As I previously mentioned, rapists have a strong interest in not looking like rapists. Being seen as a menacing creep, an awkward and disturbed loner, or even marginally likely to cause harm to anyone, is directly contrary to their goals. For someone looking to commit rape, anything that might alert others to this intention and capability is simply not in their interest.
Many people don’t seem to understand this, and believe that women somehow ought to be capable of, and responsible for, avoiding potential rapists. The fact that rapists often look like everyone else – meaning that anyone around us could possibly be a rapist – makes this an impossible expectation. Perhaps people believe that if someone has the potential for such monstrosity, the horror of it would be readily evident at all times, beyond anyone’s ability to disguise, and visible for the rest of us to perceive and avoid. But this isn’t the case at all. In fact, the exact opposite is often true.
In a piece on Jerry Sandusky and the strategies of child molesters, the New Yorker explains that they groom not only potential victims, but also entire communities. By cultivating a wholesome image of fun, friendliness and approachability, they obtain easier access to children, while avoiding everyone else’s suspicion:
“Many molesters confirmed that they would spend anywhere from two to three years getting established in a new community before molesting any children,” van Dam writes. One pedophile she interviewed would hang out in bars, looking for adults who seemed to be having difficulties at home. He would lend a comforting ear, and then start to help out. As he told van Dam:
I was just a friend doing things a friend would do. Helping them move, going to baseball games with them. What I found myself doing was getting close to the kids, becoming more of a father figure or a mentor, doing things for them that the parents weren’t doing because the parents were out getting drunk all the time. And, of course, it made it easy for me to baby-sit. They’d say, “Oh yeah. We can off-load the kids with Jimmy.”
No one would expect that these lovable, happy guys who are great with children would actually abuse them, and when their crimes do come to light, those around them find it simply unbelievable. They can’t accept that someone like that would do such a thing:
“We weren’t really prepared to call the police and make it into a police investigation,” one of the mothers told van Dam. “It was an indiscretion, as far as we were concerned at this point. It was all vague: ‘Well, he put his hands down there.’ And, ‘Well, it was inside the pants, but fingers went to here.’ We were all still trying to protect Mr. Clay’s reputation, and the possibility this was all blown up out of proportion and there was a mistake.”
The families then learned that there had been a previous complaint by a child against Clay, and they took their case to the school superintendent. He, too, advised caution. “If allegations do not clearly indicate sexual abuse, a gray area exists,” he wrote to them. “The very act of overt investigation carries with it a charge, a conviction, and a sentence, a situation which is repugnant to fair-minded people.”
Indeed, they often find it so difficult to accept, they’ll actively defend and protect the abuser:
The pedophile is often imagined as the dishevelled old man baldly offering candy to preschoolers. But the truth is that most of the time we have no clue what we are dealing with. A fellow-teacher at Mr. Clay’s school, whose son was one of those who complained of being fondled, went directly to Clay after she heard the allegations. “I didn’t do anything to those little boys,” Clay responded. “I’m innocent. . . . Would you and your husband stand beside me if it goes to court?” Of course, they said. People didn’t believe that Clay was a pedophile because people liked Clay—without realizing that Clay was in the business of being likable.
Because the abuser is considered to be so above reproach, those who are suspicious of him are instead found to be at fault:
“I was running into my colleagues who were saying, ‘Did you know that some rotten parents trumped up these charges against this poor man?’ ” one teacher told van Dam. The teacher added, “Not just one person. Many teachers said this.” A psychologist working at the school thought that the community was in the grip of hysteria. The allegations against Clay, he thought, were simply the result of the fact that he was “young and energetic.” Clay threatened to sue. The parents dropped their case.
Clay was a man repeatedly accused of putting his hands down the pants of young boys. Parents complained. Superiors investigated. And what happened? The school psychologist called him a victim of hysteria.
While it’s always disgusting to see people side with accused rapists and doubt their victims, it shouldn’t be surprising. Abusers thrive on grey areas, their carefully constructed reputations, the perceived impossibility of their actions, and the willingness of others to defend them and interpret their behavior in the most charitable way possible.