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Arnold: Sexual Predators Among Us (1/2)

[Alexandra Arnold ‘10 has been a particularly thoughtful correspondent. She wrote to me not long after the end of the Parker Gilbert trial, and in subsequent correspondence and conversation she had caused my thinking about sexual assault to evolve considerably. At my request, she summarized her thoughts on this subject in two posts that appear today and tomorrow — Joe Asch ‘79]

We have all heard the story of the guy who, after a few too many Keystones, misreads a sexual situation and “goes too far.” After the fact, we are assured that he would never intentionally hurt anyone, that he made a mistake. The story goes on to suggest that the alcohol-soaked college party scene confounds communication and that both parties are in fact victims of the gray zones of sexual consent.

It’s a comforting story, allowing us to believe that rape isn’t a conscious assault against another person but rather the unfortunate result of honest miscommunication. Comforting, but wrong.

We actually know quite a bit about “undetected rapists,” men who have committed sexual assault but have never been charged or convicted. In a 2002 large-sample survey, researchers David Lisak and Paul Miller questioned college men and found that ~6.4% (120/1882) would admit to acts that met the legal definition of attempted or completed rape, so long as the word “rape” was not used. Narrow and exact, the questions leave little room for subjective interpretation:

1. Have you ever been in a situation where you tried, but for various reasons did not succeed, in having sexual intercourse with an adult by using or threatening to use physical force (twisting their arm, holding them down, etc.) if they did not cooperate?

2. Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated (on alcohol or drugs) to resist your sexual advances (e.g., removing their clothes)?

3. Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?

4. Have you ever had oral sex with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?

Using a similar technique, Stephanie McWhorter surveyed new Navy recruits in 2009 and received admissions of acts meeting the legal definition of attempted or completed rape from 12.6% (144/1146) of her sample.

Guy on Bike.jpgFar more striking, though, than the number of and ease with which the researchers obtained these admissions is how the offenses break down. The relatively small number of undetected rapists in each study contained a staggering number of repeat perpetrators: in Lisak and Miller’s study, 76 men committed a total of 439 rapes (5.8 assaults per recidivist), while the serial offenders in McWhorter’s study averaged 6.4 assaults each. Lisak also found that repeat perpetrators’ offenses were not limited to rape and attempted rape, but also encompassed many incidents of physical battery against intimate partners, sexual and physical abuse against children, and sexual assaults that did not amount to rape.

The undetected rapists’ modus operandi is also important to consider. Overwhelmingly, these men raped acquaintances, employed minimal or no force, and used alcohol to incapacitate their victims. Lisak and Miller found that, of the 120 perpetrators, only 30% used force or threats, while the rest raped intoxicated victims; similarly, McWhorter found that 73% of perpetrators preferred incapacitating victims with alcohol rather than overt violence. Raping an intoxicated acquaintance turns out not to be a mistake so much as a method.

The serial perpetrators in Lisak and Miller’s and McWhorter’s studies are predators — sophisticated ones — who understand that, by virtue of their preferred techniques, we observers are likely to pick apart not their behavior, but their victims’. By assaulting individuals known to them and by using alcohol as their primary device, these perpetrators know that their victims are unlikely to come forward, and that, on the off-chance that they are accused, we will collectively refuse to see their actions as predatory. We have shown ourselves endlessly willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

If we really want to reduce sexual assault on college campuses, we first need to understand what we’re dealing with, and it isn’t fundamentally decent guys who got carried away, who made one mistake on a drunken night. But they sure are glad that we think so.

Part 1, Part 2

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