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Research Questions

  1. What is already known about sexual assault perpetrators' risks and behaviors?
  2. How can the Air Force use the current literature about sexual assault to guide ongoing and future sexual assault prevention and training efforts?
  3. Can the Air Force incorporate in its recruitment screening of airmen an existing sexual assault–perpetrator screening tool?

Sexual assault continues to be a pervasive problem, both for society in general and within the military community. To assist the Air Force in its continued efforts to combat sexual assault within its ranks, we reviewed the existing empirical literature on the characteristics and behaviors of adult perpetrators who commit sexual assault against other adults. Our search was not limited to studies of military populations. While a vast majority of the existing literature has focused on sole male perpetrators who assault female victims, we identified some research on other types of perpetrators, including female sexual assault perpetrators, men who perpetrate assault against other men, and perpetrators who participate in group sexual assault. This body of research indicates that adult perpetrators are diverse in terms of their demographics, background characteristics, and motivations. Moreover, research indicates that sexual assault perpetration is likely influenced by a combination of factors, including an individual's developmental and family history; his or her personality, including attitudes/cognitions; and environmental factors, including peer attitudes and alcohol consumption. The complexity of factors that influence sexual assault perpetration and the multiple pathways that lead to an attack make it difficult to predict whether an individual is prone to commit sexual assault. While predicting sexual assault perpetration is problematic, we identified a number of factors related to perpetration that may be relevant for intervention efforts and offer recommendations for the Air Force.

Key Findings

Sexual Assault Perpetrators Are a Very Heterogeneous Group

  • Sexual assault perpetrators are diverse in their motivations, types, and offending patterns.
  • Most research focuses on male perpetrators who assault female victims. Very little is still known about female sexual assault perpetrators, men who assault other men, and perpetrators who participate in group sexual assault.

Sexual Assault Perpetration Is Likely Influenced by Different Combinations of Factors

  • Research has identified many different factors that are correlated with sexual assault perpetration, including developmental factors and family history; individual-level characteristics such as attitudes/cognitions; and environmental factors such as peer influences and alcohol consumption.
  • No single identifier alone, however, has been found to be highly predictive of sexual assault perpetration.
  • The complexity of factors influencing sexual assault perpetration and the multiple pathways that may lead an individual to commit a sexual assault make it difficult to predict whether an individual is likely to commit sexual assault.

Sexual Assault Perpetrators Make a Series of Decisions That Lead to Opportunities to Commit Assault

  • Some research examining behavioral patterns in sexual assault perpetration describe a cycle of sexual offending whereby prior to an attack, perpetrators make a series of decisions that leads to an opportunity to commit sexual assault. Therefore, there may be decision points along the pathway to sexual assault.
  • Perpetrators' behavior may differ based upon the type of assault, for example, whether the assault is committed by a stranger or an acquaintance or whether alcohol is consumed prior to the assault.


  • Sexual assault–prevention training in the Air Force should ensure that scenarios illustrate the heterogeneity of sexual assault perpetrators and include descriptions of the various known motivations, types, and offending patterns among perpetrators. This can help dispel any myths regarding how to identify a potential perpetrator.
  • Continue screening out enlisted and officer recruits who have criminal histories of sexual assault, as we found one of the most consistent predictors of future sexual assault is past perpetration.
  • Explore additional mechanisms for identifying past perpetrators, including self-reported engagement in sexual assault.
  • Identify opportunities to address contextual or environmental factors, such as peer sexual aggression and the use of alcohol, that are associated with sexual assault perpetration.
  • Continue to target the full range of individuals in establishing social norms that discourage sexual aggression and violence among incoming recruits and in emphasizing the importance of commanders' role in fostering a positive environment to prevent sexual assault.
  • Continue with existing Air Force efforts already underway — such as programs devoted to responsible alcohol consumption, bystander intervention programs, and social activities and facilities that are alternatives to bars — which may help decrease risk of sexual assault and serve to disrupt decision points that could otherwise lead to sexual assault.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was sponsored by the director of Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR), the Office of the Vice Chief of Staff (AF/CVS), and the commander of Air Force Recruiting Service (AFRS/CC). It was conducted within the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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