Our world is full of multiplicities of truths and and uncomfortability. With no disrespect to the diversity of topics around truth and uncomfortability, I want to focus on one particular uncomfortable truth: You probably know at least one sexual predator in real life.1
Quick, approximately how many women are survivors of a sexual assault? 1 in 3? 1 in 4? 1 in 5? Don’t worry, this won’t be on the test.
Depending on the research being cited, I’ve seen all of those numbers in print. Mark your paper correct if you picked any of those answers. Even at the smallest number I’ve seen used, 1 in 5, I think we can agree it’s a lot. This type of statistic is compelling as part of awareness campaigns for several reasons:
— As I just mentioned – it’s too fucking prevalent – it’s important we know it.
— It’s meant to personalize the issue a bit. How? Well, if you’re at a party of ~20 people, or waiting around at a crowded airport gate, or at your kid’s Spring concert, statistically we’re standing amongst survivors. Depending on how many people you know, you probably know at least one survivor – survivors of sexual assault aren’t an abstract concept, they’re people we know. And love. And care about.
— It’s also meant to make the issue harder to ignore. The potent combination of statistical prevalence and “people we know” makes sexual assault harder to ignore. Or it SHOULD. It’s harder to say, “eh, it’s no big deal” when we know for a fact that it’s happening a really lot.2
Now, how many men have sexually assaulted women?3 I have no fucking clue. Do you? Where’s our awareness stat on that? Sexual assault isn’t a crime a person commits against oneself. Since most predators assault more than once, it’s probably fewer than 1 in 5 but you know what … it’s not zero. In any given social group, someone is a sexual predator. Sexual predators can be married, have kids, be at your game night, go to movies, like the same music as you, be really nice and likable people. There’s no one attribute to guarantee that someone *isn’t* a sexual predator. Chances are that same party, airport gate, or Spring concert also contains at least one sexual predator. That’s heavy; I’ll give you a moment to let it sink in.
This became real recently for me and my partner. We belong to an amazing, life-changing, thoroughly positive, all-accepting, grassroots fitness community. Yesterday, we also found out that someone in this community is a sexual predator. We found out because he asked the community for support near the anniversary of the dismissal of his case. We found out about it because when our state courts found his actions to be legal, the story made news/headlines:
The Colbert Report’s coverage of upskirting in Massachusetts
(You’ll have to click to watch the video; I can’t get it to embed here.)
What he did may have been legal, but plenty of people don’t think it’s OK:
I’ll tell you folks. Much like the multiple stages of grief, we went through a cycle of emotions. It looked sort of like this:
1) Shock. [How? Really? But I *like* this guy!]
2) Disgust. [Gross. How could we know someone who does this?]
3) Betrayal. [But I trusted you!]
4) Paranoia. [Who else?!?! What if it were so-and-so? FUCK. IS IT?!!?]
5) Crush. [I felt so safe there, how can I feel safe there again? I was so stupid to be so trusting. I’m going to stop giving people the benefit of the doubt.]
This was not linear. We bounced back and forth between these feelings. We’re still feeling some of these feelings. During dinner last night, we both spiraled into paranoia. Who else? What if it’s … At one point I said, “Yeah, it could be anyone. It could be [insert the name of her very, very favorite community member].” I threw his name out because I was angry and frustrated. Then, I looked up from my soda to find a sadness on her face, a sadness so deep I couldn’t find words to soothe it. All I could think to do was ask if she needed a hug.
The predator’s “hey I need support” post on the community Facebook page was removed and part of me feels troubled that this information was buried so quickly. I certainly agree that the post didn’t meet the criteria for the community page (it’s meant for sharing social events with the community – not to make personal requests). It wasn’t wrong to delete the post, but there needs to be space to talk about it.
How do we talk about it? How do we move on? I have no fucking idea. Right now, I’m struggling to double-down on my optimistic worldview, to err on the side of trusting that other people are not predators, not giving into paranoia, not “letting the predators win” so to speak.
Other communities have had to face discovery of sexual predators within the community. This isn’t an uncommon problem, yet I don’t know of any road map or handbook on how to handle discovery of a sexual predator in your community. Ignoring or not-talking about it aren’t really viable options.4 It’s like trying to ignore dog shit on your shoe. It happened, you stepped in it, you wish you didn’t — but you can’t un-step in it, you can’t un-smell it once you know it’s there. I can’t un-know that there’s a sexual predator in a community we hold very, very dear.
In the meantime, until I figure out what’s next, I explicitly committed to my partner to not be a sexual predator. To respect consent and take accountability if I don’t.5 If nothing else, find someone important in your life and say: “I commit to not being a sexual predator. I commit to respecting the necessity of consent and taking responsibility if I ever violate another person’s consent.” Sounds kinda ridiculous, right? Like something that should go without saying? Like something you could just assume about your fellow human beings? Right?! Well, anywhere between 1/3-1/5 of the female population stands as witness to the fact that it doesn’t. We can begin to change that by cultivating as many non-predators as we can in our communities.
How about you? Have you discovered a sexual predator in one of your communities? What did you do? How did your community respond or talk about it?
1 For the purposes of this essay, I am defining sexual predator as someone who has unapologetically violated another person without consent and either actively plans to repeat this behavior or finds no fault with their behavior.
2 April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month; consider this my effort to increase our collective awareness.
3 Yep. I’m talking about female survivors and male predators. Yes, I realize survivors and predators come in all genders but I’m going with the stats here. And if you are still waving your “not all men” finger at me, please remember that most women have to operate on a “yes all men” setting due to the undue burden of continual risk assessment foisted off on us.
4 Serenity now, insanity later – right?!?
5 Think you’ll never, ever violate someone’s consent? Don’t be too sure. Even people who are really well-educated on consent, who are full of good intentions are capable of violating consent. As recently as last summer, I playfully plucked a hat off a friend’s head. His response? “Wow, no one’s ever done that before.” He was incredibly gracious but I felt awful about it for weeks after. How could I just think it was OK to do that without asking? I know better. The best I could do was apologize, tell him I knew that it was wrong, and try harder to not do something like it again.