Understanding the Perpetrator

Understanding the Perpetrator February 3, 2017

*Trigger warning for sexual violence
**all names have been changed to protect identity

gold-2011566_1280by Nadiah Mohajir

As we work to help survivors seek justice and healing, we often hold space with them as they share their pain of disclosing to their loved ones. More often than not, when survivors disclose in the Muslim community, they are met with victim blaming and shaming. Even more disturbingly, their abusers are not always held accountable. While it is absolutely shocking and painful to hear a loved one disclose that they have been sexually assaulted, the way you respond to them can be so, so important to their healing. Asking questions like “But why didn’t you tell me before” and “Why do you keep getting yourself into these situations” and “you should have known better,” is not just blaming the victim for the assault, but perpetuating the culture that enables violence against women to occur in the first place. These types of responses also indicate a lack of understanding of sexual assault, and more importantly, how perpetrators work. While every sexual assault situation is unique, there are some important themes that we can consider when thinking about perpetrators and how they successfully abuse their power and manipulate victims. We must have an understanding of how perpetrators work in order to be victim-centric in how we respond to survivors.


We know that sexual assault is one of the most under reported crimes in America. In fact, nearly 70% (68%) of sexual assault is never reported to law enforcement. Put differently, on average, two out of three victims do not report to law enforcement. Research suggests that the rate of under-reporting is even higher in communities of color and faith communities. To understand why so many victims do not report, please read more here.

Of the crimes that are actually reported (only 30%), only 2-8% of those reports are actually false. This means that more often than not, the victim is telling the truth. Finally, of the crimes that are reported, only 2% of perpetrators ever spend a night in jail. This is because sexual assault is such a difficult crime to prove in a court of law. So these are a lot of statistics, but let’s summarize before we move on to common patterns among perpetrators:

  • 68% of sexual assault is not reported to law enforcement
  • Only 2-5% of reports are false
  • Only 2% of perpetrators spend time in jail

The Power Dynamic
“He loved me when no one else did.”

A common misconception is that sexual assault is about arousal or sexual gratification. Sexual assault is almost never about the sex; rather, it is about the power and control that the abuser wants to assert over his/her victim. Put simply, the abuser is using forced sexual activity as a way to gain power. This is even true of situations involving intimate partner violence. Often times, the abuser is in a position of power – either publicly – such as a religious/community leader, teacher/administrator, etc – or privately – such as an important family member. Perpetrators often use their position in the community or family, and their “public” perception, as an advantage to hide the abuse. They often target those that are in vulnerable situations or are “lower” in the hierarchy of power as their victims. Additionally, perpetrators may use other tactics – such as using alcohol and drugs – as a “weapon” to intoxicate and incapacitate their victims.

  • Example: An uncle who has financially provided for his brother’s widow and children abuses his young niece.
  • Example: A religious leader who many go to seek advice from, targets the lonely, single, depressed woman and sexually harasses her.
  • Example: A beloved and revered math teacher targets her student who is struggling because his mother just died.

The Grooming Period
“I didn’t even know he was abusing me.”

One of the main difference between domestic violence and sexual violence is that sexual violence is often not inherently violent. Often, there are no signs of physical abuse or harm. In fact, many times, the abuser is one that showers his/her victim with love and pampers them with gifts and praise. Abusers spend a lot of time “grooming” their victims. This means that they spend a lot of time before the abuse even begins, building trust between them, showing their love for them through praise and gifts, making them feel like the bond between them is special, and really getting to know their victim, especially their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, so that they can manipulate them when the time is right. Additionally, they are known to create secrecy around the relationship, and reinforce that idea by referencing how “special” their bond is. Finally, often, the initiation of sexual contact is gradual – it may begin with an “innocent” arm around the shoulder, and progress over time as the abuser slowly pushes boundaries. Because of the grooming period, victims often reflect and say that they were not even able to recognize the abuse or when it started. This is especially true of young children.

  • Example: A loving uncle showers his victim with thoughtful gifts and becomes her confidant during her troubling teenage years eventually sexually abuses her.
  • Example: After fleeing an abusive marriage and spending several years as a single mom, Noor finally finds a loving partner once again. He showers her with love and gifts and fills the void she was feeling in her life as a single mom. Yet, he also often gets irrationally hostile, forces her to have sex against her will, and controls how she spends money, while convincing her he is doing what is best for the kids and their future.

The Stranger Danger Myth

When talking to others about sexual assault, particularly young children, we often focus on the stereotypical scary violent stranger that will attack their victim in a dark alley at 3am. Unfortunately, this is far from reality. According to rainn.org, 93% of juvenile victims actually know their assailant: it could be a neighbor, friend, family member, teacher, or intimate partner. Most of the time, perpetrators are not even scary or inherently violent; rather, they are incredibly charismatic, likeable people, who might even be well-known to the community for their contributions or position.

  • Example: When Sadia spoke to a counselor and described her relationship, the counselor suggested that she might be in an abusive relationship. Sadia responded, quickly denying it, “But he has never been violent. He cares for me just like my family does. And he’s always loved me.”

Threats and Manipulation
“I didn’t even realize he was manipulating me or lying to me.”

Perpetrators thrive on using threats and manipulation as one of their main tactics. Often times, they may instill fear in their victims and keep them from disclosing to others, especially law enforcement. Other times, the perpetrator may manipulate or lie to the victim to confuse them, and the victim may not even realize that they are being lied to.

  • Example: Tanya’s abuser threatened to harm her young daughter if she told anyone about the abuse.
  • Example: Aisha’s abuser, who is faculty in the same department she is pursuing her PhD, threatened to expose their relationship and compromise her entire academic career.
  • Example: Amir’s abuser, an older, more popular, student at his boarding school, threatened to tell their classmates that Amir is gay if he told anyone about the abuse.

Self-blame and Spiritual Guilt
“He made me believe that it was my fault.

Perpetrators often manipulate their victims to make them believe that the abuse is their fault. This is especially true in faith communities that value sexual purity. Often times, perpetrators will convince the victim to keep the relationship a secret so that the community does not find out about their “sins.” Other times, they convince the victim that they are in fact to blame for the abuse: if they didn’t behave in a certain way, then the abuse would never have happened.

  • Example: Anisa went to a college party, and woke up the next day without any clothes on. She realized she was raped by her dorm mate and when she confronted him, he told her that if she only hadn’t gone to the party and had a few drinks, it would never have happened. What he failed to mention, however, was that he had dropped drugs in her drink, using intoxication as a weapon to incapacitate her.
  • Example: Sarah was abused by her older cousin. When she told her aunt, she was blamed for “being too playful,” and that if only she had worn hijab, it would not have happened.

False Promises
“I knew he had a past but it was different this time”

Many perpetrators make false promises to their victims. For example, often times the perpetrator may convince the victim to remain in the relationship, instilling false hope of future marriage. Other times, the will convince the victim that despite the rumors that are going around about his past relationships, it is different this time, because he’s changed.

  • Example: Ali has been in a series of abusive relationships when he meets Maria. Maria’s classmate, aware of Ali’s history, warns her to stay away and even provides her with public records of his restraining orders and arrests. When Maria confronts Ali, Ali admits he had a past, but that since then he has gotten help, and that his love for Maria is different than what he has felt in the past.

Being enabled by the community
“Everyone knew, but no one helped.”

While there is generally one person that has actually committed the crime, often times there are many in the community or around the perpetrator that can further enable the abuse to continue. Perhaps the abuser is a wealthy board member of a community institution, and exposing his abuse would threaten the future sustainability of the institution. Or perhaps the abuser is a young man, who is attending a prestigious university and a star athlete, and his family fears that exposing the abuse would threaten his future. There are countless examples of perpetrators who are surrounded by people who “protect” the perpetrator from experiencing long term consequences.

  • Example: Fatima, a 23-year old victim reported her rape to the police and has just redacted the statement. The community is enraged, blaming Fatima for lying and making up the assault. Upon further investigation, we learned that Fatima pulled out of the case because of the threats to further humiliation she was receiving from the abuser’s family.
  • Example: Asad is a fifteen year old boy that was assaulted by his camp counselor, Zain, at summer camp. When he told the camp administrators, they told him that he must have imagined it and that Zain was not capable of such behavior – his commitment to community service and his faith are proof of it.

As such, it is crucial to understand how perpetrators work and some of the common patterns in sexual assault situations. A deep understanding of perpetrators can really help people appropriately respond to a victim when he/she discloses. It is crucial to view sexual assault as not a “random accident,” but truly one that is premeditated and requires a lot of groundwork on the part of the abuser; only then can we move toward a society that favors the victim over the perpetrator.

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