I believe the term “serial rapist” is an oxymoron, and not recognizing this puts people at risk.
Ask any sex crimes detective, rape crisis counselor or criminologist and they’ll tell you that sexual assault is a crime of escalation. The offender usually starts with a lesser offense, such as peeping in windows, then perhaps exposing himself, then entering a home, then confronting a potential victim, then assault.
For Brent Brents, this started when he was 9. He used to stalk people on his paper route, he says, and began casing houses to see who was home, which doors were unlocked, and what he could steal that wouldn’t be missed.
He committed his first rape at age 12.
Also like Brents, most rapists have committed multiple rapes by the time they are caught-if they are ever caught. U.S. Department of Justice studies estimate that 60 percent of sexual assaults are not reported. If a survivor does report, he or she will then have to undergo a wrenching process that often blames victims and adds to their trauma. Many drop out of the prosecution process for that reason.
But back to the rapists.
Since sexual assault is a crime of escalation, the rapist typically will not stop with one assault. Like Brents, they become addicted to the power and control, and continue to repeatedly offend to get that satisfaction, often for years, before they are caught.
He’s been quoted on this site trying to explain what that’s like.
“I became addicted to the power I could wield over someone through rape,” he wrote in an entry dated March 1. “I never had control over what was happening to me. The first time I raped somebody, I became addicted to it immediately. It wasn’t the fucking, it wasn’t getting off, it was the power over the other person. That’s what I became addicted to-using sex as a weapon.”
Brents estimates the number of victims he assaulted during his lifetime to be in the hundreds, and when I checked that with investigators, they said it was realistic.
If you find that number hard to believe, you should know there are studies about other sexual offenders that back up its likelihood.
The Center for Sex Offender Management, which was created by the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice and the National Institute of Corrections and the State Justice Institute, published a paper in May 2001 that illuminates just how frightening these numbers can be.
The paper says in part that “research using information generated through polygraph examinations on a sample of imprisoned sex offenders with fewer than two known victims (on average), found that these offenders actually had an average of 110 victims and 318 offenses (Ahlmeyer, Heil, McKee, and English, 2000). Another polygraph study found a sample of imprisoned sex offenders to have extensive criminal histories, committing sex crimes for an average of 16 years before being caught (Ahlmeyer, English, and Simons, 1999).
So if, like Brents, most rapists are indeed serial rapists before they are ever caught, how should this affect how we deal with them once they enter the criminal justice system? Do we mandate harsher sentences, and make it more difficult for them to achieve parole? Do we crack down on lesser sexual offenses, such as fondling or exposing, knowing what we do about escalation and repetition of sex crimes? Do we try to intervene more with those less violent offenders, and with juvenile offenders, before they increase the nature and number of their crimes?
And, in light of these numbers, what does this say about the countless scores of survivors who have never stepped forward? What if we worked harder to remove the stigma that faces the victims of sexual assault when they report? What if we tried harder to publicly encourage survivors to ask for help so they don’t suffer in silence, or alone?
How can we better support them?
I’d really like to know.