rapists don’t stand out from the crowd

Want to Prevent Sexual Violence? Accept That You Know a Rapist

To tackle the problem, we must start by talking to middle school children

Steubenville, Ohio; Maryville, Missouri—small towns whose names have become shorthand for the debate about rape. The narratives from each are scarily similar: both begin with a drunken party and a teenage girl, incapacitated by alcohol; then comes the accusation of sexual assaults committed by high school football players. In the wake of these news stories, we’re warned that jock culture supports rape culture, and young women are told to stop getting drunk.

These reactions reveal our society’s myopic attitude to sexual violence. We want there to be simple solutions, like to “stay sober.” And we’re trying, as we’ve done for so long, to identify rapists as the other. We think of them as deviant strangers, lurking in the shadows, or as out-of-control jocks, fueled by testosterone and ego. It’s easier to do that than to face up to the real story revealed by the statistics on sexual violence. Here is the uncomfortable truth: Rapists are all around us. They are your neighbors, your colleagues; they may even be members of your family.

I should declare an emotional interest here. For much of my life I was unaware of the numbers on sexual violence, and had given little thought to the pain behind each data point. But when I was in my thirties I learned that rape was a formative experience for some of my female friends. More than a decade later, the revelations are still coming. Just weeks ago, in a brave commentary on sexual harassment and assault, a friend and fellow journalist listed twenty-one unacceptable things that men had done to her. The last item made me weep: “You can not rape me.”


Over the years, as I’ve thought about my friends’ stories, my emotions have swayed from sadness to impotent rage. But I should not have been surprised. The available data indicates that rapists are far more numerous than we’d like to think: When American men are asked whether they’ve performed specific acts that match the legal definition of rape, typically between 6 and 9 percent reveal themselves to be rapists.

It’s worth contemplating these figures for a moment. Did you ride the bus or train to work? If so, you probably shared your commute with a man who has committed a rape. Remember the last time you sat in a crowded movie theater? The statistics suggest that there was at least a handful of rapists in the room with you.

Expand the definition to include men who have groped someone or initiated other forms of unwanted sexual contact, and the numbers get even more disturbing. Some surveys indicate that more than a third of all men have perpetrated at least one sexual assault. And this may be an underestimate, because getting people to admit to felony crimes is incredibly difficult, even when anonymity is guaranteed.

Most of the men who commit serious sexual assaults are never arrested, but they turn out to be very similar to convicted rapists. In a 2002 study, David Lisak of the University of Massachusetts in Boston and Paul Miller of Brown University documented the “rape careers” of 120 rapists identified in four surveys of just under 1,900 American male college students. These men had not been apprehended for their crimes, yet nearly two-thirds were repeat offenders. They averaged almost six rapes each—a pattern that closely matched results from prior surveys of incarcerated sex offenders.

To put that another way: Your circle of acquaintances likely includes men who are every bit as dangerous as the known predators we urge the authorities to keep under lock and key for the rest of their days. This isn’t easy to accept, and you may be squirming at my assertion that there are rapists in your social circle. But we won’t be able to limit sexual violence if we deny its true nature.

The realization that sexual violence permeates our society explains why at least one in seven American women reports having been the victim of an attack meeting the legal definition of rape. Focus on groups particularly at risk and widen the definition to include other types of sexual assault, and again the numbers expand. Perhaps the best-known statistic about sexual violence comes from a pioneering study that found that a quarter of college women had been victims of rape or attempted rape, mostly committed by men they knew.

We might like to imagine that rapists are a tiny minority who can be swept off the streets and dealt with by throwing away the key, but once you understand the numbers it’s clear why punitive sentencing isn’t doing much to make society any safer. And it should be obvious that pointing the finger at jock culture, deranged sociopaths, or whatever bogeymen the media will identify next, is to miss the bigger picture.


This is depressing stuff, yet evidence that rape can be tackled is starting to emerge; it’s just that the most exciting results are not coming from prisons, nor from places where sexual violence seems especially common, like at colleges and in the military. Instead, they’re coming from middle schools. To be clear: If we’re to turn the tide of sexual violence, we should start by talking to eleven-year-olds.

One reason for this is that sexual predators start young. “We want to get to people before they engage in sexual violence for the first time,” says Sarah DeGue, a behavioral scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia. In a 2008 study backed by the National Institute of Justice, 70 percent of men who admitted to sexual violence said they had committed their first offense by age seventeen. As any psychologist will tell you, it’s very difficult to change patterns of behavior once they have become ingrained.

Most importantly, we know that intervening in middle school can work. Some of the best evidence comes from archetypal small-town America. In November 1994, children at seven middle schools in predominately rural Johnston County, to the southeast of Raleigh in North Carolina, embarked on a program called Safe Dates.

Over the course of ten classroom sessions, kids at the chosen schools held discussions about healthy and abusive relationships, and how to help abused friends. They also learned strategies to avoid turning anger into abuse and to prevent sexual assault. By the time the program wound down the following March, the schools had each put on a play highlighting the issues they’d discussed, and children had designed posters to bring home the message, voting for the top three. At seven other middle schools across the county, lessons continued as normal, with no special focus on avoiding dating violence.

When researchers, led by Vangie Foshee of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, interviewed the kids one month after the program finished, they found less sexual violence occurring in the schools that had taken part in Safe Dates. What’s more, this positive impact persisted for at least four years.

A second program, Shifting Boundaries, recently proved its worth in the grittier surroundings of thirty of New York City’s public middle schools. At some, kids were asked to identify parts of the school where they felt unsafe, so that extra staff could be posted there. Posters were also put up to increase awareness of dating violence and sexual harassment, as well as the need to report either one. At other schools, the kids were given a series of lessons about preventing violence in dating relationships, based on the idea of respecting one another’s boundaries. A third group of schools got both parts of the program, while a final group was left unchanged.

The lessons alone didn’t seem to have much effect. But six months after the program ended, there was less sexual violence in both the schools that had the combined program, and those that changed just the school environment, in response to students’ concerns.

What explains the success of Safe Dates and Shifting Boundaries? Aside from the idea of “getting ‘em while they’re young,” one likely key factor is that both are implemented over an extended period, which fits with evidence from studies in college settings that longer-running programs are more effective than brief interventions.

Yet campus administrators seem reluctant to heed this message. “I have twenty-two hours of training materials,” notes John Foubert, of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, whose program aims to change attitudes and behaviors that foster sexual violence. “But the attitude of colleges is: ‘Okay, you’ve got an hour. Use it.’”

Crucially, the successful middle school programs have been evaluated using randomized controlled trials, the gold standard for research evidence, in which people are randomly divided across groups that receive different interventions, one being a control—having either the standard practice or no intervention at all.

Sadly, other studies of strategies to reduce sexual violence mostly have fallen short of this standard. Many have measured changes in attitudes toward sexual violence, but not actual shifts in behavior. Sample sizes usually have been small. Often there was no control group, nor any long-term follow-up. No wonder, then, that the effects have often been small, and hard to detect.

With solid evidence from middle schools finally in hand, the CDC is now rolling out a program called Dating Matters, based on methods with good scientific support, in up to forty-five schools in four major cities—Baltimore; Chicago; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and Oakland, California—involving some ten thousand children aged eleven to fourteen.

But this program and similar philanthropic initiatives are just drops in the ocean. Getting evidence-based approaches implemented in middle schools remains a tough sell. Many schools are reluctant even to broach the issue of sexual violence, given the inevitable push back they get from some quarters.

“It can take one parent in a middle school to shut things down,” says Dorothy Espelage, a psychologist in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s College of Education. Just imagine how the idea of teaching eleven-year-olds about sexual assault—based on findings promoted by government health officials—could be spun by the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Fox News.


Programs like Safe Dates and Shifting Boundaries can’t provide a comprehensive answer to sexual violence. But they’re a start. Now we need a similarly broad, intensive, and rigorously evaluated approach to take hold in other settings. It’s likely to involve efforts to disabuse men of “rape myths,” such as the pernicious idea that many women secretly harbor rape fantasies, to encourage bystanders to step in when things are getting out of control, and to teach women self-defense strategies and how to avoid risky situations.

And, yes, it may include programs to foster healthy, nonviolent masculinity among young male athletes, and to discourage the heavy drinking—by both men and women—that is a known risk factor in sexual violence.

Victoria Banyard of the University of New Hampshire in Durham is one of the leading figures in the field. As she recently wrote: It’s time to “go big or go home.” Experts working in a piecemeal fashion on different aspects of sexual violence need to get out of their silos, coordinate their efforts, and devise coherent plans to tackle the problem from middle school on up.

Given the extent of the problem, and its frequently devastating consequences, we simply cannot afford to give up and go home. If we want to stop reading horror stories like those from Steubenville and Maryville, or posts like my friend’s chilling list of things men should not do, we have to go big.

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