Uncover perpetrator tactics

Typically perpetrators use no more force than necessary.1 Instead, they employ other tactics to create opportunities to assault,1 subdue resistance and silence victims.2 Perpetrators are skilled at “testing” if a woman would make a “good” potential victim3 and pushing boundaries.2,3,4 Understanding the skill at which perpetrators create opportunities to assault and subdue resistance, can help to reduce self-blame and victim blaming by placing the blame where it belongs – on the perpetrator.

Before the Assault

Identifying a vulnerable victim and/or administering alcohol

I am incredibly drunk, drunk enough that I can’t fight anyone off.” – Survivor41

Identifying a vulnerable target such as a woman who is intoxicated and/or administering and pushing alcohol is a common tactic.2 In about half of sexual assaults alcohol was consumed by the victim, the perpetrator or both. Yet, this does not mean alcohol causes sexual assault.5,6 Instead, alcohol is commonly used by perpetrators to subdue resistance.2,6

In some cases, the desire to commit a sexual assault may actually cause alcohol consumption (e.g. when a man drinks alcohol before committing a sexual assault in order to justify his behaviour). Based on one study on male offending, both perpetrators and victims in impaired sexual assaults drank approximately seven alcoholic drinks and were moderately intoxicated according from the perspective of the male study participants6. Moderate alcohol use defined as up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men7 while heavy alcohol use as defined as more than 4 drinks on any day for men or more than 3 drinks for women8Another study found that not all women who reported that they were too intoxicated to resist consumed a large amount of alcohol10. Indeed, some cognitive impairment occurs at fairly low blood alcohol levels10, and in some cases , a moderate amount of alcohol may have produces a high level of impairment8

Testing and pushing boundaries

He politely asked if he could pop inside for a glass of water because he was feeling unwell. Maybe this is when I should have heard alarm bells, but even as I was pouring the drink in my kitchen nothing struck me as amiss. Not until after he’d finished the water, and the pretence was over.” – Survivor34

Perpetrators are skilled at “testing”or “interviewing” a woman to see if they’d be a “good” potential victim.2 For example, they test the woman’s defences and push boundaries to see if they can get to closer proximity. This can happen over months, during the first encounter or over a few seconds.2,3,4 They think “If I can get this close, I can get closer. If I can make her comply with one demand, I can help myself to more.”3

Normative femininity such as being polite and receptive to others can make it difficult for women to assert themselves2 in particular in unexpected situations. People we know (in majority of cases women know the perpetrator11) would usually not ask us for socially questionable things. When it happens it can take people by surprise and politeness conditioning can kick in – in particular when it’s people we trust and thus would not assume mal-intent. The progression of yesses can allow the perpetrator to for example isolate the victim in a way where the assault becomes inevitable.4 Trust, power of authority, offering “care”, and using the social customs of the situation are examples of tactics that perpetrators use to enable them to push boundaries and create opportunities to assault.2

Using the social customs of the situation

“As I was leaving the club, a guy also at the social said said he lived near me and offered to walk me home… We’d only met a few weeks before, so conversation was light… His hand grabbed my arm so fiercely that it became instantly clear that his intentions had never been to get me home safely.” – Survivor34

For example “getting access” due to the customs of it being normal in the specific social context (such as a bar or nightclub, or another social setting) to talk to a woman that they didn’t previously know2 (or know well).

Lulling into a false sense of security

“I thought he was my friend. I started feeling uncomfortable but I ignored my feeling… Suddenly he was a stranger. He was doing something I never thought he would be capable of.” – Survivor32

Lulling the woman into a false sense of security with the help of trust is a common tactic that helps the perpetrator create an opportunity to assault.2 Perpetrators rarely match our stereotypes of who we believe is dangerous4. Often, they are personable men who are skilled at gaining women’s trust e.g. based on normal previous interactions/posing to be socially normal2,4. Indeed, by showing warning signs early and without being pleasant initially it would be less likely perpetrators would get the type of access required to assault women.

Using power of authority

This may sound like consent on my part, but the power differential, and my fear of the repercussions if I protested  —  losing my friends, my career, and my sense of belonging  —  made consent impossible. I was powerless.” – Survivor36

If the perpetrator has power over the victim in one way or another the power imbalance can make it more difficult for the victim to actively resist.2,12

Offering "care"

At the end of the evening my ex-boyfriend offered to bring me home since I was feeling ill, was disoriented and unable to stand up and walk very well… What happened next no one could have predicted.” – Survivor44

In instances where the victim/survivor was particularly intoxicated, the perpetrator may have for example volunteered to get her home safely or offered “care” for her at his/her place.2

Isolating the victim

“‘I just have to run upstairs to grab my wallet’ he said with a smile on his face… I blamed myself. Why did I go over to his building? Why did I then follow him up the stairs? Why did I even enter his apartment? Who would believe me?”  Survivor31

Acquaintance perpetrators typically have the ability to convince, con or lure their victims into opportunistic isolation (e.g. his/her place).2


During the Assault

Taking the victim my surprise

He knew I was asleep and took advantage of the situation.” – Survivor40

For example commencing the assault while the victim is asleep or unconscious.2

Inducing psychobiological responses

Although I didn’t agree to what was happening, I was physically getting aroused by it.” – Survivor42

A powerful strategy used by some perpetrators is to deliberately arouse the victim (e.g. by performing acts that are sexually arousing) to bewilder and discourage reporting, and to try to compromise the victim’s credibility of non-consent13.  One study found that 31.5% of sexual assaults included in the research involved kissing and fondling14. Based on studies on sexual coercion in intimate partner relationships, inducing arousal is the most common tactic (73%) used following a sexual refusal15.  

Approximately 21% of women experience physical arousal16 and 4-5% orgasm17 via 16 during sexual assault. However, numbers related to arousal responses are presumed to be underreported due to shame and embarrassment16 . Physical arousal16,18 and/or orgasm16 during sexual assault are normal involuntary bodily reactions, and based on studies can be the body’s way of protecting itself from injury and can be triggered by fear or extreme anxiety19. They’re not a sign of consent16.

Perpetrator motivations:

  • Can make the perpetrator feel even more powerful and in control (power is a common motivation) as he is able to elicit sexual responses from the victim and has more power over their body than the victim does20
  • Serves as a justification for continuing with the assault as the perpetrator misinterprets/choses to misinterpret this as a sign of the victim’s consent or as evidence of his distorted beliefs that the victim will eventually start to enjoy the act13,14
  • Perpetrators may also have become aware of this tactic and it’s power of confusing victims during and after the assault and strategically use it against them (most perpetrators are repeat offenders)
  • For the survivor sexual arousal during assault can be deeply confusing making it easier for the perpetrator to coerce the victim into continuing sexual involvement13

Impact on survivors: 

  • If the survivor feels complicit in the assault they are less likely to label it as assault, disclose the assault due to shame or fear of disbelief or it impacting their credibility13
  • Trauma symptoms such as anxiety, intrusive thoughts, depression, and dissociation can be exponentially greater when arousal is present during an assault21
Verbal coercion

He became angry, berating me for refusing and guilt-tripping me for not being around that week.” – Survivor43

When verbal coercion is used rather than force or intoxication, the victim is less likely to label the experience as assault or blame the perpetrator and may experience more self-blame9 . Although, verbal coercion is not consistently included in sexual assault statutes, it is routinely included in surveys of sexual assault because9 the use of any strategy to make someone have sex can be traumatic22. Based on studies of intimate partner violence repeated requests (66%) is a common form of sexual coercion.14

Physical coercion

“The man who I trusted with my life, who I had spent the last year and a half with and who knew me inside and out climbed into bed with me, held me down and raped me. “ -Survivor44

Typically perpetrators use only instrumental force if any.1 Yet, based on studies of intimate partner crimes threat of harm (66%) is a common coercion tactic15 . When force is present the victim is more likely to label the event as sexual assault/rape, place blame on the perpetrator, be less inclined to blame themselves and be more likely to report the assault and seek support services than when the the perpetrator used verbal and/or alcohol to subdue resistance21.


After the Assault

Proactive manipulation and confusion

He sent me a huge bouquet of roses, which was beyond confusing. The flowers were beautiful and utterly revolting.” – Survivor37

Compelling the victim to believe it was a consensual act and making the victim feel complicit to encourage confusion and shame and exploit people’s reluctance to identify themselves as victims.23 For example trying to camouflage the act as horseplay or humour, or act as though nothing happened.24 Some perpetrators even ask the victim out for more dates to cause confusion.25

Denial, attack and reversing victim and offender if confronted

“The perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure no one listens.” – Judith Lewis Herman, Psychiatrist and Author33

When confronted, perpetrators often use a strategy of Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender (DARVO) to confuse and silence their victims:26

  • Denying the incident ever happened, minimising it or claiming it was a misunderstanding (for example saying “the situation got blown way out of proportion”)27
  • Attacking the victim’s character (for example accusing them of being “crazy”, “a liar” or stating they had a supposedly blame-worthy sexual reputation)27
  • Reverse Victim and Offender (for example accusing the victims of “luring” and seducing them)27

This can lead to confusion and doubt in the victim.26

Forming thoughts to protect the self and to justify similar behaviour in the future

Despite my refusal to go to my bedroom, and my repeated attempts to get him to leave, he was relentless: ‘Why would you let me in if you didn’t want something to happen?'” – Survivor34

After the offence perpetrators use denial, minimisation, and rationalisation anchored in rape supportive attitudes and sexual assault incident characteristics to justify their actions, underestimate the harm done to the victim and to attribute responsibility to what they did to external factors (including the victim) instead of themselves.28,29 The cognitive distortions and thoughts they employ to justify their actions allow them to continue offending by reducing feelings of guilt.28,35



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