Crimes against People

The category of crimes against people includes such crimes as murder, rape, assault, child abuse, and sexual harassment. Violent crimes reported to the police take place on average once every 20 to 30 seconds in the United States. Thus, the chances of being the victim of some form of violent crime in this country are disturbingly high.

Murder or homicide

Most Americans fear murder, which happens to about one in every 10,000 inhabitants. Murders usually occur in the midst of everyday routines and activities. In fact, most murders occur following some degree of social interaction between victim and murderer. Murders generally happen within the context of family or other interpersonal relations, and most victims know their murderer. In some cases, the victim even unintentionally prompts the murderer to attack, by making verbal threats, striking the first blow, or trying to use a weapon, which is called victim‐precipitated murder. The majority of killers are not psychotic or mentally deranged. While sensational murders and murderers, like the “Son of Sam,” receive much publicity, they probably make up a very small percentage of the total.

Studies indicate several interesting facts about murder and murderers:

  • Men are much more likely than women to kill and/or be killed.

  • Murders are most likely to occur in large urban areas.

  • Murders are more common during the months of December, July, and August, and are also more likely to occur on weekend nights and early mornings.

  • Alcohol plays a role in nearly two‐thirds of all murders.

The question of the role of capital punishment in deterring murder intrigues sociologists and stirs a great deal of debate. The social science literature generally indicates that no relationship exists between capital punishment and homicide rates, although some sociologists may prefer to describe the literature on the topic as inconclusive.

Rape and personal assault

Laws that protect people from unwanted sexual behaviors are appropriate and necessary, and this is certainly the case with rape—the forced sexual violation of one person (usually female) by another (usually male). To some, rape is a crime of violence and aggression, not one of sex. To others, it is a crime of both violence and sex.

Rape is hardly a phenomenon of recent origin. Because men have traditionally treated women more like property than as individuals, societies of the past viewed abuses against women less as crimes against them than as crimes against their fathers, husbands, or owners. This thinking has begun to change in recent decades. For instance, some state courts have finally ruled that a woman can charge her husband with marital rape if he forces her to have sexual relations.

Although bringing charges against an attacker may now be easier for rape victims, winning a conviction in court is still difficult.

While rape crosses all lines—racial, socioeconomic, age, and marital status—single, white women in their teens and 20s are at the greatest risk of being victims. Most rapists are males between the ages of 18 and 44.

In recent years, the incidence of rape has increased, but authorities believe this is due to more women reporting the crime than to the actual number of rapes increasing. Still, many never report the assault or file charges. Why?

  • They may fear being victimized again, this time in the courts.

  • They may dread the social stigma of being a rape victim, or the publicity that accompanies a rape report.

  • They may realize that the chances of winning a conviction are small.

  • They may feel emotionally traumatized and drained.

  • They may feel dirty, guilty, and demoralized, coming to the erroneous conclusion that their behavior or dress somehow inadvertently indicated a desire to be forced into sex.

Because of this ambivalence over reporting rape, authorities may never know the exact number of rapes in the United States. One study estimates that between 15 and 25 percent of women in the United States have been or will be victims of rape during their lifetimes. These figures may or may not represent the actual number of rapes taking place in this country, but they are nonetheless alarming.

Six basic types of rape exist: outsider rape, gang rape, acquaintance rape, date rape, marital rape, and statutory rape. Many people mistakenly believe outsider rape (or stranger rape), which is an attack from someone entirely unknown to the victim, is the most common type of rape, probably because it is the one victims usually bring to the attention of authorities. Outsider rape is frequently the most violent rape of all. Victims frequently suffer severe and even fatal injury, often through the use of knives, guns, and other weapons. In many cases, perpetrators of outsider rape pick their victims carefully, and plan the best times and places for the assault. Gang rape occurs when two or more perpetrators—either strangers or acquaintances—commit rape on the same individual.

The perpetrator of acquaintance rape is someone the victim knows. Studies have found acquaintance rape to occur more frequently than any other kind. As many as 95 percent of college female victims may know their attackers. A specific type of acquaintance rape is date rape, in which the perpetrator is a dating partner. Date rape can occur at any time during courtship, from the first date to long after a stable relationship has formed. It often happens when one or both individuals have been drinking alcohol or taking drugs, and when one individual takes “no” to sexual pressure from the other to mean “yes” or “maybe.”

Some states still do not recognize marital rape unless it occurs between separated marital partners or results in serious injury. One research study found that as many as 14 percent of married women report having been raped by their husbands. Although abuse and cruelty are frequent during marital rape, prosecutions are rare.

Marital rape is one aspect of a larger problem— spouse abuse. One estimate claims that nearly one million women in the United States each year seek medical treatment for injuries sustained during beatings by their husbands.

Rape is not exclusively a crime committed against women. Men, too, are raped, generally by heterosexual men, but also occasionally by women. Extremely common in prison settings, male rape by other males is rarely reported or prosecuted in regular society. Male rape is usually a display of power and dominance over others, such as occurs among prison inmates.

Child abuse

Child abuse
is the intentional inflicting of pain, injury, and harm onto a child. Child abuse also includes emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse, including humiliation, embarrassment, rejection, coldness, lack of attention, neglect, isolation, and terrorization.

Adults who were physically and emotionally abused as children frequently suffer from deep feelings of anxiety, shame, guilt, and betrayal. If the experience was especially traumatic and emotionally painful (as it often is), victims may repress memories of the abuse and suffer deep, unexplainable depression as adults. Child abuse almost always interferes with later relationships. Researchers have also noted a wide range of emotional dysfunction both during, soon after, and long after physical abuse, including anxiety attacks, suicidal tendencies, angry outbursts, withdrawal, fear, and depression. Another decidedly negative effect of child abuse, a strong intergenerational pattern, is also worth noting. In other words, many abusers were themselves victims of abuse as children.

In spite of the range and intensity of the after‐effects of child abuse, many victims manage to accept the abuse as a regrettable event, but one that they can also leave behind.

One emotionally damaging form of child abuse is child sexual abuse. Also known as child molestation, child sexual abuse occurs when a teenager or adult entices or forces a child to participate in sexual activity. This activity constitutes perhaps the worst means of exploiting children imaginable. Ranging from simple touching to bodily penetration, child sexual abuse is culturally forbidden in most parts of the world, and is illegal everywhere in the United States. Experts estimate that as many as 25 percent of children in the United States undergo sexual abuse each year. Adults who are sexually attracted to children are known as pedophiles.

Every state in the country also has laws against a specific type of child abuse known as incest, which is sexual activity between closely related persons of any age. Child sexual abuse is incest when the abuser is a relative, whether or not the relative is blood‐related, which explains why stepparents can be arrested for incest when molesting their stepchildren. Not all states have laws forbidding sexual activity among first cousins.

Contrary to popular misconception, incest occurs less frequently than abuse from a person outside the family, such as a family friend, teacher, minister, youth director, or scoutmaster. The perpetrators of incest are typically men; their victims, typically girls in their middle childhood years.

Sexual harassment

Reported more frequently today than ever before, sexual harassment is legally defined as unwanted sexual advances, suggestions, comments, or gestures—usually ongoing in nature and involving a supervisor‐supervisee relationship (that is, a situation involving unequal power). Sexual harassment takes many forms, such as:
  • Verbal harassment or abuse.

  • Sexist remarks about a person's body, clothing, or sexual activities.

  • Unwanted touching, pinching, or patting.

  • Leering or ogling at a person's body.

  • Subtle or overt pressure for sexual activity.

  • Demanding sexual favors accompanied by implied or overt threats concerning one's job or student status.

  • Constant brushing against a person's body.

  • Physical assault.

Women are most often the objects of sexual harassment, especially in the workplace. One review of the literature found that 42 percent of women reported having experienced some form of sexual harassment at work, compared to 15 percent of men. The practice is so pervasive in work sites throughout the United States that many women have come to expect it, and the vast majority (over 95 percent) never file a formal complaint. Others simply find another job.

Sexual harassment is not confined to the workplace. For example:

  • College students may come under sexual pressure from their instructors, with grades, graduation, and letters of recommendation used as threats or bribes. One survey of university undergraduates found that 29 percent of women and 20 percent of men reported having experienced some form of sexual harassment from instructors.

  • Patients of physicians and psychologists may also become the object of unwanted sexual attention from their providers.

  • Lawyers may coerce clients into sex in exchange for legal services.

  • Even pastors may convince parishioners that sex with the clergy is a viable road to finding spirituality and true peace of mind.

Apparently, no profession, institution, or individual is immune from sexual harassment, as situations of unequal power can exist anywhere. Fortunately, most companies and universities now have policies and reporting structures in place to deal with complaints of sexual harassment, and some states have passed laws prohibiting sexual activity, for example, between therapists and their clients.

The effects of sexual harassment can be numerous and long‐lasting. With good jobs at a premium, the possible financial effects of resisting sexual harassment on the job—demotions, pay reductions, and even termination—can be devastating. The psychological effects of sexual pressure on the job, at school, in the doctor's office, or wherever—anxiety, fear, depression, repressed anger, and humiliation—can be equally devastating. Guilt and shame are also common because victims of sexual harassment, similar to victims of rape, may somehow feel responsible. They fear that their dress and/or mannerisms may be bringing on the unwelcome sexual attention.