The Bogeyman in the Mirror

A warning on the following.  The posts here tend to be of the light hearted variety.  This is not one of them.  Sparked by events that have been storming the media recently, this is a personal note on sexual assault, its victims and the perpetrators thereof.


There has been much in the news lately about sexual assault and its prevalence in today’s society. Much of the conversation has been precipitated by the recent events surrounding a high profile media personality who made a very public appeal in defence of impending accusations of his sexual impropriety. He asserted that his actions, while potentially offensive to more conservative members of society, were committed in the privacy of his own home and with the consent of the individuals with whom he was engaged. He was subsequently terminated from his position and in the weeks following several women came forward to assert that his behaviour was in fact violent and committed without their permission.

I was discussing the issue and the disturbing statistics that are cited on such matters with some friends over dinner recently. One in four North American women will suffer a sexual assault in their lifetime. This number (which many experts speculate to be low) is limited to unwanted sexual touching. Verbal harassment, genital exposure etc. are not included and I suspect the number would be much, much higher if they were. 6% of sexual assaults are reported to police and in the case of date rape that number shrinks to between 1% and 2%.   19% of attacks are what would be termed rape in common parlance (i.e. penetration) and the remaining 81% is unwanted touching. The statistics are staggering, and when I scan my own roster of female friends and acquaintances the number seems accurate. (When is comes to lewd comments or being exposed to I do not know a single woman who has NOT experienced this behaviour in some form or another).

It was at this dinner that I experienced a very disturbing epiphany. If the numbers are correct (and I suspect they are) there is virtually no chance that is do not know someone who has COMMITTED a sexual assault.  I know a number of women who have been raped.   I never for a second considered that I must know someone who has done the raping.

I was floored. Let me preface this by saying I do NOT believe all men are beasts and rapists. I understand that this isn’t a case of “all of the people, all of the time” and is probably individuals exhibiting a series of aberrant behaviour over the course of a life time rather than a large group of people each committing a single act but no matter how you slice it this is a math problem with an extremely unpleasant solution.

When I scan the list of characters I have met over the course of my life I cannot identify the person or persons that I believe are capable of such behaviour and I think the root problem is this: They can’t either. I don’t know a single person who looks in the mirror in the morning and says “I assaulted someone last night!” before they head out on their daily business.

Society has an image of what a rapist looks like – an unwashed thug, lurking in the dark by the bus stop. The reality is such creatures represent a minuscule fraction of a percent of the real number. It is a friend or family member who commits 86% of sexual assaults in North America.   The perpetrators look like us, because they ARE us.

I asked a friend who had been the victim of date rape if she thought the man who committed the attack, if questioned, would have any idea that he had done something wrong and she confirmed that he absolutely would not. There were several factors (alcohol, prior sexual history among them) that turned a playful wrestling match into something else. My friend did not report the attack and the perpetrator remained in her social circle without recrimination. I suspect situations like these are extremely common be it in a social or professional arena.

There can be some very clear guidelines with sex and sexuality. I think it can be universally stated that no one should insert any object into any orifice of anyone else without his or her express permission. Unsolicited grabbing or hitting is also verboten. After that they lines are not only blurred, they are amorphous smudges.

This lends itself to what may be an insurmountable problem. If the perpetrators of these unacceptable acts cannot identify themselves no amount of dialogue will help. The problem, if you will, is that the problem doesn’t know that it is the problem.  Without self-identification all efforts to modify these behaviours will be wasted.

I scan my own list of acquaintances again, and suddenly some of the names do not seem so innocuous. Factor in youth or age, hormones, anger, frustration, alcohol & drugs, control issues, entitlement issues and an undefined area of what is and is not acceptable and the numbers do not seem so impossible. The media personality who sparked this dialogue was clearly under the impression he had done nothing wrong. I suspect person that whistles at someone on the street, or maybe slaps a passing bottom thinks not only are they committing no infraction but instead that they are expressing a form of admiration.  And if you’ve “done it” be for, isn’t that a free pass to do it again?

While we need to stop looking for the “Bogeyman” and turn our attention to the proverbial guy next door we also need to stop looking for to “Bogeywoman”. We have to cease the language of justification – the “what was she wearing/drinking/ thinking/doing?” dialogue that so often follows news of an assault. To paraphrase an acquaintance of mine: “I may have been looking for love but I certainly wasn’t looking for a punch in the face”. Attempts to reframe our narrative are understandable as we search for reasons that such things cannot happen to US.   But they do, and in numbers too great to be denied.

What is the solution? There is a burgeoning market for degrees in “Communications” which largely focus on getting messages to the masses but very little effort (and a waning one at that with the surge in technology that keeps us in our own isolated worlds) seems to be devoted to individuals imparting their needs and desires to each other.  Perhaps we all need to look in the mirror, take a deep breath and ask ourselves “Is it me? Am I the problem?”. We may not like the answer but without it we are lost.

Leave a Reply