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Thursday
Nov122009

406.  Recognition

In the CBS interview (see post 405), David Lisak described one way in which rapists choose their victims, or as the rapists themselves prefer to see them, their conquests.  Writing in the London Review of Books, Jenny Diski captured, in a skin-crawling way, the narcissism of rapists.  She was 14 at the time:

It was also very painful – I hadn’t known that happened either. Several times I screamed with the pain. I was crying throughout, and asking him to stop (I used the word ‘please’ a lot). I still wasn’t scared for my life. He wasn’t violent: he just carried on, refusing to stop, repeating that I was no virgin and paying no attention when I told him it hurt. He wasn’t violent. I mean that he didn’t hit me.

When he’d finished, he stood and straightened his clothes. I pulled down my skirt and sat up. He went to the fridge and got out a bottle of milk, offered it to me, and when I shook my head he drank most of the pint.

‘You came a lot,’ he said, approvingly.

I didn’t know what he was talking about, I didn’t know what ‘coming’ was. I didn’t say anything.

‘All that crying, you were having a good time.’

I've often wondered how violent criminals, and especially rapists and abusers, choose their victims.  Anybody who's worked in the system has noticed how some abused women escape from one abusive partner only to fall in with another.  "She sure knows how to pick 'em," someone might say disapprovingly, but do abused women really sense the violence in men?  Are they attracted to it rather than frightened by it?  Are they psychologically driven to repeat really unpleasant events?

Or do violent men recognize vulnerability in women?  Do they seek to relive experiences they enjoy?  Or that they view as triumphs, to be bragged about in interviews with the curious psychologist who visits them in prison?

Okay, unless abused women belong to an alien species--an assumption that admittedly has much to recommend it, in terms of preserving one's own middle-aged male complacency--we'll have to say the second is approximately ten million times more likely.

But what's the secret of the abusers' uncanny knack for spotting the previously-victimized?  It's not a distortion introduced by the selection bias of the particular convenience sample that finds its way into the criminal justice system. 

We know violent men have that knack because studies galore show that one of the biggest risk factors for violent victimization is prior victimization. We also know that they don't possess the knack because they're so extremely sensitive and understanding.  So what's the secret?

Three researchers from Ontario's Brock University recently published the results of an ingenious study in Criminal Justice and Behavior.  The method was as follows:

Targets arrived in Room A, and after signing the consent form they were directed to another room to complete the rest of the study. While walking to the second room, they were unknowingly video taped from behind by a video camera hidden in the hallway. Video taping targets unknowingly allowed us to capture the participant’s natural gait in a controlled environment while protecting their facial identity. Once they arrived in room B, they were required to complete a demographics questionnaire and responded to two questions: (a) an item asking if they had ever been victimized (yes or no), and (b) an item asking them how many times they had been victimized in the past.

They were told they had been videotaped and asked to consent to allow their images, showing their unself-conscious ordinary gait from behind, to be used in the study.  The number of tapes was whittled down to 12, of which 6 depicted previously-victimized people.

The 6 previously-victimized people were classified as more vulnerable than the never-victimized.  As the researchers explain, "We used victimization history as a proxy for vulnerability because past victimization has been shown to be a strong predictor of future victimization."

Male college students at an unnamed (wink, wink) Canadian university were recruited to watch the videotapes and rate the vulnerability of the 12 people.  Specifically, they were asked to imagine themselves in the role of a mugger and to rate each of the people on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being "not at all vulnerable to being mugged" and 10 being "extremely vulnerable to being mugged."

The male evaluators were themselves rated for psychopathic traits.  Results:

Overall, the results clearly support the hypothesis that psychopathic traits enable victim selection. We found a robust, positive correlation between psychopathy scores and accuracy in determining victim and nonvictim target status.

"Target status" meant vulnerability, which the researchers equated with prior victimization.  The results meant that the evaluators who scored highest for psychopathy were most accurate at detecting prior victimization.

All that from a few seconds of watching the person walk down a hallway from behind.

We're moving closer to an answer to the two questions: Why is prior victimization a risk factor for future victimization?  How is it that violent men identify vulnerable women?  The answer appears to be: because those questions are both asking the same thing.

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