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Victoria Uni research on rapists a world first

Pioneering psychological research by Victoria University lecturer Devon Polaschek has world-wide implications for the treatment of rapists and offender profiling.

Polaschek, who graduates with her PhD from Victoria University tomorrow, was funded by the University and the Department of Corrections to develop a model of the chain of events that lead to and follow rape. Her research, which was based on lengthy and detailed interviews with 24 imprisoned rapists, focused on how the offenders themselves described what happened.

“While the offenders’ descriptions do not represent the objective truth, they do tell us something about how rapists think and provide a starting point for rehabilitation,” she said.

Polaschek’s research breaks new ground by challenging the assumption that all offenders are planning a sexual assault early in the sequence of events that leads to the rape. “It was actually relatively rare for sexual assault to be a goal of the offender early on in the process,” she said.

Polaschek found that the rapists’ initial motivations typically fell into two categories. “Many were looking for casual sex, either to enhance what was already a good evening or improve a low mood,” she said. “A second group wanted to redress a perceived psychological injury to themselves, either by setting out to harm someone else or by attempting to resolve a problem they had with another person. For this group of offenders a sexual component did not enter their plans until later.”

Another of Polaschek’s findings was that the men’s goals could change significantly over the course of their interaction with the victim. “An offender can go from having a sexual goal to revenge, and from a goal that is not criminal at all, such as persuading the victim to apologise, to intentional victim harm.”

Her model indicates that the offender’s perception of the victim’s behaviour affects how the offence unfolds, and may even affect whether a rape occurs – as opposed to some other type of harm to the victim.

“This is especially true for rapists whose early plans are not sexual in nature,” she said. “Those offenders probably wouldn’t have gone on to rape if their victim had complied with their non-sexual goals. In most cases, however, the victim would still have been harmed.”

Polaschek’s research is a first for New Zealand and the world, and has been well received by overseas experts. To date, psychological research on sexual offending has mostly focused on child sex abusers, with men who sexually assault adults receiving much less attention. Research done on these men has focused on the most serious repeat and violent offenders, who are statistically unusual.

Similarly, while specialist treatment programmes have been developed for violent offenders and child sex offenders, there is a lack of knowledge about what treatment should be given to men who rape adults. Polaschek’s research suggests that some rapists would benefit from the treatments given to violent offenders, while others would benefit from the programmes run for child sex abusers.

The research participants were 24 men currently serving a prison sentence for sexual violation or attempted sexual violation of a person over the age of 16 years. Their average age, at the time of the researched sexual violation, was 31.8 years. They were from five prisons throughout New Zealand, and their average sentence length was seven years. Five men had received psychological treatment related to their offending since commencing their sentence.

The sample included only men of European descent, but Polaschek is currently extending the research to include Maori and Pacific Island offenders.

Polaschek has been a Lecturer in Criminal Justice Psychology at Victoria University since 1994. The only fulltime lectureship of its kind in New Zealand, the position is half funded by the Department of Corrections. Prior to her academic appointment, Polaschek worked for the Forensic Psychiatric Service at Sunnyside Psychiatric Hospital in Christchurch and for the Department of Justice Psychological Services Division in Hamilton. She will graduate with her PhD on Friday during the 6.15 pm ceremony at the Michael Fowler Centre.

Victoria University Wellington

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