Cullen, and Turner 2004). Because most women who are raped are victimized by someone known to them, stranger rape, the pillar upon which “real rape” rests, appears to be uncommon, while rape by someone known to the victim appears to be the normative form of rape (Fisher, Cullen and Turner 2004).

Although all 50 states have currently outlawed marital rape, approximately 20 states have exemptions qualifying it as a less serious offense, provide for less severe penalties, or designate it as rape only under certain conditions, such as if the spouses are separated (Holmes and Holmes, 2002). Therefore, it is not surprising that individuals also view marital rape as being the least serious form of rape of all: it was less likely to be counted as a rape, to be thought of as a violation of the victim’s rights, and to be considered psychologically damaging to the victim than stranger rape or date rape no matter how long the couple had been dating (Monson, Langhinrichsen-Rohling, and Binderup, 2000).

Male Intention and Motivation for Rape
Two myths fall under this category, both about males and male sexuality: (1) males who rape are pathological; (2) males rape because they are so overcome with sexual passion that they are unable to control their behavior. Both of these myths are individual-level explanations for why rape occurs, but they are very different. To say that males rape because they are pathological implies that there is something distinct about rapists that distinguishes them from non-rapists.

The second myth under this heading differs from the first in that it makes an assumption about all males rather than distinguishing between male rapists and male non-rapists. This second myth assumes that any man could easily commit rape due to his inherent sexual nature, yet it does not explain why some men are better able to control their sex drives than others. Although this rape myth seems to place the blame for the rape squarely on the male perpetrator, it actually reduces the blame on the male as he cannot be at fault for something he cannot control. Ultimately, it becomes the woman’s responsibility not to provoke the male into raping her (Cowan, 2000).

Victim Precipitation
Many of what Gilmartin-Zena (1987) calls the “obvious” myths are rejected by college students, particularly in the area of victim characteristics. For instance, a majority of the students in her study rejected the idea that women are responsible for or deserving of being raped because of their own moral characters, demeanors, or physical attractiveness. Yet, this may be because it is less acceptable to make such explicit statements today. Early experimental studies that attempt to measure bias against the victim using vignettes report mixed results. Gilmartin-Zena (1987) varied the rape victim’s social status and found that respondents were more likely to attribute the attack to chance when the victim was a nun or a married social worker and more likely to attribute it to “the type of person she is” when the victim was a divorced topless dancer.

As with the other rape myths discussed, there are clear gender differences, with males being more likely to rate female precipitation, including characteristics, the highest of any of the causes of rape (Cowan, 2000). Victim precipitation is related to another myth—victim responsibility for the prevention of rape; women who precipitate their own victimization are not perceived as cautious enough, whereas cautious women would never do things that might invite victimization. The two are intricately linked.

Victim’s Responsibility for Prevention of Rape
What separates “victim responsibility for the prevention of rape” from “victim precipitation” is that the former involves behavior while the latter involves status or demeanor (occasionally based upon behavior), such as clothing or attractiveness. There are two important myths involved with victim prevention: (1) victim alcohol consumption; and (2) victim resistance. One of the most insidious ideas involved in the set of myths about victim blame is that a woman who drinks either deserves to be raped or is responsible for the incident (Burt, 1980).

Rape as a Trivial Act
There appears to be very little agreement with the idea that “rape” is not serious. The degree of seriousness, however, varies by the type of rape that occurs (Lonsway and Fitzgerald, 1994). For example, many people assume that rape between acquaintances, particularly spouses, is not rape or has not harmed the woman. However, research does not support this assumption. Date rapes do not appear to produce less harmful effects than stranger rapes (Lonsway and Fitzgerald, 1994).

In line with other rape myths, these beliefs may also rest on the status of the woman or her behavior. For example, one popular myth is that a prostitute cannot be raped (Burt, 1980). However, explicitly asking if “a prostitute can be raped” reveals that 89% agree (Gilmartin-Zena, 1987). She however, documents the difficulties with attempting to overcome bias in getting justice for street prostitutes who have been raped. It appears that many individuals may either consciously filter through their biases on surveys about rape to give what they believe to be the socially appropriate responses, or, perhaps, surveys about hypothetical situations do not transfer to real-life situations very accurately.


General Strain Theory, Masculinity, and Rape

General Strain Theory
Strain theories have had little to say since their emergence about the subject of rape directly. The underlying premise of early strain theories was that individuals are socialized to desire the “American Dream” through various social institutions, yet inequalities inherent in the social structure prevent equal opportunity to achieve it. This disparity between available means and the desirable goal produces anomie, which results in deviance (Agnew 2006). There is little here that is relevant to the issue of rape, as strain theories propose that everyone is striving for the same goal of financial success either directly through monetary gain or indirectly through middle class status. Therefore, neither sexual satisfaction nor power derived through sexual conquest could be construed as goals, nor could rape be perceived as the means to achieving the main objective (Agnew 2006).

Agnew’s (1992) “general strain theory” (GST) allows for a broader interpretation of goals. For Agnew, any goal that is positively valued but unable to be achieved can cause one strain. Yet, this is only one method through which strain may be experienced. Strain can also result from two other distinct mechanisms: when something positively valued, such as a significant person, is “taken away” from the individual, or when something negatively valued is introduced into the individual’s environment, such as insults, abuse, threats, or criminal victimization. For Agnew, deviance results because individuals attempt to achieve obstructed goals through illegitimate means, regain something or someone that has been lost, escape or avoid something negative, or retaliate against the person who introduced the strain. Without the negative influence of others, individuals would not be pressured into deviant acts (Agnew 1992).

Agnew (1992) hypothesizes, however, that it is not the strain itself that causes individuals to engage in this deviant behavior of retaliation, escape, or other types of illegitimate action. Instead, it is negative emotional affect resulting from the strains that causes people to engage in deviance. Negative emotionality induces a strong incentive for emotional relief and crime may be one avenue for achieving this relief. The most salient negative emotion resulting in deviance may be anger, although emotions such as depression and fear may also incite deviance, particularly non-violent criminal behavior (Sharp, Brewster and Love 2005). Yet the results are mixed concerning whether anger and other negative emotions actually mediate the relationship between strain and crime. For example, anger appears to mediate the effects of strain on assault or aggression (Aseltine, Gore and Gordon 2000).

Masculinity, Crime, and Rape
GST has begun to take the gendered social structure into account to explain why males and females have different rates of offending (Sharp, Brewster and Love 2005). Agnew (2006) indicate that men and women experience different types of strain. Women experience discrimination and are often the targets of harassment and abuse, and men are more likely to experience conflicts with others, particularly concerning material success and property. Males are also more likely to experience interpersonal strain, negative life events, and physical punishment  than females (Sharp, Brewster and Love 2005). In addition to differing types of strain, males and females also have differing emotional responses to the strain. Females experience more internalized emotions such as depression and guilt in addition to anger. Therefore, they are more likely to engage in self-destructive deviance and may also lack the confidence or self-esteem to engage in more outwardly-directed deviance. In contrast, males are not as likely to experience the internalized emotions along with anger (Sharp, Brewster and Love 2005).

Agnew (2001) further speculates that one reason why some strains lead to crime and others do not pertains to broader issues of the failure to achieve autonomy through threats to a male’s masculine status. Other researchers document the importance of masculinity to males’ criminal behavior (Messerschmidt, 1993).  Actions that have been identified as “accomplishing masculinity” are “work in the paid labor market, the subordination of women, heterosexism, control, competitive individualism, independence, and aggressiveness” (Messerschmidt, 1993, p. 82). When males cannot achieve masculinity through these traditional outlets, they may respond with crime.

GST would likely claim that men who rape experience a particular form of strain that induces them to be more likely to rape. Because “regular guys” may at times feel these strains, characteristics such as coping strategies that constrain most of them from engaging in rape are what distinguish rapists from non-rapists. Yet, because masculinity itself predisposes men to these particular strains, they do not need to be “hypermasculine” in order to be vulnerable to the strain that causes the deviance (Messerschmidt, 1993).

Strain theory agrees, as there are several factors pertaining to masculinity that not only make it particularly salient to crime, but to the crime of rape. Males who are unable to achieve masculinity through other means may respond with rape. Furthermore, males who experience strain due to a lack of sexual access to women or thwarted attempts at sexual intercourse may attempt to exert their masculine status through rape, as sex with women is one way that males prove their masculinity.

Unlike goals of educational and occupational success, masculine status goals are not always associated with high levels of social control; individuals who attempt to achieve masculine status may not necessarily be attached to conventional people or values (Agnew 2006). Masculine status achievement is also not necessarily related to lowered social control, because the achievement of masculine status is not perceived as wrong, nor are many methods for achieving it. What does appear to be related to the achievement of masculine status is exposure to deviant groups, particularly when it comes to rape (Schwartz et al. 2001).

There are, then, many ways that GST may specifically explain how rape is a direct response to specific types of strain related to masculinity. One potential problem with this thesis, however, is a result found in a test for GST by Agnew and White (1992). The researchers found that unpopularity with the opposite sex, as measured by whether the respondents were “very bothered” by the fact that they are not good looking and are not popular with the opposite sex, was found to have an insignificant relationship with delinquency.

Respondents were asked about general delinquency items such as stealing, breaking into buildings, assault, running away from home, and cutting school. However, there was no item on the scale pertaining to sexual coercion. Furthermore, Agnew (2001) states that the reason why unpopularity with peers is unlikely to relate to delinquency is that it increases social control by increasing time spent with parents and that it does not create much pressure or incentive for crime.

This is not necessarily true in the case of unpopularity with the opposite sex, and, in fact, it may lead to both the social learning of deviance and social pressure to relieve the strain as peers tease the male for being unmasculine or share techniques for coercing an unwilling female. One researcher describes overhearing a disturbed male undergraduate discuss a date with his friends, in which he took a woman out for dinner who later refused to have sex with him, and some of his friends claim that he should have physically forced her to have sex (Schwartz et al. 2001).

Similarly, in the recent film The 40-Year Old Virgin, once the main character’s co-workers find out that he has never had sexual intercourse, they immediately begin to provide him with strategies for finding a sexual partner, one of which includes plying women with alcohol at bars. Although these examples are anecdotal, it remains highly likely that unpopularity with the opposite sex—measured as a rape-specific strain—may be related to sexual coercion.


Conclusion: Prevention and Coping Strategies

Agnew (2006, p. 16) argues that “saying that a wide range of crimes are committed in response to strains is not, of course, to justify or excuse such crimes. Rather, it is an effort to better understand the causes of such crimes in the hope that we can prevent them.” One of the goals of this study has been to glean information that can be useful for rape prevention programs by focusing on factors that may receive little or no attention.

Unfortunately, programs aimed at preventing rape have had minimal effectiveness. Breitenbecher (2000) evaluated a majority of the programs that exist to reduce rape rates and found that a majority are concerned with rape attitudes. Although small but statistically significant attitude changes are found within many of the programs, longitudinal testing indicated that the change had regressed to pre-program levels in short periods of time.  This may be because rape myths (and sexism itself) are linked to larger social strains that go unaddressed by rape prevention programs. Agnew (2006, p. 174) proposes reducing crime by “reducing (a) individuals’ exposure to strains conducive to crime, and (b) the likelihood that individuals will cope with strains through crime.”

One way to accomplish the first goal would be to change how women interact with men so that males are no longer strained by their behavior. Yet, any type of prevention that focuses on the behavior of the woman in reducing strain is unlikely to be effective, because rapists use rationalizations that focus on the woman’s behavior to justify why sexual assault was not unwarranted and societal rape myths available for all members of society absolve perpetrators from blame no matter what action the woman takes. Therefore, any prevention that attempts to simply remove or alter women’s behavior to reduce strain will likely meet with minimal success.


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