We Need To Stop Stereotyping Rapists If We're Ever Going To Dismantle Rape Culture

Simply locking offenders up and throwing away the key may give us peace of mind, but we need to understand why they offend, and how to rehabilitate them in ways that are effective and humane.
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Publish date:
October 29, 2014
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rape, rape culture, sexual assault

On the off-chance that somehow you missed it, TMZ recently posted an audio recording of Stephen Collins (most well known for playing Eric on 7th Heaven) confessing to molesting young children during a therapy session.

Many people were shocked to hear the news, not only because a celebrity was involved, but because Stephen Collins did not seem like the type who would molest children, especially due to the kind, religious, fatherly, and trustworthy character he played on 7th Heaven.

Bill Cosby has also been in the spotlight for accusations of sexual assault after comedian Hannibal Burress called him out on stage for telling black men to pull their pants up, while Cosby himself has been accused of sexual assault by at least a dozen women. As many have pointed out, it's easy to forget about these allegations because they conflict with the positive image we have of the comedian.

Allegations such as these tend to take us by surprise, because we always think that the alleged perpetrator is not that type of person, or does not fit the stereotype of someone who would commit a sex crime. Stereotypes teach us that rapists are supposed to be cold, scary, unfamiliar and a danger that can be seen from a mile away. In reality, people who commit sex crimes can be your favorite singer, friends, family members, colleagues, your friendly neighbor, your child’s favorite teacher or your boss.

A person who commits a sex crime can be literally anyone.

Though the thought of thinking about loved ones, friends, colleagues, and respected community members as potential rapists is discomforting, if our goal is to end rape culture then we must to recognize that stereotyping rapists is detrimental to the cause.

A very common stereotype is the stranger danger myth, or the idea that most rapists are unknown to the survivor (two thirds of survivors know their rapists, and 28% of survivors are assaulted by an intimate partner.) People are less likely to believe or support survivors who are assaulted by someone they know for various reasons.

If the assailant is a partner, it is assumed that sexual contact between people in a relationship is always consensual. If it is a friend or family member, the assumption is that they wouldn’t assault someone that they care about. If the assailant is a well-respected member of the community or a celebrity, then it's easier for people to preserve the idea of who the assailant is supposed to be than to believe that they can be flawed. Communities tend to rally around well-respected celebrities or members of the community when allegations against them are brought to light, the same way the Florida State University community unwaveringly supports Jameis Winston (while discrediting and threatening the student who alleged the assault).

Reputation and status might be the most important factors in deciding whether or not a well known celebrity will own up to their crimes. Celebrities such as Cosby not only receive support from fans, but they are able to use their wealth and status to control the outcome of the allegations.

Another dangerous, pervasive stereotype, is that perpetrators are always men, and survivors are always women. This is usually the case, however new data suggests that men are victims more often than previously thought, and many men report that the perpetrator was female. This assumption also ignores sexual assault that happens between same-sex partners. Furthermore, in the military, most sexual assault survivors are men.

We also tend to think of rapists as being inherently evil, sex-crazed criminals who are defined only by horrible acts that they have committed. (A study published in 2007 shows that people tend to exaggerate how dangerous registered sex offenders actually are.) Though the same type of blanket judgement doesn’t seem to be assigned to violent crimes of other types, such as murder.

For example, throughout the United States and in several other countries, sex offenders are required to register in a public registry. However, though some states in the US have proposed registries for convicted murderers, they are much less common. Thinking of rapists as inherently evil, or as lost causes, reflects our failure to understand why rapists commit sex crimes, as well as our lack of concern for how to rehabilitate them. Studies show that rehabilitation, as opposed to prison time, is less expensive, and effective in lowering recidivism rates. In some states in the US, chemical castration is used as an alternative to prison time, however Amnesty International calls this type of treatment a violation of human rights.

Simply locking offenders up and throwing away the key may give us peace of mind, but it’s crucial that we understand why they offend, and how to rehabilitate them in ways that are effective and humane.

While sometimes these stereotypes can allow the perpetrator to avoid owning up to their crimes, occasionally they can lead to wrongful convictions of people who are stereotyped as inherently violent, such as men of color. Over two decades ago, five African American and Latino men were falsely imprisoned for raping a woman in Central Park. This was neither the first, nor the last time that men of color have been wrongly convicted.

As prominent actors who played loving fathers on television, Stephen Collins and Bill Cosby don’t fit our ideas of who a rapist should be. The point is, we shouldn’t have these ideas in the first place. If we want to rehabilitate offenders, ensure that survivors are believed when they report and prevent false convictions, then it’s time we view rape as a horrible act that can be committed by anyone, not just those who fit the stereotype.