The Criminal Behavior of the Serial Rapist

By Robert R. Hazelwood, M.S.
Special Agent Behavioral Science Instruction/Research Unit Quantico, VA
Janet Warren, D.S.W.
Institute of Psychiatry and Law University of Virginia Charlottesville, VA

This Article Originally Appeared in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, February 1990.

From 1984 to 1986, FBI Special Agents assigned to the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) interviewed 41 men who were responsible for raping 837 victims. Previous issues of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin provided an introduction to this research1 and the characteristics of the rapists and their victims.2 This article, however, describes the behavior of these serial rapists during and following the commission of their sexual assaults. The information presented is applicable only to the men interviewed; it is not intended to be generalized to all men who rape.


The majority of the sexual attacks (55-61%) committed by these men were premeditated across their first, middle, and last rapes, while fewer rapists reported their crimes as being impulsive (15-22%) or opportunistic (22-24%).Although no comparable data on serial rape are available, it is probable that the premeditation involved in these crimes is particularly characteristic of these serial rapists. It is also probable that this premeditation is reflective of their preferential interest in this type of crime and largely accounts for their ability to avoid detection.

Methods Of Approach

There are three different styles of approach rapists frequently use: The“con,” the “blitz,” and the “surprise.”3 Each reflects a different means of selecting, approaching and subduing a chosen victim.

The “Con” Approach Case Number 1

John, a man who raped more than 20 women, told the interviewers that he stopped one of his victims late at night and identified himself as a plain clothes police officer. He asked for her driver’s license and registration, walked back to his car and sat there for a few moments. He then returned to the victim, advised her that her registration had expired and asked her to accompany him to his car. She did so, and upon entering the car, he handcuffed her and drove to an isolated location where he raped and sodomized the victim.

As in the above case account, the con approach involves subterfuge and is predicated on the rapist’s ability to interact with women. With this technique,the rapist openly approaches the victim and requests or offers some type of assistance or direction. However, once the victim is within his control,the offender may suddenly become more aggressive. The con approach was used in 8 (24%) of the first rapes, 12 (35%) of the middle rapes, and 14 (41%)of the last rapes. Various ploys used by the offenders included impersonating a police officer, providing transportation for a hitchhiking victim, and picking women up in singles bars. Obviously, this style of initiating contact with victims requires an ability to interact with women.

The “Blitz” Approach Case Number 2

Phil, a 28-year-old male, approached a woman loading groceries in her car, struck her in the face, threw her in the vehicle and raped her. On another occasion, he entered a women’s restroom in a hospital, struck his victim, and raped her in a stall. Exiting the restroom with the victim in his grasp, he threatened her as though they were involved in a lover’s quarrel, and thus precluded interference from concerned onlookers who had gathered when she screamed.

In a blitz approach, the rapist uses a direct, injurious physical assault which subdues and physically injures the victim. The attacker may also use chemicals or gases but most frequently makes use of his ability to physically overpower a woman. Interestingly, despite its simplicity, this approach was used in 23% of the first rapes, 20% of the middle rapes, and 17% of the last rapes. Even though it is used less often than the con approach, the blitz approach results in more extensive physical injury and inhibits certain fantasy components of the rape that may be arousing to the rapist.

The “Surprise” Approach Case Number 3

Sam, a 24-year-old male, would preselect his victims through “peeping tom” activities. He would then watch the victim’s residence to establish her patterns. After deciding to rape the woman, he would wait until she had gone to sleep, enter the home, and place his hand over her mouth. He would advise the victim that he did not intend to harm her if she cooperated with the assault. He raped more than 20 women before he was apprehended.

The surprise approach, which involves the assailant waiting for the victim or approaching her after she is sleeping, presupposes that the rapist has targeted or preselected his victim through unobserved contact and knowledge of when the victim would be alone. Threats and/or the presence of a weapon are often associated with this type of approach; however, there is no actual injurious force applied.

The surprise approach was used by the serial rapists in 19 (54%) of the first rapes, 16 (46%) of the middle rapes, and 16 (44%) of the last rapes (percentages vary due to the number of rapes). This represents the most frequently used means of approach and is used most often by men who lack confidence in their ability to subdue the victim through physical threats or subterfuge.

Controlling The Victim

How rapists maintain control over a victim is dependent upon two factors: Their motivation for the sexual attack and/or the passivity of the victim. Within this context, four control methods are frequently used in various combinations during a rape:

  1. Mere physical presence
  2. Verbal threats
  3. Display of a weapon
  4. The use of physical force. 4

The men in this study predominantly used a threatening physical presence (82-92%) and/or verbal threats (65-80%) to control their victims. Substantially less often they displayed a weapon (44-49%) or physically assaulted the victim(27-32%). When a weapon was displayed, it was most often a sharp instrument, such as a knife (27-42%).

One rapist explained that he chose a knife because he perceived it to be the most intimidating weapon to use against women in view of their fear of disfigurement. Firearms were used less frequently (14-20%). Surprisingly,all but a few of the rapists used binding located at the scene of the rape. One exception was an individual who brought pre-cut lengths of rope, adhesive tape and handcuffs along with him.

The Use Of Force

The amount of force used during a rape provides valuable insight into the motivations of the rapist and, hence, must be analyzed by those investigating the offense or evaluating the offender.5 The majority of these men (75-84%) used minimal or no physical force across all three rapes.6 This degree of minimal force is defined as non-injurious force employed more to intimidate than to punish.7

Case Number 4

John began raping at 24 years of age and estimated that he had illegally entered over 5,000 homes to steal female undergarments. On 18 of those occasions,he also raped. He advised that he had no desire to harm the victims. He stated, “Raping them is one thing. Beating on them is entirely something else. None of my victims were harmed and for a person to kill somebody after raping them, it just makes me mad.”

Force resulting in bruises and lacerations or extensive physical trauma requiring hospitalization or resulting in death increased from 5% of the first rapes, 8% of the middle rapes, to 10% of the last rapes. Two victims (5%) were murdered during the middle rapes and an additional 2 (5%) were killed during the last rapes.

Case Number 5

Phil, an attractive 30-year-old male, described stabbing his mother to death when she awoke as he was attempting to remove her undergarments in preparation for sexual intercourse. He had been drinking and smoking marihuana with her for a period of time prior to the attempted sexual act, and after she fell asleep, he began fantasizing about having sex with her.

Most of the rapists in this study did not increase the amount of force they used across their first, middle and last rapes.8 However,10 of the rapists, termed “increasers,” did use progressively greater force over successive rapes and raped twice as many women on the average (40 victims as opposed to 22 victims) in half the amount of time (i.e., raping every 19 days as opposed to 55 days). By the time of the last assault, they were inflicting moderate to fatal injuries. These factors, coupled with progressive interest in anal intercourse among the increasers, suggest that for these individuals, sexual sadism may be a motive for their assaultive behavior.

Victim Resistance

Victim resistance may be defined as any action or inaction on the part of the victim which precludes or delays the offender’s attack. These behaviors may be described as passive, verbal, or physical innature.9  The rapists reported that their victims verbally resisted them in 53% of the first assaults, 54% of the middle attacks, and 43% of the last attacks. Physical resistance occurred in only 19%, 32% and 28% of the first, middle, and last rapes respectively. The relatively low incidence of passive resistance (i.e., 28% in the first rape, 17% of the middle rape, and 9% of the last rape) most likely reflects the rapists’ inability to discern this type of resistance.

In previous research, it was found that there was no relationship between both verbal and physical resistance and the amount of injury sustained by the victim.10
Interestingly, however, the degree of the rapists’ pleasure and the duration of the rape did increase when the victim resisted.In this study, the offenders’ most common reaction to resistance for the first, middle and last rapes was to verbally threaten the victim (50-41%).Compromise or negotiation took place in 11-12% across the rapes, and physical force was used in 22% of the first rapes, 38% of the second rapes and 18% of the third rapes. The rapists also reported 6 incidents in which they left when the victim resisted; however, it is not clear at what point in the attack the resistance occurred.

Sexual Dynamics Of The Rape

The sexual acts that the victim was forced to engage in remained relatively constant across all three rapes. The most common acts were vaginal intercourse(54-67%), oral sex (29-44%), kissing (8-13%) and fondling (10-18%). Anal intercourse (5-10%) and foreign object penetration (3-8%) were reported less often. In assessing changes in behavior over the first, middle and last rapes,there appears to be a trend wherein the rapists’ interest in oral sex increases while his interest in vaginal contact decreases.

The amount of pleasure that the rapist experienced during the three assaults was measured with the statement: “Think back to the penetration during the rape. Assuming `0′ equals your worst sexual experience and `10′ your absolutely best sexual experience, rate the amount of pleasure you experienced.” The majority of rapists reported surprisingly low levels of pleasure (3.7). However,the type of contact that resulted in higher scores differed widely.11 One rapist reported appreciation for his victims’ passivity and acquiescence, while another referred to the pleasure experienced in the rape-murder of two young boys as being “off the scale.”

Case Number 6

Paul had raped adult women, adolescent and preadolescent girls and brought his criminal career to an end with the rape and murder of two 10-year-old boys. When asked to rate the sexual experiences, he advised that he would rate the adult and adolescent females as “0” and the preadolescent girls as “3.” He then stated, “When you’re talking about sex with 10-year-old boys, your scale doesn’t go high enough.”

Verbal Activity

Across the first, middle and last rapes, the majority of serial rapists (78-85%) usually only conversed with the victims to threaten them. Much less frequently,their conversations were polite or friendly (30-34%), manipulative (23-37%), or personal (23-37%). In a minority of instances throughout the assaults,the rapist reported being inquisitive (15-20%), abusive/degrading (5-13%), or silent (8-13%). It appears that serial rapists use verbal threats to subdue the victim, and only after they believe they have gained control over the victim do they move on to various other modes of conversing or interacting.

Sexual Dysfunction

In a study of 170 rapists, it was determined that 34% experienced some type of sexual dysfunction during the rape.12 In fact, it has been noted that “the occurrence of offender sexual dysfunction and an investigatory understanding of the dysfunction may provide valuable information about the unidentified rapist.”13 The data on these serial rapists are strikingly similar. In the first rape, 38% of the subjects reported a sexual dysfunction, 39% in the middle rape, and 35% during the last assault. This type of information can prove helpful to the investigator in associating different offenses with a single offender, because the nature of the dysfunction and the means the offender uses to overcome it are likely to remain constant over a number of rapes.

Evading Detection

Considering the rapists’ aptitude for avoiding detection, it is surprising to note that very few of the serial rapists employed specific behaviors designed to preclude identification. In fact, offenders tend to rape their victims in the victim’s own home, thereby contributing to their ability to avoid detection.14 In addition, the majority of rapists (61-68%) did not report dressing in any special way for the offenses. Surprisingly, disguises were reported in only 7-12% of the offenses, suggesting that other means of evading detection were used by these particular offenders.

Alcohol And Other Drugs

Alcohol is commonly associated with rape, but other drugs, to a lesser degree,are also used at the time of the rape.15 The data on these rapists suggest a somewhat different relationship between alcohol/drugs and serial rape. Approximately one-third of the rapists were drinking alcoholic beverages at the time of the first, middle and last offenses, and 17-24% of the respondents reported using drugs. In a majority of these cases, these figures reflect the offender’s typical consumption pattern and not an unusual increase in substance abuse.

Post-Offense Behavior

The serial rapists were also asked about changes in their behavior following their assaults. The most frequent changes after each of the crimes included feeling remorseful and guilty (44-51%), following the case in the media(28%) and an increase in alcohol/drug consumption (20-27%). Investigators should also particularly note that 12-15% of rapists reported revisiting the crime scene and 8-13% communicated with the victim after the crime.


The research concerning serial rapists’ behavior during and following the commission of the crimes has determined that:

  • The majority of the rapes were premeditated
  • The “con” approach was used most often in initiating contact with the victim
  • A threatening presence and verbal threats were used to maintain control over the victim
  • Minimal or no force was used in the majority of instances
  • The victims physically, passively or verbally resisted the rapists in slightly over 50% of the offenses
  • The most common offender reaction to resistance was to verbally threaten the victim
  • Slightly over one-third of the offenders experienced a sexual dysfunction, and the preferred sexual acts were vaginal rape and forced fellatio
  • Low levels of pleasure were reported by the rapists from the sexual acts
  • The rapists tended not to be concerned with precautionary measures to protect their identities
  • Approximately one-third of the rapists had consumed alcohol prior to the crime and slightly less reported using some other drug.

The most common post-offense behavior reported by the reapists were feelings of remorse and guilt, following the case in the media and an increase in alcohol and drug consumption.
These characteristics, although not generally applicable to every rapist,can be helpful in learning more about offenders, their behaviors and the heinnous crime of rape.


  1. Robert R. Hazelwood & Ann w. Burgess, “An Introduction to the Serial Rapist,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, vol. 56, No. 9, September 1987, pp. 16-24.
  2. Robert R. Hazelwood & Janet Warren, “The Serial Rapist: His Characteristics and Victims,: FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, vol. 58, Nos. 1 and 2, January and February 1989, pp. 10-17 and 11-18.
  3. Supra note 1.
  4. Supra note 1.
  5. Supra note 1.
  6. Robert R. Hazelwood, R. Reboussin & J. Warren, “Serial Rape: Correlates of Increased Aggression and the Relationship of Offen- der Pleasure to Victim Resistance,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, March 1989, pp. 65-78.
  7. Supra note 1.
  8. Supra note 5.
  9. Supra note 1.
  10. Supra note 5.
  11. Supra note 5.
  12. N.A. Groth & A. W. Burgess, “Sexual Dysfunction During Rape,” New England Journal of Medicine, October 6, 1977, pp. 764-766.
  13. Robert R. Hazelwood, “Analyzing the Rape and Profiling the Offender,” Practical Aspects of Rape Investigations: A Multi- disciplinary Approach, R.R. Hazelwood & A.W. Burgess (Eds.) (New York: Elsevier Science Publishing Co., Inc., 1987), pp. 169- 199.
  14. Robert R. Hazelwood & J. Warren, “The Serial Rapist: His Characteristics and Victims,” Part II, FBI Law Enforcement Bulle- tin, February 1989, pp. 11-18.
  15. R. Rada, “Psychological Factors in Rapist Behavior,” American Journal of Psychiatry, vo. 132, pp. 444-446, 1975 and R. Rada, “Psychological Factors in Rapist Behavior,” Clinical Aspects of the Rapist, R. Rada (Ed.)(New York: Grune and Stratton Publishing Co., Inc., 1978), pp. 21-85.

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