Years ago, I was running a workshop on child abuse and sexual assault for middle and high school students. One student asked, “Can we really blame rapists? They can’t control themselves.” Instead of responding directly to this question, I asked everyone in the room to stand up if they had ever been in a class with a teacher who was mercilessly screaming at them with little provocation, and thought about how much they wished they could just punch this teacher in the face. Every single participant stood up, resulting in quite a bit of laughter at this shared experience. I, then, asked that anyone who actually punched such a teacher in the face stay standing, and every participant sat down. I asked the young man who had posed the original question if that answered his question, and he nodded his head. I repeated this experiment at two subsequent workshops when this question was asked, and found that the exact same thing happened each time- every student acknowledged having had violent thoughts about a teacher, and not one of them had acted on them.
Sexual assault happens in the shadows, in private homes and other locations in which perpetrators feel they will not get caught. It happens in every city and every town and even within many families, and yet, we do not see men, women, and children being sexually assaulted in the middle of the street or other public places. Clearly, rapists have some level of self-control if they are able to plot ways to get their victims alone and control their impulses in situations that could lead to an arrest. People can desire to sexually control others or even be attracted to young children and still, not harm anyone. In order to test this theory, I once began seeking out individuals who had sexual thoughts about young children but chose not to act on them. Only one of the men I spoke with (unfortunately, I had no female volunteers) ever ended up abusing a child. I got to know these men quite well as they were unbelievably candid with me, and I think the distinction between this one perpetrator and the other men I interviewed was pretty straightforward- he was the only interviewee who appeared to lack empathy. One man I interviewed spoke to me about how he could never look in a young child’s eyes and do something that would be so devastating, that the thought of the damage abuse inflicts on children would always keep him from taking such an action. The sole perpetrator I interviewed answered questions in a more hollow, detached manner. He expressed an understanding that abusing children is unacceptable, but did not seem overly disturbed by his thoughts about doing so, and ended up acting out violently in many areas of his life. I do not believe that abuse is caused by the impulse to abuse, or by a lack of self-control. The problem is an overwhelming lack of empathy. The problem is with someone who can look at a child who is shaking from fear, or a partner who is hysterically attempting to fight him off, and fail to see a human being. The problem is with a society that preaches success and power and leaves love and human connection out of the picture.
When we fail to put the blame for sexual assault squarely on the perpetrators, that doesn’t mean that we blame nobody- in fact, we end up blaming victims. Women and girls are told not to wear revealing outfits, not to go out alone at night, and not to drink at a party because it is perceived that a potential rapist will “not be able to help himself.” We put the onus of rape prevention on potential victims, and when assaults do happen, victims such as myself have to deal with questions like, “What could you have done to keep this from happening?” We avoid “uncomfortable” discussions about these issues when they’re needed the most, and teach teenagers more about not having sex and birth control measures than about consent and mutual respect. We have a violence epidemic in this country, and instead of blaming it on this uncontrollable, boogeyman-type figure, we must address our widespread lack of empathy by practicing empathy toward all those we interact with and teaching empathy in every home, classroom and workplace.
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