What do we know about the perpetrators of sexual violence between students?


Sexual violence is frequent in the university environment and affects around 30% of the student population. The victims of these sexual assaults, rapes or harassments are mainly women and the perpetrators of men. In 9 out of 10 cases, the victims know their attacker who may be the boyfriend, a romantic partner or another student.

Most often, it is a matter of getting victims to engage in sexual intercourse despite clear and repeated consent, or even going beyond their initial refusal. These coercive manipulations can consist of maneuvers of insistent seduction with physical contact, verbal and psychological manipulations or guilt attempts. They can rely on force, or the deliberate use of psychoactive substances – alcohol , cannabis – in the context of festive evenings.

This violence, which exists in all living environments of young adults, frequently begins in adolescence – a period when almost 20% of sexual relations are not consented. They intensify until 24-25 years and decrease thereafter.

Sociocultural factors

The perpetrators of this violence can share negative “normative” attitudes towards women. This ranges from “traditional” sexist male representations, to “aggressive” forms of sexuality, notably with the acceptance and legitimization of violence against them. This use of violence can mask experiences of insecurity, difficulties with emotional closeness, or an excessive need for partner control.

The adherence to rape myths  promotes sexual violence, while lower bound responsibility and guilt of the authors. Among these cognitive distortions is the fact that “women can resist rape if they want to”, that “they cannot be trusted”, that “men have greater sexual needs”, which would justify that they seek all the opportunities to answer them, etc.

These factors may be accompanied more broadly by the habits of many casual sexual relationships, promiscuity, and permissive and impersonal sexuality. Some men may also interpret a woman’s friendly interest as sexual interest, her lack of consent as feigned resistance, her flabbergasting when assaulted as a form of tacit acceptance.

If a woman has accepted a romance or started to have sex, some men don’t understand why she says no afterwards. They feel that they have a “right to sex”, that the person has aroused them and is responsible for what may happen afterwards. Assaults on women are facilitated by peer approval for forced sex.

Experiential factors

Risky sexual behavior often begins with a first early sexual experience which risks provoking hypersexualization, with a greater number of partners, with a more massive use of cyberpornography, alcohol or other psychoactive substances. We will talk about experiential and situational factors. But there could be several cases.

Some men have more opportunities to commit sexual assault because of their high sexual activity, increased sexual arousal, and significant frustration when the relationship cannot take place. This aggression, which could even occur after intensive consensual sex, can be a response to an experience of deprivation, or represent a search for aggressive power over the female partner.

Other men do not have as many possibilities of committing a sexual assault (different relation to sexuality, introversion, difficulty in the relation to the other, etc.). In their case, alcohol could play a role of “facilitator” in the aggression . It should be noted that alcohol intervenes once in two in sexual violence and that its “abuse” by the perpetrators and the victims is associated with a greater gravity of the aggression.

The problems induced by alcohol are numerous: short-term focus of the authors on the “benefits” of the aggression, reduction in the resistance of the victims (which is sought by the authors), increase in stereotypes towards women who drink, with the idea that “what happens to them is their fault” (implied: “they just had to get into this state”).

Childhood trauma

A history of adversities and experiences of childhood trauma (emotional breakdowns, deficiency, mistreatment, sexual abuse, exposure to parental domestic violence) play a role in a development trajectory towards violence and increase the risk of having recourse to sexual relations coercive.

These trajectories could favor the occurrence of delinquency, with a possible diagnosis of conduct disorder in childhood and adolescence, which often leads to an antisocial personality disorder in adulthood – and, in the cases the more severe, to psychopathy . This conduct disorder covers repetitive and persistent behaviors in which the fundamental rights of others or the main norms, rules or societal laws are violated, violated. Their precocity increases the risk of a negative and serious outcome in adulthood.

These elements are most often “defensive” in relation to the child’s journey and in particular the difficulty of having been able to count for others and of having been able to count on them. However, these men who have a strong impulsiveness, a lack of empathy, psychopathic traits more often make others responsible for the violence they exert, in particular sexual constraints. They are less hesitant to use opportunistic and manipulative behavior, more or less violent, to overcome the resistance of their victim.

When they have this profile and commit sexual violence in adulthood , they are more likely to have initiated these behaviors in adolescence .


Perpetrators of repeated sexual assaults have more hostile beliefs about women, less empathy, are more prone to manipulation and more likely to drink alcohol before intercourse. They also present a history of delinquency in adolescence in relation to psychopathic traits.

After the acts committed previously, if some men were able to give up this type of behavior, others, on the contrary, will continue their strategies and become repeat offenders with over the years a greater acceptance of the use of violence to achieve their end. This tendency, when it exists, is a potential marker of antisocial and psychopathic functioning and explains why the rate of violence decreases during the first years of university, while the severity of attacks increases.

There is probably no standard portrait of an author of sexual violence. Attitudes of “aggressive” sexuality towards women, alcohol consumption and risky sexual behavior and personality traits of the antisocial / psychopathic type can interact. The combination of the three types of factors predicts the chronicity and severity of the attacks.

The young adults who are the students are in a period particularly at risk with regard to sexual violence. While it is obviously necessary to help the victims, we must also help the witnesses and especially the perpetrators of these acts of violence to realize the gravity and the consequences of these acts.

Author Bios: Robert Courtois is a Part-time psychiatrist at CHU de Tours, Lecturer – HDR in psychology at the University of Tours, Catherine Potard is a Lecturer in Psychology and Philippe Allain is a University professor both at the University of Angers