It’s time to recognize that predators groom entire communities, not just their “targets.”
“Predator” is both a useful and problematic label. On the one hand, it dehumanizes perpetrators of violence in a way that makes it difficult for people to consider that their loved one may be guilty of committing violence. On the other hand, it is useful at capturing the predatory behavior of human beings who target others in a way that causes harm, as compared with predatory behavior found in other species. In the simplest terms, predators are those who identify, manipulate, and exploit vulnerabilities for personal gain.
That’s not all they do.
In a recent Salon article, “’Woody Allen is a genius. Woody Allen is a predator’: Why Mariel Hemingway’s new revelation matters,” Erin Keane discusses our cultural blind spot when it comes to “beloved” predators like Woody Allen:
“We all have our blind spots. Woody Allen is a cultural blind spot for us, an artist of incomparable influence whose work has purchased him forgiveness from a public he spent his entire artistic career grooming to forgive men like him…Empathy is essential to our humanity, but too often — in Hollywood as in life — we are groomed to direct empathy only to the powerful flawed man, and his pervasive, conflicted desire, never to his victim…
Woody Allen is a genius. Woody Allen is a predator. He put those two sides of himself together, hand in hand, and dared us to applaud. And we did — over and over. We all have our blind spots, but after a while, we also have to admit what we have deliberately refused to see.”
In this case, Allen sought to exploit vulnerabilities that included being young and relatively lacking in experience, and being a woman in a sexist society. As the Woody Allen example clearly illustrates, however, predators groom not only their victims, but also entire communities and the public in order to garner support, empathy, and credibility that will allow them to maintain power over their victims.
It’s not just “eccentric artists” who have us fooled, either. The Darren Sharper case illustrates another salient example, as shown by a recent report compiled by The New Orleans Advocate and ProPublica:
“Despite the on-field ferocity, Sharper was invariably described by fellow players and friends as polite, courteous and kind. He had a charity for kids. He took an interest in women’s issues. He briefly dated actress and former model Gabrielle Union, a rape victim who became an outspoken advocate. He raised money for breast cancer. The NFL as an institution embraced him, and he was selected to appear in a league book, NFL Dads Dedicated to Daughters, designed to raise awareness of battered women. In the book’s photo, he draped an arm around his daughter. ‘My daughter makes me mindful of how women are treated: undervalued and exploited,’ he wrote. ‘Which is why I feel compelled to take advantage of this opportunity to speak up about domestic violence.’…’He was a perfect gentleman. He was an older player. He never gave us any trouble,’ one former Saints official said.”
One conclusion to draw is that we cannot trust anyone.
Another, more prosocial conclusion to draw is that we all have a responsibility to 1) recognize that perpetrators of violence are often highly manipulative and exploitative; and 2) become more capable of recognizing and calling attention to subtle and overt signs and patterns of objectification and violence. The signs are always there:
“It was around 2 a.m. when he saw a woman he knew stumbling through the crowded club in a daze. To Stafford, the woman, a former Saints cheerleader, looked like she was sleepwalking. Stafford became alarmed. He saw Sharper, whom he also knew, sitting in a corner with a hat pulled low, eyeing the woman. Stafford went up to him and asked about the woman. Stafford said Sharper told him the woman was okay. He was taking her back to his apartment about a mile away. ‘She’s on the potion. She’s ready,’ he told Stafford. Sharper then took the woman’s hand and walked out.
The remark chilled Stafford. He wasn’t going home with a woman, Stafford said in a recent interview, ‘he was going home with a zombie.’”
This report speaks to institutional failures, but we as community members can’t separate ourselves and our community norms (common attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors) from these institutions and the individuals who compose them. At the crux of all of this is that we don’t believe those who say they were raped or did not consent to sex. Instead we say, “I don’t know, it doesn’t add up.”
It’s an open secret that even when law enforcement do the work of collecting sufficient evidence to prove a rape occurred, prosecutors may decide against pursuing prosecution based on the perception that juries will not convict, even in the face of actual, overwhelming evidence.
Why is this the case? Because even if shown clear evidence that a rape was committed, the public will then move from disbelieving the victim to blaming the victim. We have yet to see communities consistently hold offenders accountable for committing sexual violence.
Public perception matters. We are all responsible, and should all hold ourselves accountable.
Our first response should always be to believe those who disclose or report, and take the opportunity to truly examine offenders’ behavior patterns. Those who make any other choice are, in effect, accomplices.
The worst thing about predators is their good side—their talents, wit, charm, and charity. Their good side is what blinds us to their harmful behavior—only if we let it.
The worst things about sexual violence are our refusal to acknowledge it and our willingness to tolerate it.
We are responsible.