What Drives Young Men to Gang Rape Girls?

An 18-year-old girl was allegedly gang raped in Brooklyn last week, and a group of teenage boys were recently arrested following the assault. We spoke with a forensic psychologist to understand the factors that produce incidences of gang rape.
January 11, 2016, 9:10pm
Photo by Paul Schlemmer via Stocksy

Last week an 18 year old girl was walking in a Brooklyn playground with her father when a group of teenage boys approached them. CBS News reported that one of the young rapists pulled a gun and ordered the girl's father to leave. As he ran to get help from law enforcement, the boys took turns raping his daughter. When the father returned with two police officers, the attackers were already gone. Four of them are now in police custody while officers are still seeking a fifth suspect.

According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), there are approximately 293,000 incidences of sexual assault every year. 68 percent of these incidences are never reported, and a chilling 98 percent of rapists will never be incarcerated. Rape is an act of violence and power, and isolated incidences of lone assailants are somehow easier to comprehend than group attacks. The shock that people feel when these crimes are committed is amplified when the rapists themselves are so young, often leaving the public baffled by the violence. How does youth and gender play into the phenomenon of gang rape, and what is the relation between group and single perpetrator sexual assault?

Dr. N. G. Berrill is forensic psychologist and the Executive Director of New York Forensics, a group practice that gives evaluations for the court on criminal matters, including sexual abuse. He explains that the perpetrators of gang rape and lone attackers typically have very different psychological profiles. "With a group, it's usually teenage boys. There are cases like this around the country where, if not a rape, it's a group beating or they're setting homeless people on fire," Dr. Berrill says. "Teenage boys in a group can be the most dangerous human beings on the planet." According to him, there's something about their social psychology that might contextualize otherwise inexplicable, violent gang behavior.

"The individual rapist, to contrast, who suffers from say a paraphilic disorder—that is to say they enjoy rape or they fantasize about rape—is a different type of person altogether," he claims. This type of paraphilic rapist is someone that has consciously, obsessively thought about rape, "works independently, [and] become expert at finding women in vulnerable spots… They're usually very much turned on by what it is they're doing, and enjoy evoking panic or fear. [Rape] is a turn on for them, something they fantasize about."

Dr. Berrill doubts that there's strategic planning involved with the majority of younger men who commit rape in groups. He also doubts that they entertain explicit rape fantasies. "I didn't talk with the boys [in the Brooklyn gang rape case], but I wonder how long they discussed doing something like this. My sense is that sometimes violence committed by teenage boys is spontaneous," he says. "This is an aggressive, impulsive, spur of the moment situation brought on by circumstance to some degree." But what factors motivate sexual violence?

From their point of view there may be long term ramification if they back off, they'll be seen as a 'coward', or a 'pussy'.

According to Dr. Berrill, the group factor acts as a strong motivator for individuals to do things they otherwise might not. Alone, they might not ever commit rape, but the group works to reinforce itself. It's easier to go along with the actions of other people, "especially if you need to be accepted, and everyone [else in the group] makes the decision to go along. It may seem strange, but in my opinion it would take more courage to leave, to run in the other direction, than to do something this terrible."

One of the reasons that group rape is often performed by young people is the fear of being judged by their peers. The fact that they could be caught or prosecuted for the crime may be far from their mind, as the group itself establishes it's own system of judgement. "From their point of view there may be long term ramifications if they back off: They'll be seen as a 'coward', or a 'pussy', or whatever word they want to use."

For those who enjoy the terror of rape, committing it will reinforce their desires, Dr. Berrill explains. "But for those, kids for example, if they have any capacity to feel empathy, they may have an adverse reaction [to raping someone]." Once caught by their parents or the criminal justice system, they may feel guilt or remorse. "The ones that seem not to feel guilt or remorse might be more prominently antisocial or psychopathic, and those would be the more dangerous boys."

The men involved in gang rape may be worried more about their reputation with each other, and their status as dominant males, than the life of the women they assault.

The gender of gang rapists is not a coincidence. As Dr. Berrill stated, the threat of being outcast or emasculated by their peers is enough motivation to cause some young men to rape, but other aspects of male youth may also foster violence, including unspent aggression and immature neurodevelopment. "The frontal lobe is where your executive functions are located, [like] judgement," Dr. Berrill says.

"They'll do things as teenagers they wouldn't do at 45. 'Oh, let's light this guy sleeping in an alley on fire, wouldn't that be fun?' If they get in a group and there's an antisocial bent or there's drugs, or alcohol—we see it at frat houses too." The prevalence of rape on college campuses is an example of how young men, particularly in groups, sometimes commit acts of violent sexual assault.

The men involved in gang rape may be worried more about their reputation with each other, and their status as dominant males, than the life of the women they assault. They might not realize, or care, that they're "damaging another person," Dr. Berrill explains. Group violence perpetrated by men is most frequently targeted at women, who are often seen as socially subordinate. When these factors coalesce, "When you get boys at the same level of development and perhaps the same unbridled aggression and sexual impulses, you get these kind of things happening."