Friday, May 28, 2010

Women and potential sexual violence - one perspective

Via Elmyra, I was directed to a guest article on the Shapely Prose blog entitled 'Schrödinger's Rapist: or a guy's guide to approaching strange women without getting maced'. Here's an excerpt.

Gentlemen. Thank you for reading.

Let me start out by assuring you that I understand you are a good sort of person. You are kind to children and animals. You respect the elderly. You donate to charity. You tell jokes without laughing at your own punchlines. You respect women. You like women. In fact, you would really like to have a mutually respectful and loving sexual relationship with a woman. Unfortunately, you don’t yet know that woman—she isn’t working with you, nor have you been introduced through mutual friends or drawn to the same activities. So you must look further afield to encounter her.

So far, so good. Miss LonelyHearts, your humble instructor, approves. Human connection, love, romance: there is nothing wrong with these yearnings.

Now, you want to become acquainted with a woman you see in public. The first thing you need to understand is that women are dealing with a set of challenges and concerns that are strange to you, a man. To begin with, we would rather not be killed or otherwise violently assaulted.

“But wait! I don’t want that, either!”

Well, no. But do you think about it all the time? Is preventing violent assault or murder part of your daily routine, rather than merely something you do when you venture into war zones? Because, for women, it is. When I go on a date, I always leave the man’s full name and contact information written next to my computer monitor. This is so the cops can find my body if I go missing. My best friend will call or e-mail me the next morning, and I must answer that call or e-mail before noon-ish, or she begins to worry. If she doesn’t hear from me by three or so, she’ll call the police. My activities after dark are curtailed. Unless I am in a densely-occupied, well-lit space, I won’t go out alone. Even then, I prefer to have a friend or two, or my dogs, with me. Do you follow rules like these?

So when you, a stranger, approach me, I have to ask myself: Will this man rape me?

Do you think I’m overreacting? One in every six American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. I bet you don’t think you know any rapists, but consider the sheer number of rapes that must occur. These rapes are not all committed by Phillip Garrido, Brian David Mitchell, or other members of the Brotherhood of Scary Hair and Homemade Religion. While you may assume that none of the men you know are rapists, I can assure you that at least one is. Consider: if every rapist commits an average of ten rapes (a horrifying number, isn’t it?) then the concentration of rapists in the population is still a little over one in sixty. That means four in my graduating class in high school. One among my coworkers. One in the subway car at rush hour. Eleven who work out at my gym. How do I know that you, the nice guy who wants nothing more than companionship and True Love, are not this rapist?

I don’t.

When you approach me in public, you are Schrödinger’s Rapist. You may or may not be a man who would commit rape. I won’t know for sure unless you start sexually assaulting me. I can’t see inside your head, and I don’t know your intentions. If you expect me to trust you—to accept you at face value as a nice sort of guy—you are not only failing to respect my reasonable caution, you are being cavalier about my personal safety.

There's a lot more at the link.

I'm in two minds about this article. As a former prison chaplain, I've met many rapists behind bars, and understand the threat they pose to women. As a retired pastor, I've had to counsel the victims of sexual violence, both in terms of overt rape and in the rather murkier, less clear-cut areas of date rape and marital violence. I can (and do) understand the fears of many women in this area.

On the other hand, I'm not an American. My formative years were spent in a colonial culture in Africa. At that time, and in that place, the sort of violence against women depicted by the author of this article was - at the very least - at a significantly lower level. I can't recall the 'threat' against women being anything like as bad as the author depicts. I honestly don't know whether or not her depiction of the situation in American society is accurate.

So, I thought I'd turn to my readers. What do you say? Is her depiction, both in the extract above and in the full article, a fair and realistic description of the dangers women face in modern social interaction? Is the incidence of strangers approaching women in public as frequent as she appears to indicate? Is her attitude realistic, or paranoid?

I'd be grateful for your responses in Comments, please. They'll help me to adjust my attitudes in counseling situations, where necessary.



Anonymous said...

Posting anonymously because this is too personal.

I was raped by my doctor 23 years ago.

ANY man is a threat.
And yes, it is that bad.

I learned how to defend myself after that. But the best line of defense is to never, ever allow a man into your personal space unless you know him, his family, his friends and you're meeting him in public.

Being raped pretty much ruined my life.

John Peddie (Toronto) said...

As a father of a (very attractive) 30 year old daughter raised in a large (and generally non-violent) city, I'd say:

1) It's a constant "back of mind" thing for any woman.

2) It moves forward and backwards in a woman's consciousness depending on location and surroundings.

Small town = very back of mind.

3) Men generally don't appreciate this because they have no similar fears of their own.

4) Guys, pretend that the woman walking in front of you on an empty sidewalk is your wife or daughter.

You wouldn't want her to feel threatened, so:

If there are no other people around, give her some peace of mind: CROSS THE STREET and walk on the other side so she absolutely knows you are not "following her".

Anonymous said...

I am of two minds as well. 1) I was sexually assaulted while in High School and it took me several years to become comfortable being around men my own age again, and I still get uncomfortable around handsome young Hispanic males through no fault of their own.

2)That said, I do not assume any man who approaches me is a potential rapist or mugger: so much depends on body language, situation, setting et cetera. I suppose I've developed threat levels - level one is utterly harmless, level two is mostly harmless but don't be stupid, up to level five or six "run away! run away!" or "aim for center of mass." With all due respect to the author and her good intentions, I think she's going overboard. But then I grew up in and live in a gun-friendly area where women are encouraged to be kind, attractive, and to clean their own deer, so YMMV.

Stranger said...

Like many, I grew up where sexual assault was a rare thing. As I recall, there was one case in more than forty years in my home county.

For one thing, graphic depictions were non-existent. For another, there was not constant media pressure on both sides of the gender equation. For a third, in "homestead country," women had been a scarce commodity, and were highly respected. And for a fourth, most girls learned to handle guns at the same age the boys learned.

While modern life has improved many things, modern media puts far too much emphasis on "every woman's availability." By force, or otherwise.

Hopefully, the media's fading influence will fade far enough that we can have some respite from the epidemic of learned violence - and enforced male abasement to women - that appears to be the primary root of the problem.


Anonymous said...

She is accurate and I'd say that the 1 in 6 is actually pretty low. In my experience about 50% of the women and men in my circle of friends and family have been molested during their lifetime (usually as kids/teens). None of them by strangers. About evenly split between family molestation, date rape, and clergy. No one that I know of has ever gone to the police to report any of the incidents. Kids/teens just live with it because they don't want their family & friends to know and are afraid of the consequences if the parents kill the perp. I'm just an average guy from a large extended family that has lived in the small town and big city and there are predators everywhere.

I don't think this is an American problem though. Several members of my family are from Europe and the same things happened to them over there. Also, my view on just about all of Africa is that rape is rampant. Don't know if it's true, but we always hear about gang rape and child brides in the news.

Anonymous said...

I just posted as Anonymous 9:12 - I grew up in the mid-west "gun country" "pioneer country", but 10 year old kids usually don't have guns, and you won't find out about the incidents for years - if ever. Most of the incidents I know of happened between 1930-1980, and I usually heard about them because somebody would got drunk and tell me what happened to them when they were kids. I don't hear about anything today, but that's because I don't get drunk with kids from the late 80's to the present, but I bet it's still happening.

LabRat said...

She's accurate. She's providing some degree of exaggeration for emphasis because it really does seem to be difficult for a lot of men to grasp, but she is basically right. I remember one of the things in college that began my political awakening was the realization that a)I was potential prey- the women's studies department didn't tell me this, the police blotter did- and b)the university would not allow me to do anything about this except be "safe", which meant behaving with rather more paranoia than Ms. Harding recommends.

What stood out to me particularly as an indicator there was something rather wrong with my universe was the Pi Kappa Epsilons, who had the year previous been stripped of their fraternity charter for repeated accusations- apparently substantiated and settled but not prosecuted- of drink doping and rape at their parties. They weren't officially acknowledged, but Pike house was still around and still threw parties and had exactly the reputation they did previously, and there were more reports of the same. What struck me was that the attitude this sort of thing was recieved with was that women should know better than to go to Pike parties if they didn't want it- that the Pikes themselves were something like lions and the censure was on those dumb enough to get close enough to the lion cage.

That is the message women get every time we read a news story on rape and immediately concerned commenters start discussing how she could have avoided it. Not just "it's partly her fault", which may or may not be what's intended at all, but "men are dangerous animals, it's part of their nature, you have to be careful around them to avoid getting hurt".

The actual statistical incidence of rape rather pales next to the effects of that message, psychologically speaking.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous from 9:12 brings up a good point. Sexual assault is one of, if not the most under-reported crimes. Of the women I've had close relationships with, half have been victims of assault and all but one knew their attacker.

LabRat said...

From the comments on the original post- which are fascinating reading in and of themselves from several angles- a link to a "Rape Fact Sheet" from a professor who's spent his career studying the subject: Rape Fact Sheet.

I have several questions, not least of which are the exact questions used in one survey mentioned that framed rape in terms anything but in order to see how much sexual assault was going on that the assaulter was thinking of in some other way.

However, the last section- "characteristics of undetected rapists"- rings very true with me with regards both to the sentiments I've seen expressed in formats permitting anonymity when the subject comes up, and with regards to my own personal list of "men never to be alone with". It occurred to me after writing my last comment that I think every woman has such a mental list in some fashion or another, it's usually short but gets longer over lifetime, and you/we/women/whatever usually don't really think about it in that fish-and-water sort of way.

You don't think of the men on it as criminals or rapists or even necessarily bad men, just... men around whom you behave, in effect, in Condition Orange.

...Weird. I never really HAD thought about it before, but it's true.

Matthew said...

Per that study, "sexual assault" doesn't equal forcible rape but rather a range of behaviors and crimes. That doesn't diminish the enormity of the problem but if we are to address such a complex issue in any useful way we need to be precise in our terminology.

The "harasser" is different from the guy who, for a host of reasons, keeps pushing past subtle signs to stop who is different from the full-on violent rapist with full prior intent.

Even those limited distinctions ignore some of the issues that can arise with self-report data regardless of crime, but particularly one of such emotional content as sexual victimization.

Anyway, precision is necessary to get anything done. Saying "1 in 6 men is a rapist" is not accurate nor particularly useful as a guide for either defensive behavior by women or addressing the problems with men.

Anonymous said...

Not a whole lot to add except that I agree the number of rapes quoted is FAR too low. Of the women I've known well enough to talk about such things, few of us haven't been molested or assaulted in some way. And almost NONE of us ever reported it, for reasons ranging from fear to lack of evidence to lack of ability (in my case, I was a little kid and really couldn't. The fact that I chose to bury what happened instead of telling still haunts me, though).

Almost everyone I know who has been raped knew their attacker. Family, friend, date, babysitter, someone who got at least close enough to be trusted somewhat instead of physically overpowering a woman in a dark alley. But that happens too, more often than is reported. Giving off icky rapist vibes isn't a good way to get close enough to a victim to assault them, and I'd guess that most attackers blend pretty well, unless you have a healthy awareness of red flags (and are maybe psychic).

And in terms of a woman's perception of risk, it varies from woman to woman, I think largely based on their experiences. Yes, the author may be going a bit overboard, or at least farther than many. It's not constantly in my mind meeting someone new, and I don't live in fear (this coming from a woman in a not-very-gun-friendly city who'd love to learn but doesn't own, carry, or know how to shoot a weapon). I am careful, though. And I do fear those back alleys or dark bus stops. In part because I'm a woman and more vulnerable, and in part because my history has colored what I'm afraid of. I probably fear those back alleys a little more having been assaulted previously, even though it was someone I knew in my own home. Which I'm guessing is why men who are clueless about such things might tend to get maced when approaching a woman they don't know.


LabRat said...

Anyway, precision is necessary to get anything done. Saying "1 in 6 men is a rapist" is not accurate nor particularly useful as a guide for either defensive behavior by women or addressing the problems with men.

Yeah, except... the 1 in 6 number she cites is from RAINN, and "sexual assault" means "attempted or completed" rape. Not harassment and not creepy boundary-pushing.

By all means, let's be precise.

Anonymous said...

Most guys don't think about sexual assault happening to them, but I know a lot of men who stay very aware of their surroundings. If you think of it as Condition White/Yellow/Orange/Red, etc, then it begins to make sense. I do an evaluation of everyone I pass on the street; the old lady waiting for the bus only gets a quick check, but the guy with tattoos on every square inch of skin gets examined a bit more, and the crazy with the shopping cart swearing at the top of his lungs rates my crossing the street at the very least. And is it paranoid to watch what people are doing with their hands? Maybe, but I've never been jumped on the street either.

Every woman in public (and too many in private) must navigate the world at least in Condition Yellow. You might think this is a modern phenomenon, but it has always been this way. It may not have been the subject of everyday talk, but it happened. That it happens to as many as it does (1 in 4 is probably more accurate), and that it happens to so many boys too (and we males are even less prepared to deal with that violation) is unspeakable, but ignoring reality doesn't make it go away.


robnrun said...

She's accurate.
But as a late twenties, single woman I have to admit my attitude is somewhat different. I try always to be aware, to always be in at least Condition Yellow; but I don't see it as an abnormal or limiting thing. It is simply a part of life.
For a number of years I was alone in a city where I had no immediate support group. Sure I had people that would be worried if they didn't get a daily email, but they were literally on the other side of the Atlantic. I refuse to lock myself in my flat, or avoid parks, or poorly lit streets (which would have barred me from the whole city I was in), and I have almost always travelled alone. I will arm and defend myself to the best of my ability and legal right (one reason I like being back in the US) to do so; but I won't think like a victim, and I think that writer is doing so to some extent. I prefer to mentally remind myself that I will attack if I am attacked. It is a subtle positive versus negative spin that I can't explain.

SmartDogs said...

Stranger commented:

"Like many, I grew up where sexual assault was a rare thing. As I recall, there was one case in more than forty years in my home county."

PLEASE do not make the assumption that because you live in a small town / rural area and few rapes or assaults are reported in local papers that few of them also occur.

I grew up in several small towns and I was (thankfully) unsuccessfully attacked twice while I was still in high school (less than 50 kids in my class).

I was attacked (thankfully unsuccessfully) again the year after I graduated. And avoided an attempted kidnapping the year after that.

I was stalked by two different men in college.

In my 30's a business associate assaulted me - again, unsuccessfully. And a couple of teenage car thieves were scared away from breaking into my house and doing god knows what by my wits and my dogs.

None of these events were reported (or accepted as reported) by the police.

I'm not a slut. I do not now, nor have I ever, dressed like a tart. I did not 'ask for it'. I was just a petite, attractive female who left home at 17, lived alone and worked in a series of jobs that were (at least at the time) not traditional for women.

Fortunately I was also fit, aware and ready to run or fight (or use my dogs) as the case might be - to survive.

Based on my own experiences I think that sexual assault is a lot more common than most people think and much more common than statistics indicate. Please do not assume that your town or county is 'safe' just because the police blotter published in the local paper rarely, if ever, publishes information on rapes or attempted rapes.

Sadly, most of this activity goes on under the radar.

And if you are a woman - be smart, be strong and be prepared.

Anonymous said...

When I was in college, a (male) friend of mine took me aside and said quietly, "I've known 32 women who've been raped. I want to tell you how to dress, how to act, and how to be aware so you're not the thirty-third."

He was already too late - that'd already happened before puberty. Not that his advice wasn't useful on it happening again, mind you, or unwelcome in adapting to a new urban environment.

Want to know why this is anonymous? Same reason that you don't see prosecutions for the serial rapists that create the roughly 1 in 6 figure. (For my friends and acquaintances, it's more like 1:3 among women and 1:5 among men. But we'll shamefully hide it and deny it, especially the guys.)

Steve Florman said...

Unfortunately, too many cute movies show some dumb SOB coming on to the cute girl in some goofy way, and the script has her being charmed where a woman in a real-life situation would be creeped out and possibly frightened. In many cases, the guy isn't frightening, and there's no need to be scared - but she doesn't know that.

And as SmartDogs commented correctly, just because it wasn't reported doesn't mean it didn't happen. Too many guys, even "nice" ones, will push too hard and think that it's OK to do so.