The Psychology of Rape

Association for Interdisciplinary Research in Values and Social Change
Volume 25 Number 2
Summer 2013
by Wanda Franz, Ph.D.
[Developmental psychologist and professor emerita
of child development at West Virginia University
in Morgantown, WV.]
Reproduced with Permission

Rape is a topic that is always viewed as very difficult to address, presumably because it deals with complex psychological problems and because it involves sensitive sexual issues. However, those who support abortion rights argue that abortion provides a necessary benefit to the woman, who is pregnant as a result of rape. This discussion on the psychological aspects of rape will challenge this assumption.

Psychological aspects of the rapist

The first question to be addressed is: "What is the psychological nature of rape?" Can it be characterized as youthful exuberance, over-active sexual attraction, enthusiastic expressions of love; or is it, in fact, a sexual deviation? Groth and Burgess1 of Boston College wrote that the medical evidence justifies their position that rape should be considered a sexual deviation. Their research suggested that the rapist is driven by psychological deviations, which express themselves in sexual aggression.

They argued, in their study, that there are four definitions of sexual deviancy, which cannot fully explain the data on rapists. These are often the ones the average person thinks of when thinking of rape, but which are, in fact, inadequate explanations. They include measuring deviancy by determining:

They recommend, instead, that sexual deviancy should be seen as caused by the psychological dynamic of the sexual perpetrator. It is "sexual behavior in the service of non-sexual needs." They argue that rape should be defined as a pseudosexual act that is not about sex but occurs to gratify other needs.

They studied both rape perpetrators and their victims and found that rape is always characterized by force (including verbal and physical force). In the majority of cases, the rapist simply overpowers his victim. In addition, most victims of rape have some form of physical damage, such as bruising or cuts, as a result of the rape.

They identified two types of rape. Every act of rape includes components of both, but every act can be characterized as meeting primarily one or the other definitions: "anger rape" or "power rape." In the rape motivated by anger, the rapist generally doesn't plan the rape in advance, but will suddenly violently attack his victim, often expressing verbal abuse and forcing his victim into degrading acts. This form of rape appears to be motivated by hatred of women in general, which is then acted out on the victim.

The rape motivated by power is, instead, a planned attack in which the rapist fantasizes about the way his victim will appreciate and enjoy the power he uses. It is about seeing his victim completely powerless and gaining pleasure from the feeling of having power and control over her.

Rapists often have diagnosable personality disorders, but they can also suffer from developmental disorders. A developmental disorder represents, "a failure to achieve an adequate sense of self-identity and self-worth." The disorder occurs because the rapist is "inhibited in forming an adequate masculine self-image and cannot gain mastery over his life." Rape provides him with the false feeling of having power and control. Thus, the authors define rape as the violent misuse of the sexual act to fulfill deviant psychological, developmental and personal needs.

Psychology of the victims of rape

In the 1970's, Sandra Mahkorn wrote a number of articles describing the psychological needs of the victims of rape and explaining how the public's misunderstanding of the psychological causes of rape added to the pain experienced by the victims.2,3 She worked with rape victims and knew their needs and problems. Her articles were written to explain the mistaken ideas about the victims of rape. She wrote that it was incorrect to think of rape as being about sex, when it is mostly about power, control and anger. It is incorrect to assume that the victim wants to be raped. As we have seen, this is, in fact, the fantasy practiced by the rapist, not the feelings of the victim.

Making these false assumptions about the female victim of rape is very degrading and humiliating to the woman. These attitudes promote the idea that the woman is somehow defiled by the rape, that she is damaged goods. Blaming the victim for her victimization leads to feelings of guilt and shame and inhibits her ability to find peace and healing from her ordeal.

These feelings are exacerbated by any pregnancy that may occur. Those who support abortion rights assume that abortion is required in these cases to solve "the problem." Mahkorn argued that this attitude sends a negative message about the woman herself. If the child is damaged goods, what does that say about the woman? Mahkorn's professional position is that this pro-abortion position demeans, rather than, assists the woman.

The pro-abortion position assumes that the pregnant victim of rape will have negative feelings about the child, may feel the child is really the property of the hated rapist or may look like the father and remind her of the horrible conditions of the conception. Well-meaning members of the public tend to simply adopt this line of thinking without understanding its implications for these women. As Mahkorn points out, this kind of thinking is really related to a "sexist mentality."

This sexist mentality leads to thinking of the woman as "merchandise to which a man can claim ownership, any offspring from that relationship becomes the property of the owner, the father. Similar to the serf-landlord relationship in which the master is entitled to the 'fruits of labor,' this notion promotes the idea of woman as subservient. Perhaps unwittingly, proponents of abortion in the case of rape reinforce the property status of both the woman and the child." (Mahkorn & Dolan, 1981, Page 192.)

Sadly, this is the kind of argument that occurs in Islamic cultures, where women are rejected by their husbands following rape, even if it occurs by force. Brownmiller4 described such a situation when thousands of Bengali women were raped by Pakistani soldiers. Their Muslim husbands wouldn't take them back because they had been "touched" by another man and were, therefore, "unclean" and "tainted"; they were the husband's damaged goods, which he rightfully rejected. Americans rightfully reject such kind of thinking. However, arguing that a woman should reject her child conceived in rape by having an abortion, is the identical kind of thinking. The child has no value because it is the property of a man, which has been damaged by being conceived in rape.

In fact, the child is a second victim of the rape. Totally innocent, the child exists because of another's crime. To attack and kill this innocent victim closely mirrors the conditions of the mother herself. If she succumbs to the pressure to abort her child, she is following in the footsteps of the violent abuser, who raped her. She joins him in victimizing an innocent person.

Mahkorn's experience working with pregnant rape victims leads her to recognize a series of steps required by the women in order to find healing. It is necessary that she accept the fact that she is totally innocent and has not brought the crime upon herself, that she accepts and understands the deviance that lead to the crime, and that she forgives her attacker so she can move forward without anger to continue to respond to others in positive and loving ways. Killing her own child can only make it much more difficult for her to fulfill these tasks of healing.

Mahkorn's research on women pregnant from rape shows that some chose to carry their babies to term because they denied the pregnancy for so long that it was too late to perform an abortion. However, most of the women gave birth to their babies because they believed in the value of the unborn child and acknowledged the immorality of killing the innocent child. The counselors found that these women improved in their mental outlook over the course of the pregnancy; and every woman in the study had a positive mental outlook by the time of the birth. The women in the study were split in their decisions about keeping their babies or giving them up for adoption; however, all were satisfied with their decision to carry the babies to term.

Women who chose to abort their babies did so primarily because of pressure from others and the attitude of those who believed that the pregnancy would be a reminder of the rape and of the hated attacker. Many of these women felt guilty about the rape and had poor self-esteem. Thus, these women, sadly, had accepted the idea that they were somehow partly to blame and that they and their babies were somehow "damaged goods."

Psychological effects of abortion following rape

Unfortunately, there are no long-term studies that provide data on groups of women who have been raped, who have had abortions. We do have some data on the numbers of victims, who seek abortions for rape-related pregnancy. There is evidence that women tend to avoid abortion as a "solution" to their pregnancy from rape. The statistical estimates of pregnancy following rape vary widely, but 5% has been given as an estimated national rape-related pregnancy rate.5

However, it is interesting that, in the many studies that have recruited women from abortion facilities for research purposes, it is rare to find a woman who is getting an abortion due to pregnancy from rape. In one study from Norway, a single woman was found of the 255 women asked to participate in the study.6 These kinds of data suggest that there are few abortions for rape-related pregnancy, but it is difficult to know the exact numbers at this time. It would appear that most women who become pregnant from rape do not have abortions.

We do have anecdotal evidence that aborting a child conceived in rape can have a negative impact on the woman. David Reardon reports such a case in his book:7

"I still feel that I probably couldn't have loved that child conceived of rape, but there are so many people who would have loved that baby dearly. The man who raped me took a few moments of my life, but I took that innocent baby's entire life. That's not justice as I see it." (Debbie, page 212.)

Other personal anecdotes of women, who aborted their children, include:

"I felt an emptiness that nothing could fill, and quickly discovered that the aftermath of abortion continued a long time after the memory of the rape had dimmed. For the next three years I experienced horrible depression and nightmares. I'd dream I was giving birth, but then they'd take my baby away from me. I'd hear her crying and I'd search, but I couldn't find her anywhere. I'd just hear her cries echoing in the distance…Contrary to what everyone had told me, the abortion was much harder to deal with than the rape. The rape was a violent crime against me, an innocent victim. The abortion was the violent murder of my child, and I was a willing participant." (Jackie Bakker)

Another woman has written:

"Now, nearly five years removed from the decision to have my abortion, I can say with some certainty that I regret it to the fullest extent possible. My heart hurts deeply with the wounds that came from my assault. But the pain of knowing that I will never meet my child hurts more deeply. While I continue to wonder how I could have coped with having a baby from rape, I know that killing him did nothing to heal my pain." (Anonymous)

These comments demonstrate that the analysis made by Mahkorn accurately predicted the difficulty faced by these women, who chose to abort their babies conceived in rape. They clearly feel regret over the violence of abortion and their participation in it. Their ability to heal from the damaging effects of the rape is limited by the difficulty of healing from the effects of the abortion. Unlike the women that Mahkorn studied, who carried their babies to term, these women seem to be stuck in their grief and guilt over the rape incident. They clearly do not feel healed.

These women also reflect on the fact that a life is gone that could have existed and provided joy. What if these children had not been aborted? They will never know the missing children. Of course, we know many individuals today, who were conceived in rape, but were allowed to live. They are giving their testimonies, which demonstrate the value of choosing life in these cases. They are the best argument against the current practice that allows abortion in the case of rape.

Psychological problems following abortion

The pain reported by these women is not unlike that reported by women who have had abortions for reasons other than rape. Regardless of the reasons that a woman chooses to have an abortion, there is evidence that the act of abortion can be very damaging to the mental health of women.8 Priscilla Coleman studied the costs of abortion to the state-funded medical program in California. Compared to those who gave birth, women, who had abortions, had higher claims for mental illness, although they had no prior history of these problems:

In addition, in the same population, the women, who had abortions, had higher rates of admission to psychiatric hospitals following abortion:9

Thus, the evidence is good that having an abortion leads to more psychological problems then carrying the pregnancy to term.

Coleman performed a meta-analysis of the strongest studies published on the psychological after-effects of abortion on women.10 She found that women, who have had an abortion, experience an 81% higher risk for mental health problems of various forms compared to women who have not had an abortion. Women, who had had abortions, were at significantly higher risk for suicidal behaviors, depression and anxiety, and for the use of marijuana and alcohol. She found that 10% of mental health problems in women were due to abortion.

Given the psychological problems associated with the choice to have an abortion, rape victims have no reason to believe that abortion is the best solution for them in dealing with a pregnancy following rape.


Sandra Mahkorn was working with rape victims in the early days of the legalization of abortion. She made it clear that those working with these women were not the ones calling for legalized abortion on behalf of rape victims. It was abortion advocates who were using rape to justify legalized abortion; and they appear to have little real knowledge about the women they claimed to be helping. It appears that this is another case of abortion advocates misusing an issue to call for abortion rights. True compassion begins with the victims who need help and provides programs developed to meet those needs.

It is difficult to do statistical group research on a target group that is so small in comparison to the population as a whole. However, we can get a good picture of the impact of abortion on these women by combining the psychological understanding of the needs of this victimized group with the clinical evidence of individuals who have chosen abortion and those who have not.

There is good reason to argue that abortion is not a solution for women who become pregnant as a result of rape. Abortion itself puts women at risk for psychological problems. It does not contribute to their healing. Even worse, by encouraging these women to abort, we are inadvertently causing them to take on the mentality of the rapist. We are asking them to attack an innocent victim, which is exactly what the rapist did to them. This is hardly the best prescription for health and healing for these women.


1 Groth, N.A. & Burgess, A.W. (1977). Rape as sexual deviation. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 47(3), 400-406. [Back]

2 Mahkorn, S.K. (1979). Pregnancy and sexual assault. In The Psychological Aspects of Abortion. D. Mall and W. F. Watts (Eds.). Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, Inc. [Back]

3 Mahkorn, S.K. & Dolan, W.V. (1981). Sexual Assault and Pregnancy. In New Perspectives on Human Abortion. T. Hilgers, D. Horan & D. Mall (Eds.). Frederick, MD: Aletheia Books, University Publications of America, Inc. [Back]

4 Brownmiller, S. (1975). Against Our Will. New York: Simon and Schuster. [Back]

5 Holmes, M.M., Resnick, H.S., Kilpatrick, D.G. & Best, C.L. (1996). Rape-related pregnancy: Estimates and descriptive characteristics from a national sample of women. American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, 175(2), 320-325. [Back]

6 Broen, A.N., Moum, T., Bodtker, A.S. and Ekeberg, O. (2004). Psychological impact on women of miscarriage versus induced abortion: A 2-year follow-up study. Psychosomatic Medicine 66, 265-271. [Back]

7 Reardon, D.C. (1987). Aborted Women. Silent No More. Crossway Books. [Back]

8 Coleman, P.K., Reardon, D.C., Rue, V., Cougle, J. (2002). State-funded Abortions vs. Deliveries: A comparison of outpatient mental health claims over four years. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 72, 141-152. [Back]

9 Reardon, D.C., Cougle, J., Rue, V.M., Shuping, M., Coleman, P.K., & Ney, P.G. (2003). Psychiatric admissions of low-income women following abortion and childbirth. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 168: 1253-1256. [Back]

10 Coleman, P.K. (September, 2011). Abortion and mental health: A quantitative synthesis and analysis of research published from 1995-2009. British Journal of Psychiatry, 199, 180-186. [Back]