What Does a Rapist Look Like?
And how do our perceptions impact the prosecution of them?
We all want to believe that a rapist is an undeniable monster. A person who is so easy to pick out in the crowd for being an undeniable creep. They are that stranger in the dark alley or lurking in the bushes. Some despicable man with no semblance of soul or care for other human beings that lives to attack women because he couldn't be with a woman otherwise.
This image, or something like it, is what comes to mind for many people when thinking about what a rapist looks like. In 90 percent of cases, this actually couldn't be farther from the truth. Only 10 percent of rapes are committed by a stranger to the victim and only approximately half of those are committed by a serial rapist.
The media depictions and common conceptions of what a rapist looks like, and what rape as an act looks like, is actually part of the problem our legal systems face when trying to prosecute offenders. These biases put roadblocks that stop justice. Juries and judges are just as susceptible to these biases as the average person. It's an important step towards ending rape culture that we adjust our views to see rapists as they actually are, not who we perceive capable of the crime.
So What DOES a Rapist Look Like?
Research into men who rape has found that there aren't really any unifying demographics. They don't all fit into one ethnicity, age group or socio-economical status. One researcher received nearly 200 phone calls and conducted 50 interviews with men who admitted to raping and found he couldn't make very many generalizations. He did find that all the men sounded normal and came from a diverse set of backgrounds. Another study conducted through University survey found that up to 70 percent of men surveyed would readily commit rape if they knew they were going to get away with it.
These facts and numbers are startling.
A rapist can be anyone. It can be someone's husband, father, brother, family relation, priest, or close friend. In many cases this is true for many sexual assault survivors. Many women have had their rapist described as an upstanding guy who is charming, nice, or a really sweet guy. They can be quiet, a frat boy, or a science nerd. None of these characteristics change the fact that they could be someone's rapist.
Why Obscure the Rapist Identity?
So if the research is so obvious that 90 percent of rapists are made up of normal men in our lives, why do we have this extreme picture of what a rapist looks like?
The answer is a little complex but rooted in a somewhat basic concept: we want to feel safe. In a culture where an anonymous 70 percent of surveyed men admit that they will rape a woman if given a clear chance, it's hard for many women to feel safe but how else can women go on living their lives? A constant fear response to that reality would drive people to an extremely unhealthy level of stress, fatigue, and anxiety. The continued prevalence of rape culture in our society also normalizes this threat of violence. It makes it part of the standard norm.
Many of us also feel like we are able to spot a monster. Many people will agree that rape is a devastating and violent act. That it is traumatizing. We feel strongly about it because rape has a huge impact on people's lives. It makes us want to believe that only someone who is a total monster is capable of doing that to someone else. We feel as if we should be able to easily spot someone capable of doing that much damage to someone else. That ability to spot is another thing that helps us feel safe.
Another reason this extreme picture continues to play a role is because it shifts away the responsibility to change anything. If the majority of people still believe that the majority of rapes are committed by that unknown stranger, there isn't much we can do about that. It becomes a problem that isn't easy to solve. Acknowledging the reality of most rapes brings the problem closer to home. It creates more action and accountability that people have to take. It means that to solve the problem of rape, we need to actually make some changes in how we approach things. Change is not always easy and sometimes, for some people, it's painful. It's easier to just push the problem away.
So How Can We Create Change?
Awareness. Awareness is one of the first steps towards any kind of change. The more we can educate ourselves and those around us, the more we can start to break the commonly held beliefs that continue to perpetuate rape culture and domestic violence. We need to continue to explore these ideas, as well as increase our support for sexual assault survivors. We need to conduct more research on rapists and perpetrators of domestic violence. It is only through turning our attention towards the causes and motivations of this behavior that we will get to the root of the problem. But it all starts with awareness and education.
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