The Phantom Rapist

TW: rape

Dear Dad,

Do you remember that story about what rapists look for in victims? I do. It was a chain email that Mom shared with me in middle school. The story detailed what convicted rapists in prison said they look for in a victim. I remember things like long hair, in a ponytail or bun for grabbing, women who are distracted, typically in parking lots.

The story terrified me as a child. I wore my long hair loose as often as possible, for safety. 

Today, the story showed up on my Facebook feed, as a post titled “Through a Rapist’s Eyes.” All the advice was the same: don’t have long hair; parking lots, garages and restrooms are all unsafe; putting up any fight will discourage a rapist because it takes time; umbrellas discourage them as they can be used as weapons. The post also offered self-defense tips, like punching an attacker in the groin.

Reading the post now, more than 10 years later, and seeing all the women commenting how useful this information was, I was horrified. Aside from the fact that this story originates with a “fear merchant,” as Snopes describes him, and has no basis in fact, this rape-prevention advice also promotes an unrealistic of what rape is and who it happens to.

This story claims to be written from interviews with rapists in jail. You know, the big, bad, evil rapists who get what they deserved and smacked with a hard sentence. Never mind that according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), 98 percent of rapists will never spend a day in jail

More importantly, approximately 4 out of 5 assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. This story spends a dozen paragraphs talking about how to fend of some anonymous hunter, a violent rapist specter who chooses his victim by how she wears her hair and whether or not she’s carrying an umbrella in a parking lot, and yet 4 out of 5 assaults are committed not by the anonymous aggressor but by an acquaintance, a lover, or a friend.

I can’t stand to see stories like this being passed around, Dad, not just because they’re untrue, but because they perpetuate a false idea of what real “legitimate rape” is. Much like conservative male politicians who seem to believe “forcible rape” is some sort of rare crime committed only against virginal young women by nefarious strangers, this rape-defense advice constructs a narrative around sexual assault that is incredibly misleading. 

And that falsehood causes harm. While our culture is busy sharing this meme, while we are busy telling women how to protect themselves, we are failing to protect them against boyfriends, coworkers and family friends, the kind who don’t lurk in parking lots and restrooms.

I suppose that’s not a pleasant reality, to think that people are raped by friends and loved ones. Much better to think of the rapist as the stranger, the hateful, anonymous aggressor. It’s easier to cut your hair, too, than to fear your loved ones. But if we’re not honest about rape, about who it happens to and who commits it, we can never offer the support to survivors that they truly need.

And that’s the real damage this meme does. And that’s the reason myths like this need to end.




5 thoughts on “The Phantom Rapist

  1. I like seeing chain letters like that passed around. It is information like that which has resulted in an 80% drop in incidents of rape and the 4 of 5 rapists being known stat being true. Really what your saying is that because the situational awareness of what unknown rapists look for in victims has been so exceedingly effective at preventing rape, we should stop doing it.

    • I actually did a quick Google search and, as it turns out, your hypothesis (that stranger rape used to be a way bigger problem until chain letters helped us dumb women figure everything out because the nice rapists told us what to do) is incorrect. There is absolutely no evidence to back that up.

      • Thanks, Elle. It’s a blatant lie. That letter originated in about 2001. If stranger rape had dropped so dramatically since then, don’t you think it would be in the news? Instead, we’re still struggling to support victims of date rape and get the very real problem of rampant sexual assault on college campuses addressed. That’s not a new problem either. It’s been documented as far back as the 1950s (, but the tide is turning at the moment, albeit slowly, to support survivors and address the issue. Rape myths like the one that inspired this post hinder that.

  2. I loved this. So many people think that just because you “know” what a rapist is looking for means you won’t get attacked. That is so untrue. I have been a victim of rape and I have seen that meme on my Twitter. None of what was on there would have helped me. People need to quit making everyone believe we have all the answers. Everyone should read what you wrote. Amazing.

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