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.




A wild MGTOW appears!

(Trigger warning: misogyny, mention of sexual assault)

Dear Dad,

It’s been a nice long dry spell, but I got another hate comment on my blog. This one was from a MGTOW, or Men Going Their Own Way, but since he used hate speech (calling women “whores”) and didn’t actually respond to the post he commented on (nothing said about Katniss, archery or representation of women in the media), he violated my comment policy and I didn’t approve it. (The comment policy is a pretty handy guideline when it comes to sifting criticism from hate speech.)


However, I want to bring him up, Dad, because he is a good example of some of the violent misogyny that exists in the world. I was familiar with the term MGTOW before he began praising it in his comment because I read We Hunted the Mammoth, a very handy guide to “the new misogyny,” or internet misogyny (This is a good example of MGTOW ideology). MGTOW is a mindset that says men are better off without troublesome women, and all their false rape accusations, child support and alimony. Unfortunately, instead of actually “going their own way” and leaving women be, they show up in inboxes of women like me, ranting about how we can all “burn in Hades” (actual quote).

I bring this up because there was one line in his rant that struck me as very telling and important:

Women have nothing to add to my life but the opportunity to have sex.

He then goes on to rage about false rape accusations and STDs, but I went back to this line because of how telling it is. You see, this man does not believe that women are actually people. They are not human beings with histories and goals and ideas. To him, women can’t offer friendship or help on a project or even a humorous joke. They are sexual objects (and sexual objects that apparently come with a lot of traps).

It’s hard to accept, but there is a segment of the population that believes that I am not a person, deserving of rights and respect and individual dignity. There are men who see me only as a hateable sex object.

And this is part of why feminism is so important to me, Dad. People still exist who think that women are not worth as much as men. And as more vocal supporters stand up for equality, it seems more virulent hatred comes from those who do not want things to change. (This man even talked about how lucky women had it in the 50s; you know, when they couldn’t pursue most careers and marital rape wasn’t recognized. It was obviously a swell time for women.)

I believe advocating for feminism is creating change for the better (just this week, Men’s Health South Africa agreed to purge itself of pick-up artist manipulation articles), and I will continue to stand up for my beliefs, because I am a person, and I deserve respect.

With hope,

Let’s stop romanticizing the predator/prey relationship

Dear Dad,

I’ve been thinking a lot about violence in relationships, and specifically stalking. I can’t escape the impression that everywhere I look, there’s another romantic depiction of a predator/prey relationship. Our culture has a terrible tendency to glorify “the hunt,” and it has dire consequences.

A drawing of a bobcat chasing a bunny. The bunny is diving into a hole between two rocks and looking behind it with fear.

Not a depiction of the dating world.

I’ve dated men before that I wasn’t attracted to. After a date or two, I decided that we didn’t jive, and I respectfully made clear that I was not interested in a relationship with them. Some of these men express disappointment, try to convince me otherwise or understand my motives, but eventually agree that I have a right to date whom I want.

Others, on the other hand, don’t let go so easily.

The scariest example I can think of was a man who, when I told him I didn’t want to see him anymore, started sending me angry text messages. He accused me of being rude to him when I ran into him in public, though he ignored me when I said hello. He later texted me to ask why I was so bitter, why I hated him. He started calling me in the middle of the night. I remember waking up at 2 a.m., terrified, my phone vibrating and lighting up my whole room. I remember staring at it until it went to voicemail. I remember thinking how grateful I was that I’d moved out to the country and that he didn’t know where I lived.

We had only dated for a week before I realized that we didn’t really relate. I told him I wasn’t interested and so I was harassed for months. I never knew when I’d receive a midnight phone call. I never answered.

It seems so obvious that this is wrong. It should be obvious that this man was an aggressor and that I was lucky to get out with only psychological trauma. And yet these predators think of themselves as the romantic hero in some movie. Just look at people like this creep, who writes about how he is a “benevolent stalker” because his harassment is “purely an expression of affection.” Again, it seems obvious that this is not love but sexual violence, but our society is full of examples of this same type of sexual violence glorified as romance.

Just look at Maroon 5’s creepy “Animals” song. When I heard it on SNL, with lyrics like “Baby I’m preying on you tonight” and “Maybe you think that you can hide/Hunt you down, eat you alive,” I was already repulsed. Then the band released a video where Adam Levine stalks his real-life wife, complete with graphic blood rain. Given Levine’s sexy image, this video was particularly terrifying, a sex symbol portraying a stalker.

Of course, this isn’t the first time sexual violence has been glamorized in pop music. The hunter/prey dichotomy has been glorified in too many songs to count, including Pharrell’s recent “Hunter,” off of an album that is supposedly a tribute to women’s power following the critique of his creepy Robin Thicke collaboration “Blurred Lines.”

“Just because it’s the middle of the night/That don’t mean I won’t hunt you down,” Pharrell sings in “Hunter.” And in case you have any doubts that the “hunter” in this song thinks he’s being romantic, that’s immediately followed by, “‘Cause up, in, deep inside/It’s pulling me and I want your love.”

And then there are books and movies like “Twilight,” in which Edward standing in Bella’s room watching her sleep every night for months is romantic because he JUST LOVES HER SO MUCH. And girls read this and believe it!

Then, when a man “loves” a woman so much he can’t resist her, he stalks her, harasses her or assaults her, we say he’s a creep. We say these people are scary anomalies. What’s scary to me, though, is how much our society tells them that they’re good and romantic, right up until they cross some unspoken line. This includes female stalkers, though they make up only about 15 to 20 percent of all stalking cases.

It’s time to say enough is enough. I don’t support artists who create work glorifying stalking. It’s harmful and perpetuates this belief that if you love someone enough, stalking can be “benevolent.” Let’s call if what it is: sexual violence.

And I’m not standing for it anymore.



“Yes means yes” and other California laws

TW: Mild discussion of sexual assault

Dear Dad,

California’s laws have been in the news a lot lately (though maybe it’s just because I live here). In addition to Governor Jerry Brown signing a plastic bag ban, a “Yes means yes” law, and a ban on “gay panic” as a defense in court, the state’s 3-feet rule for avoiding cyclists has gone into effect. And let me tell you, this law has been controversial. Columnists and letter-to-the-editor writers alike have been complaining that not only is the law difficult to enforce and inconvenient, but also that cyclists should be better at obeying the rules of the road if they want “respect.”

Now, aside from the fact that everyone deserves basic safety regardless of whether or not we respect them, this bicycle law has got me thinking a lot about the laws we put into effect and how they change our lives.

See, opponents of California’s “Yes means yes” law argue that it’s hard to enforce, will make partners over-think their sexual encounters and will generally take all the fun out of boning. Cathy Young over at Time says that it “implicitly criminalizes most human sexual interaction.”

A circular badge with a Y in the middle. The outer ring reads,

But this law is not about making sexual partners into criminals (never mind that this isn’t a criminal statute, but a law about obtaining state funding for schools). This law is about changing, and hopefully improving, the way people approach sex. Now, the emphasis is placed not on simply going along with a partner, but expressing clear, enthusiastic consent, a willingness and will to engage in sexual activity. How can that be bad? Don’t we all want our partners to desire us? To really want to engage with us? Who wants to have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with them? Cathy Young worries that this law will make rapists out of “clueless” guys. But if you do try to have sex with someone who doesn’t really want to, you’re already a rapist. This law doesn’t change that. It just means that if reported, your university has a carrot-stick situation to punish you, instead of trying to sweep it under the rug.

Laws like “Yes means yes” will help defend victims like Emma Sulkowicz, the artist behind “Carry That Weight,” whose alleged rapist remains on campus. It will help educate these guys that Young worries are “clueless” and innocent. And it will help with the feminist effort to change the way we talk about sex. Feminists have been pushing for years to make safe, consensual sex a part of sex education classes. This law elevates that discussion to a national level. And hopefully that discussion will mean that more people see how easily and wonderfully enthusiastic consent can be incorporated into a person’s daily sex life.

But what does this have to do with drivers giving cyclists 3 feet of space on the road? Well, people have been complaining about that too. It’s hard to enforce, they say. It’s inconvenient. Cyclists should learn to stop at every stop sign if they want drivers to give them some safety. Regardless of how you feel about the law, though, I have noticed one thing in the last couple weeks since it went into effect: Cars have been giving cyclists plenty of space. Vehicles have been more aware of alternative forms of transportation on the road. This law is already changing the way we think about driving. And everyone is a little bit safer. And that’s a good thing.

“Yes means yes” can change the way we think about sex. And that’s a good thing, too.



Dress codes redux

Hey Dad,

Did you see that story in the news about the 15-year-old who was forced to wear a “shame suit” at school because her outfit was deemed to violate school dress code? The story is absolutely disgusting, and I almost cried when reading it.

It’s just another example of dress codes being used to target women and shame them for having the bodies they have. If her outfit was truly deemed to be distracting (and that’s the excuse schools give for making dress codes) then how does an ostentatious outfit advertising her rule breaking create a productive study environment?

The fact is, it doesn’t. It’s not about helping kids learn. It’s about remind women and girls that their bodies do not belong to them in public spaces, that they are always on display, and that they should be ashamed.

Until next time,

On exerting peer pressure

(Trigger warning: rape, sexual assault)

Dear Dad,

I heard a really interesting study about rape on college campuses today on NPR. It started as too many stories I’ve read on the subject start: 6 percent of men sampled had raped someone they knew. Two-thirds of those were serial rapists, meaning they’d raped more than one woman. Together, 120 men admitted to more than 400 rapes. None were reported, mad none of those men considered themselves rapists.

Why? As psychologist John Lisak, who’d conducted the study, explained, these men didn’t see themselves as rapists:

Most of these men have an image or a myth about rape, that it’s some guy in a ski mask wielding a knife. They don’t wear ski masks, they don’t wield knives, so they don’t see themselves as rapists.

In fact, these men happily brag to their friends about what they’ve done, and often, they are met with no resistance from their friends, and so come to believe that “everybody’s doing it” or his friends approve of his actions, according to John Foubert, who studies rape prevention among young men at Oklahoma State University.

This silence is patriarchy, Dad. A sort of discomfort and fear of speaking out that leads rapists to believe that their actions are no big deal. But when men start being aware and vocal, they can make great strides in preventing sexual violence.

The report wasn’t all a downer, Dad. They proceeded to highlight a program called MVP, or the Mentors in Violence Program. High school upperclassmen meet with incoming freshmen through MVP. Often athletes, the older students talk with young men about how to be aware of other men’s actions, and when a woman is not consenting.

I learned a lot about peer pressure in school, and told not to give into it when offered drugs, alcohol or sex. But sometimes, like with MVP, exerting a little peer pressure can make a school a safer place. Starting in high school is key, as the study showed many serial rapists also got their start in high school.

It also opens men’s awareness up to power dynamics, as one MVP mentor, now in college, described seeing a female friend cornered by two men at a bar. Her body language concerned him. She was clearly uncomfortable. The mentor’s male friend said he didn’t see anything wring, so the mentor showed him what to look out for and they then joined the woman to help her feel safer.

It may seem minor, but such awareness and actions are an important part of creating a culture where sexual violence is entirely taboo, and where women are safe.


On bad flirting

Dear Dad,

You know what I hate?

The impression that I’m lying, or exaggerating, or taking things too seriously when I speak out against street harassment. The most common response from people (usually men) who doubt me, is that I just don’t understanding flirting.

This response is more revealing of them than me, though. Because while my naysayers would like to believe that I, and women like me, are upset over some friendly flirtation, street harassment is a reality of cruelty, verbal and physical violence, fear and degradation.

One example? My friend and I were waiting to cross the street when a car whipped by and the driver leaned out his window to scream “SLUTS!” Why? Because we were standing on a street corner? Waiting to cross the street and go out for dinner with our friends? Because we were women in public? As a reminder that we can never be in public simply as people? Whatever the reason, it wasn’t flirting.

Of course, this example is mundane compared to the street harassment that escalates into violence, such as the 14-year-old girl who was run over for refusing to prostitute herself. Or the woman who was stabbed for refusing to respond to a harasser.

Harassment that doesn’t escalate into violence, and the defense of it as “harmless flirting,” serves to create a framework for this violence to occur. How am I supposed to know that the man who followed me down the street won’t pull a knife or gun on me if I don’t smile at him? As feminist Soraya Chemaly wrote, “If your way of flirting scares and repulses people, then you need to stop and find a new way of flirting.”

Either the naysayers are in denial that this is an issue, or they’re looking for an excuse to continue harassing and dehumanizing women.

I suspect it might be both.