As someone responsible for educating incoming students about the importance of consent and sexual assault prevention, I am often confronted with what I’ve come to call “the myth of the typical rapist.” After watching a video about active bystander intervention, students will tell me that the perpetrator in the video “doesn’t look like a rapist.” When I ask them to explain, they’ll say that the character is too well-dressed and attractive, that a “real” rapist hides in a bush and wears a trench coat. This isn’t surprising; the trope of a creepy man hiding in shrubbery is constantly reinforced in media (I myself am thinking of a number of episodes of Law and Order: SVU) and therefore legitimized as being the only kind of sexual assault wherein the victim is not at fault (whereas we know that sexual assault is never the fault of the victim). However, the “typical rapist” is far from stranger.
In a 2002 peer-reviewed study published in Violence and Victims, Dr. David Lisak of the University of Massachusetts and Dr. Paul Miller of Brown University set out to determine the prevalence of “repeat rapists” on college campuses. Their results were chilling; based on the survey, the average repeat rapist assaults around six victims prior to facing repercussions. Furthermore, a 2007 report from the Justice Department states that, in almost 90% of all reported sexual assault cases, the perpetrator knew the victim and vice-versa prior to the assault. By looking at these statistics writ-large, we see that the typical campus rapist is neither a social outcast nor a one-time offender. I would argue that the latter is related to the former. The “typical rapist” is both socially connected and able to assault several victims before they’re reported (which is likely due to the fact that they don’t fear repercussions). This means that, overall, we have an incredibly large number of victims compared to the number of perpetrators.
The fact that we fundamentally misunderstand the facts surrounding perpetrators of sexual assault renders active bystander intervention even more vital. These individuals clearly feel that their actions have no consequences, and by intervening in a situation, an active bystander clearly communicates a lack of acceptance with the norm of acceptance surrounding sexual assault. By continuing to contribute to a culture where victims feel comfortable and supported in reporting their assailant, active bystanders can also help ensure that rapists are punished before they’re able to complete another sexual assault. When it comes to fighting a culture that condones sexual violence, I’d like to call specifically on the cisgender men reading this article to ensure that they are well-versed on bystander intervention. It is vital that victims (be they men, women, or non-binary) feel supported by us, especially because, while the vast majority of us are not rapists, a number of us are certainly guilty for making light of rape by comparing it to something like taking a test or for congratulating someone on having sex with an intoxicated person. We need to actively work to end rape culture, and that only happens when everyone is working towards the same goal.
Jake Mazeitis is a senior at the University of Oklahoma majoring in International Studies, Letters, and Gender Studies. He intends to begin law school after he graduates and work as a civil rights attorney.