My earliest memory of sexual assault that I remember surviving was at the hands of a tepid piano teacher. During private music lessons at home with my mother nonchalantly watching TV in the other room, he would ask me to sit on his lap while he aggressively grinded himself against me. This happened a few times and lasted for a few minutes each time until I lost interest in learning to play the piano altogether and stopped the lessons.
He, like other predators, fit the textbook definition of a “good guy.” He was happily married and a father to a three-year-old girl. I never told my parents about him, not because they wouldn’t care but because I felt ashamed and mostly confused. How could this man, seemingly handsome, smart and kind, with a daughter of his own, do something that I would only expect from a creepy stranger in an alley?
The problem isn’t that we don’t think sexual assault and rape is bad. It’s that the fabric of our society rests so heavily on myths and ideas about a perfect world, where monsters seldom exist and if they do, they look like a monster.
Darren Sharper, the defamed former NFL player who was sentenced to 18 years in prison and accused of drugging and raping as many as 16 women, didn’t look like one. U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo who sentenced Sharper also expressed her disbelief telling him she couldn’t understand how he did what he did, as he was college-educated and obviously had grown up “in one of the most loving households.”
In the eyes of his fans too, he was simply a “gorgeous man” who probably had no dearth of women throwing themselves at him. Why would a man like him “need to rape?” his fans questioned.
Similar questions lingered around former Gossip Girl actor Ed Westwick who was accused by two women of rape. Not only did he fervently deny the allegations, but also his fans were seemingly furious that the women could even insinuate that he could do something as heinous as rape. “He’s young, good-looking, and famous, he doesn’t need to rape to get some. Stop the witch hunt,” a tweet read.
“There is a sense of comfort in believing that if only we can apprehend the worst of the worst—the serial predators—we can somehow solve our problems. But this is misleading.”
Some of the most horrific serial rapists such as Ted Bundy, Aron Kee, Brian Witty, were all famously described as “charming” and “handsome” by their survivors, which should serve as an important reminder that rapists come in all shapes and forms.
Yet, as new allegations come to light each day, we struggle with understanding that anyone is capable of rape including the attractive, nice man we once looked up to. It’s uncomfortable and a rude awakening from everything we once knew as right. The world isn’t black and white as we were told, and rape doesn’t always happen outside the “safe” confines of marriage, a household or the workplace. Sometimes the real evil attacks come in the form the man we trusted and loved.
“We elevate people in the media and believe that there’s something virtuous about them—it could be that they’re popular, good-looking, or successful. We believe that that virtue will make them incapable of rape or a crime like this. But that’s not true. It’s a disguise,” says Eri Kim, senior clinical director at Safe Horizon, the largest victim services non-profit organization in the United States. “We believe that that virtue and rape are mutually exclusive when they’re not. [Both] things can be true in one person.”
The message also gets constantly reinforced within pop culture. In Goldfinger (1964), when James Bond raped Pussy Galore in a barn, no one lifted finger. The heroine even ultimately abandons her life of crime and joins Bond’s side. What his character did wasn’t presented as rape. Why? Because he’s handsome.
Similarly, in Indiana Jones and Temple of the Doom, when Harrison Ford snatches a woman with a whip yanking her back to him, when she’s obviously trying to get away, it’s considered romantic and not sexual assault or harassment. It’s also why she ultimately falls in love with him.
It also doesn’t help that our fundamental understanding of rape is flawed. In 2006, a Nebraska judge ordered that the victim in a rape trial not be allowed to use the term rape or sexual assault when describing what happened to her because it would be “too prejudicial.” The words she was allowed to use instead were “sex” or “intercourse.”
The conclusion is that we equate rape with sex. Even the law recognizes rape as “non-consensual” sex, which ultimately puts the onus of the crime on the victim. It’s no coincidence that the non-consent standard legally requires that judges and juries scrutinize the behavior of the victim in order to determine if a defendant committed the crime of rape. There is no other crime with such a legal standard.
“In its most common form, rape is a violent act that uses the penis as a weapon. If this statement sounds startling, this supports the notion that we don’t generally think about the penis as a weapon. In reality, rape is not a form of sex, or even deviant sex. Saying that rape is sex is like saying that hitting another person over the head with a frying pan is cooking,” explains Julie A. Alison, author of Rape: A Misunderstood Crime and professor at the department of psychology and counseling at Pittsburg State University.
Let’s look at the fundamental differences between sex and rape, shall we?
Sex is defined by feelings of attraction, intimacy, affection and satisfaction. Rape, on the other hand, induces fear, trauma, pain and shock. They could not be more mutually exclusive.
“We live in a societal bubble where we all get the same messages. But the [sexual violence] survivors that we work with have told us over and over that their body and their brains can actually tell the difference. They don’t become traumatized if they’ve had consensual sex. Their systems recognized it as something else. It was violence, plain and simple,” says Kim.
“We continue to think that only ‘monsters’ or ‘predators’ engage in sexual harassment or sexual assault. There is a sense of comfort in believing that if only we can apprehend the worst of the worst—the serial predators—we can somehow solve our problems. But this is misleading,” says Nickie Philips, author of Beyond Blurred Lines: Rape Culture in Popular Media that discusses the psychology of rape culture. “The problem is not that we are besieged by monstrous serial predators, but that we have nurtured a culture that at social, institutional and organizational levels operates to reinforce gendered inequalities in ways that condone sexual aggression. Consequently, it is not surprising that in cases of rape, harm is minimalized and victim-blaming is endemic.”
Feminists have done a lot to change policies but sadly it isn’t enough to change minds. Letting an alleged rapist’s appearance cast doubt on his innocence or guilt is a form of disservice to both the victim and the fight for equality. It is our responsibility to let ourselves feel uncomfortable and unlearn the biggest lie we’ve been told—that evil isn’t always lurking in the shadows, and that “nice men” who are maybe attractive, respected, with a loving family, are just as capable of inflicting harm.