Who Is the Campus Rapist?

The ongoing problem of rape on college campuses has surfaced in the news again, because findings of a recent study have us questioning everything we thought we knew about campus rapists.

What we thought:

For the last decade, the popular mindset has been that campus rapists are serial perpetrators, a/k/a repeat offenders. That understanding was based primarily on a 2002 study, which identified 6.4% of the participants as rapists and 63.3% of those rapists as criminals who had committed more than one rape act. The findings were clear: beware of the guys who victimize girls, because the majority of them will do so over and over again.

While the underlying truth of these findings - that rapists are violent men - is still valid, it turns out the data about which men are rapists may not be.

What we know now:

A new study published by the JAMA Pediatric journal tracked over 1600 young men at two colleges, and (terrifyingly) found that 10.8% of the men had committed rape by the time they graduated college.

Almost eleven percent? Holy crap. Statistically speaking, that means that likely, everyone out there knows at least a rapist or two. And that within every circle of teenage friends, there's bound to be at least one sexual predator.

Disturbing as that statistic is, that's not even what's surprising.

The really unpredictable part is that the study's data suggests that rapists are not the kind of serial offenders we previously thought them to be. The study showed that most of the rapists, (74%), committed their crimes only during one academic year. Further, the JAMA results even indicated that men who began college in the greatest risk category to commit rape actually showed a decrease in their rape likelihood across the early college years. By contrast, serial murderers, habitual drug criminals, or repeat bank-robbers tend to follow predictable patterns; many such criminals start small, but gain momentum and become more aggressive as time passes. But campus rapists seem to be different.

Just when we were sure that sexual violence was a habitual and repeated behavior, this study indicates the exact opposite; rape is basically unpredictable.

What's the problem?

If campus rapists were an identifiable group acting predictably, we could educate girls to identify and avoid these men. However, the idea that a generally non-violent, mentally-healthy man can become an intermittently violent offender is nothing short of terrifying.

To put it more simply, we thought rape was like camping: an activity that a predictable subset of people do on a repeated basis. As it turns out, rape is actually more like smoking pot - something that lots of different kinds of people have tried a time or two, but only a handful of have continued to do regularly.

Of course, there are criticisms of the JAMA study - such as that the sample was too small, or that the colleges were only in the Southeast, and therefore not representative of all collegiate men across the U.S. But statistical anomalies aside, the findings of this study are deeply alarming.

What does this mean for anti-rape education?

Typically, a successful solution to any criminal behavior takes the nature of the perpetrators into account, focusing on predictable behavior patterns. But the JAMA study suggests that in the case of campus rape, there are no patterns on which to focus. In fact, it evidences what many of us already suspected - that everyone is a potential rapist.

Men who perpetrate campus rape do not fit a single mold. Sexually-abusive behavior transcends race, status, education and personality. Some rapists are habitual. Others are not. Some rapists have outwardly violent personalities. Others do not. The difference between the protector of women and the abuser of women is solely in his action, and not in his nature, character, or circumstances.

In that terrifying truth lays the key to its solution.

Where do we go from here?

The most powerful weapon against bad men doing bad things is good men demanding that their peers do good things. High school boys can pressure each other to steer clear of rape in the same way they pressure each other to get better grades and throw longer passes on the football field. College boys can include standards of decency in their fraternity bylaws. Young men can call each other out for disrespecting women in the same way they call each other out for bad fashion choices.

No methodology needs to be employed, and no system needs to be implemented. All that needs to be done is that the issue of violence against women must become important to young men. Once young men care about protecting women, they will accomplish that goal. Boys influence each other for every choice, from workouts to college to girlfriends to sneakers. They can influence each other to protect the women in their lives.

All this clearly begs the question, "how do we make women's safety important to young men?" The answer is in how we live, and how we make anything important to the men in our world. We teach them early. We remind the often. We charge older boys to mentor younger ones. These are the ways we teach health, sportsmanship, academic excellence, and etiquette. We already know how to teach. We just need to add rape to our curriculum.

Even in the most open American households, sexual violence isn't an ordinary dinner-table conversation topic. But why can't it be? We need to begin by teaching our boys to speak up whenever they see a person being victimized in any way. We can encourage our young men to help foster a culture of safety for women. We can expect and demand that rape prevention be proactive and not reactive. Above all, we must teach our young people that creating safe environments is not a lofty goal. It is their everyday responsibility and we expect them to take up the gauntlet. Now.