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.




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 predators at the bar

Dear Dad,

You know what’s cool about this blog? I’ve had men telling me about times they’ve noticed systems of oppression working against women since they read my posts and started paying attention.

My friend Eric texted me this weekend to tell me about how he DD’d recently for a group of female friends of his. Outside the bar, as they were leaving, he saw one very intoxicated woman. Her friend was caring for her, but there was a man who obviously saw the drunk woman as a target, and was trying to hit on her as easy prey.

Though her friend shooed the man off, Eric told me how sad and scary it was that women have to have other women present to protect each other because some men see them as nothing but easy conquests, not human beings who happen to be at that time incapable of consent.

It might be easy to wave this off as, “Guys and girls get drunk and they get horny. They make mistakes.” And certainly the prevailing wisdom is that young people drink and hook up indiscriminately.

But a recent study showed that most men who hit on women in bars aren’t intoxicated. And they’re more likely to target women the more drunk the women are. It’s not about sex, or sloppy mistakes. It’s about men who see drunk women as easy prey. It’s about power and ego and dehumanizing an entire group of people. And while when a woman comes forward as having been sexually assaulted, people are apt to ask if she’d been drinking, people rarely ask if the man who assaulted her was intoxicated, or if he took advantage of her.

As someone who has been out to bars with a group of women to go dancing, I know firsthand how prevalent this is. Every night, my friends and I would have to shoo off several unwanted interlopers. They would watch our group for a little while, then try to dance their way in, touching me or one of my friends.

But the fact that we have to travel as a pack, have to constantly have vigilant buddies while we look out for our own friends, and that this defensive behavior is so normalized because these creeps are so unavoidable, is tragic. This is rape culture, Dad, and it’s common and terrifying.

Rape culture, as a refresher, is a combination of cultural influences that teaches women “don’t get raped” instead of teaching men not to rape, as one definition goes. It’s the normalization of violence against women and normalization of men as predators who can’t control their urges. It’s the guy at the bar who uses the loud music and dark lights as an excuse to feel my butt when he walks past me.

It’s what feminists are fighting to end.

And if there’s one good thing out of this whole story, it’s that there are a few more people noticing it and speaking out against it. Maybe the tides are starting to turn.