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What Is a Perpetrator?

By Tara Barnett
Updated May 16, 2024
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A perpetrator is a person who is responsible for a crime. While a suspect may be suspected of having committed a crime, this term is used for the person who actually committed it. Usually, this term is only used for people who commit illegal acts or crimes. This term is often misused because it relies on a state of reality in which a person has actually committed an illegal act, or at least has been found guilty and legally convicted. A fallible legal system that does not always catch criminals or convict the actual perpetrators may still create perpetrators through conviction — a person innocent of a crime will still be a perpetrator if he is convicted.

In groups that deal with crime, this term is frequently misused. For instance, a police officer referring to a description produced by a witness may call the person described a suspect when, in fact, he or she is a perpetrator. One way to think of the distinction is that a crime with only one perpetrator may have several suspects even though only one person committed the act. The perpetrator is always the real criminal and may never even become a suspect over the course of investigation.

Under many systems, a person who is convicted of a crime is then considered to have certainly committed that crime. The legal system is considered definitive of the truth of a crime, and a conviction means for all practical purposes that a person has actually done the crime. Once a conviction has been made, the convict can then be considered a perpetrator, even if there are no witnesses who can verify that he or she committed the crime.

A perpetrator is a person, but the term is also an important concept. The idea that until a verdict has been made, a person may or may not have actually committed a crime is essential to many legal systems. Of course, there is a sense in which there are real perpetrators and real crimes, but this term is used largely for an idea. It is considered undeniable that for every real crime, there is a real perpetrator, whether or not he or she is ever found. Only in conviction are the idea of a perpetrator and an actual person combined in the same body.

One interesting question is whether or not there would be perpetrators without laws. One could argue that without laws, there cannot be crimes, and therefore there cannot be perpetrators. Perhaps a distinct system of right and wrong could maintain the concept of perpetrators, even without a system built around pursuing them. Even so, the term is dependent on an ordered system of rules for meaning.

How Do Perpetrators Choose Their Victims?

Some perpetrators know their victims and select them for a myriad of reasons. However, perpetrators who do not know their victims usually choose a person somewhat at random who they want to mug, assault, or kidnap. This decision is often made in as few as seven seconds and is based on several factors.

Walking Stride

The way you walk can convey a sense of confidence and assertiveness or insecurity and timidness. Because of this, perpetrators often use the way a person walks when they decide whether or not to approach that person. A natural and effortless stride, good posture, and quick pace give the impression that you are aware of your surroundings and could fight back or make a scene if attacked. Perpetrators look to victimize people they think will not make a scene so that they are more likely to carry their crime through and get away with it. For those reasons, people who walk in this quick and confident manner are generally less likely to be victims of random attacks.

One way that you should not walk is with an abnormally long stride, which can make you stick out to a perpetrator or give them the impression that you are clumsy. Also, avoid walking with too short of a stride, as this gives the appearance that you are timid or already fearful. Looking fearful tells a perpetrator that you might be easily startled and unable to fight back or scream.

Eye Contact

While it is not a good idea to stare intensely into the eyes of someone you do not know, it is a good idea to make brief eye contact with the people you pass while walking down the street, in a parking lot, or while shopping. Avoid looking down at your phone for extended periods of time, particularly in crowded areas. Making brief eye contact shows a potential perpetrator that you are aware of your surroundings and could later identify them if they chose to victimize you.


Sometimes, all it takes is being at the wrong place at the wrong time for a perpetrator to find and attack you. If possible, avoid walking through dark parking lots and streets by yourself. If you must do this, employ these precautions:

  • Walk with a purpose, including using the above suggestions regarding walking stride and making eye contact
  • Plan your route ahead of time and know where the nearest open convenience stores are located in the event you need to get away from someone who is following you
  • Have a deterrent such as mace or pepper spray on hand, if legal in your jurisdiction
  • Download an app on your smartphone that shares your location with trusted family or friends

Being mugged or assaulted is never the fault of the victim. However, taking certain safety precautions is empowering and can help you avoid a dangerous situation.

What Is a Potential Sign of Perpetrator Behavior?

While perpetrators look for certain characteristics in potential victims, it is also possible to see signs and characteristics of potential perpetrators. These behaviors may be seen in potential perpetrators who you do know as well as those who you do not know. Some of these signs might include:

  • Attempting to intimidate or threaten others
  • Displaying jealous, manipulative, and controlling behavior
  • Having a desire for power
  • Pushing sexual and physical boundaries with their potential victims and others

It might be a bit more challenging to establish whether or not a stranger is displaying alarming perpetrator behaviors since you have not been around them for as long as someone you do know. Some signs in strangers may include staring at or following people, as well as the behaviors listed above. Take precautions or avoid anyone who makes you uncomfortable or feel like you are in danger.

Sexual Assault Perpetrator Statistics

Knowing statistics about perpetrators can help you be more aware of different situations and scenarios involving sexual assault. Consider the following:

  • Almost 20% of sexual assaults are committed by someone who the victim does not know
  • Half of all sexual violence perpetrators are 30 years of age or older, 25% are 21-29, 9% are 18-20, and 15% are 17 years of age or younger
  • Roughly 40% of rape perpetrators have one or more prior felony convictions
  • Personal weapons like hands and feet are used more often in the course of a sexual assault than weapons such as guns and knives

It is important to remember that anyone can be a perpetrator of sexual assault, and anyone can be a victim.

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Discussion Comments

By WittyBee — On Oct 20, 2014

@QuirkyMango- The suspect and perpetrator are two different terms. Maybe this will help. A person who actually committed a crime is the perpetrator, but the suspect is not always the person who committed the crime. The police may have a whole list is suspects, but only the person proven guilty of the crime is the perpetrator. So, the words have different meanings, but a person can be both.

By QuirkyMango — On Oct 19, 2014

So, a suspect and a perpetrator are pretty much the same? I mean the suspect, like a perpetrator, is innocent until proven guilty, or are they different, because not all suspects turn out to be the perpetrators?

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