Schrödinger’s Rapist

This essay from 2009 is the best thing I’ve read so far this year. It’s called Schrödinger’s Rapist: or a guy’s guide to approaching strange women without being maced. And I think it might be perfect.

The comments are now closed, but there are 1200+ of them, and they are (mostly) good reading as well.

The essay is about how there’s no way for women to know if a man who is approaching us is a good guy or a rapist. So we constantly have to observe and calculate levels of danger. It spells out five points that men can and should be aware of if they want to approach women. From the essay:

When you approach me in public, you are Schrödinger’s Rapist. You may or may not be a man who would commit rape. I won’t know for sure unless you start sexually assaulting me. I can’t see inside your head, and I don’t know your intentions. If you expect me to trust you – to accept you at face value as a nice sort of guy – you are not only failing to respect my reasonable caution, you are being cavalier about my personal safety.

The title is based on Schrödinger’s Cat:

Essentially the point is that the cat in the box is either alive or dead. We don’t know, because it’s in the box. We can calculate the probability, but until the box is opened, the cat exists in a state of uncertainty. Dead? Alive? Somewhere between the two?… Upon meeting a man, we have no information about him other than the general stats. We collect more information as we go, but that information does not erase the uncertainty. It just changes the odds. The only way we know for sure-the only way the box can be opened, as it were-is if the man proves himself a rapist by committing a rape, either against us or against someone else.

Some commenters feel it’s not fair that women start from a baseline of fearful-of-men-who-are-strangers. I would say it may not be fair, but it is realistic. Think of it this way: If you get bit by a dog, you’ll likely be scared of all dogs — and I don’t think anyone would blame you.

Other commenters worry about potential profiling:

You know, if you replace “man” with “young black male”, and “rapist” with “mugger”, and substitute the appropriate statistics, you’ve got yourself an argument you’d see on Stormfront. Is it OK for me to go with “Schrodinger’s mugger” and assume that any young black guy I see on the subway is a mugger until I know otherwise? Because assuming that any man could be a rapist is about the same mentality.Source

While still others don’t feel like profiling is accurately comparable:

Here’s the thing. In my experience, being treated as a potential rapist hasn’t harmed me in any way. I haven’t been hassled by the police for driving while male. I haven’t been kicked out of bars or followed around stores or whatever because my masculinity was threatening people… ABSOLUTELY THE ONLY CONSEQUENCE of the “sexual profiling” that I face as a man has been that I have to be a little more polite and considerate around strange women, especially if we’re alone together or it’s dark. Okay, I can do that. No skin off my nose.

People of color have a very different experience with racial profiling. They do get hassled by the police more because of it, often with really dreadful consequences. They do lose out on good jobs and a lot of social perks – and so on. It is a big, serious, hairy deal that harms them in a lot of ways. I figure that gives them a good reason to complain about it when they experience it.

I think if I lived in some mirror universe where I faced serious, persistent, life-altering harmful consequences for being male, I’d be more likely to get angry at the women who crossed the street to avoid me – and I’d be more sympathetic to other guys who get angry over it. As is, I just don’t feel like us men have a legitimate grievance here.Source

I hope you get a chance to read the essay, because I’d love to discuss it with you. It’s interesting to read something like this from before #metoo, before “grab ’em by the p*ssy” and see how well it still holds up. Makes me wonder if we’ve seen any improvements on this front in the last 11 years, since the essay was first written.

It also has me thinking about how many rapists I likely know, how many we all know — and how we’re not aware of it. One commenter did some math to try and figure out how many rapists live among us, and the numbers are pretty shocking:

RAAIN published the 1/6 women is a victim of rape or sexual assault statistic. The census estimates the female population of the US in 2008 was 154 million. Which mean 25.5 million women will be raped or assaulted. The male population is almost 150 million.

If we assume, for simplicity, that every sexual assault is reported and, for worst-case-scenario numbers, that every rapist will only rape 1 woman and then stop, then one out of every 5.83 men is a rapist. That doesn’t take into account gray rape or men who “convince” their partners to have sex they do not want.source

Yikes is an understatement. What are your thoughts? Have you ever tried to comprehend the idea that statistically, you are sitting with rapists on the subway, at church, at every sporting event and cultural event?

Do you agree with the advice in the essay? Is it the kind of thing you would want the men in your life to read? Or was it hard for you to relate to?

P.S. — 100 Cats found here.

31 thoughts on “Schrödinger’s Rapist”

  1. This is one of my favorite posts on the entire internet – I am so happy to see you boosting it here! I’ve read it (and much of the comment section) several times, and I have the post saved (both bookmarked and in pdf, in case it ever gets taken down) so I can send it to a friend if the topic ever comes up in conversation.

    1. I read it a long time ago, and I think it’s perhaps even more relevant over a decade later. I also bookmarked this essay, that was written by a man in response to it:

      This is my favorite passage:

      “I’m not just sending a signal that I will disrespect her boundaries — I’ve already done it! I’m not saying that I will be that guy — I am proving that I am that guy. So if I now want her to trust me, I’m not asking her to believe that I am who I say I am despite evidence to the contrary. She already has proof that I’m not who I say I am. So I’m asking her to believe that I can change. And she doesn’t even know me.”

  2. I don’t think of every man as a potential rapist. Rape is a very large fear of mine, but I just don’t think or feel toward every man I meet that way.

    I think my mother-in-law thinks that way, though. She hates all men, including her son. When she refers to hating men, she does so while talking on the phone to her son. My husband is a good man, but her inferences make him angry and sad, especially since he is her only child and she has two grandsons, whom she implies will also be evil when they grow up, no matter how well we raise them. It is just in their nature.

    However, I love the 10 cats poster at the beginning of your post.

    1. It sounds like your MIL’s response is really extreme. Is it possible that she experienced some type of trauma in the past, possibly from someone she trusted? She may not even admit it because many women were made to feel responsible or shameful for being a victim. I have a relative that is kind of similar but she has borderline personality disorder and therefore continually looks for enemies in an absolute, black or white type of role.

    2. I don’t think an underlying fear than any man could be a rapist necessarily means a woman hates men. As Jeanne said, it sounds like there’s something else going on with your MIL — possibly personal experience, but even then, I have (multiple, sadly) friends who have been raped who would never say they hate men and don’t act or talk as if they do.

  3. I read the article and found it well written, respectful and patient. She doesn’t go out and say, “ALL men are rapists, DEATH to all men!” She simply says, “Hey guys. Most women have some level of safety concern. It varies. Here’s how to read her body language.” Non rapist, rational men will see this as totally logical, and possibly, potentially helpful. Men who fall into the questionable category see it as a huge offensive, personal attack to his ego even though it is not.

  4. Brilliant. I remember telling my husband a few years ago (we’ve been together for 20 years) how I am constantly aware of my surroundings and the people around me when I am out by myself. He was honestly surprised and had never considered that this was part of my reality. I have never really thought about it as explicitly as the author of this article states it, but I would have to agree, that I do assume a certain level of threat from every male stranger I meet, especially if I am by myself. I think all men should read this so that they can be more empathetic and aware of how their presence impacts women, especially at night and in other potentially dangerous places. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  5. I love this essay…well, I don’t know if love is the right word but it’s a great essay that I also think should be mandatory reading in high school.

    Why don’t we talk about how many men are rapists every single day and try to do something about it???

    This reminded me of this tweet where a guy wrote “Have you ever seen someone jogging with no headphones. WTF is that about?” and you can imagine what the women (including me) had to say. It really shows how oblivious men are (well, I suppose the rapists aren’t oblivious).

  6. To answer your question – about 10 years ago I learned about a rapist in my social group and it floored me. He was the husband of a professional and personal friend – I thought I knew him but it turns out I and everyone else was clueless.

    They appeared to be a wonderful couple. He had 3 lovely children. He and his wife were young lawyers and so was I. I went to their home for parties and a baby shower. The wife and I were on a professional board together. He and I had a business lunch when I was scouting for a new job.

    A few months after that lunch I opened the paper to learn he had been arrested and charged as a serial rapist. He had preyed on an especially vulnerable population – immigrant women with limited English proficiency. He brutally raped 5 licensed massage therapists before he was caught. Sometimes at knifepoint.

    He was a monster, and I had lunch with him and, like everyone else, thought he was a “good guy.” Made me mistrust my own instincts – and my husband questioned his own (he liked him too). Just another example of why it’s reasonable for women to be distrustful.

    1. I’m so sorry you had such a jolting, horrific experience. I cannot imagine how that would make me doubt my judgement about everyone. I was once working on a report about child rapists and how they groom their victims over the internet, and it made me look at every man around me differently the whole time I was working on the report and for a long time afterward. I can’t imagine having known someone and liked them and them discovered such a horrendous thing. Thank God he was caught. His poor victims. His poor wife. I can’t imagine.

  7. Also…he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. During sentencing the women read statements about how they are haunted by nightmo, and become fearful when they see someone on the street who looks like him.

    I have always believed his sentencing statement minimized his actions – “While the truth about what I did is dramatically different than what was alleged, I do not minimize my real wrongs and my apology for those part wrongs is genuine and heartfelt. “

      1. I’m sorry but my memory of this is particularly strong and I was not even a victim. I just looked up the case and recalled that one of his defenses was that these massage therapists were undocumented immigrant prostitutes. And, he was a former prosecutor.

        I found especially moving this statement made at the time of the case by API Chaya, a group that supports gender violence survivors from the Asian and Pacific Islander communities (this was 2012)-

        “Here’s the bottom line. It doesn’t matter if you are a masseuse, from the United States or a different country and culture, if you are a sex worker or been a sex worker. None of these factors are valid in defense of rape or sexual violence of any kind…period.

        “And as far as the discussion about Asian culture is concerned, where is the discussion about [RAPIST’S] culture? What culture Are we blaming for the fact that [RAPIST], and many seemingly upstanding men are rapists? And what about [RAPIST’S] culture as a powerful, white man with resources at his disposal in a society that far too often blames the victim? “

    1. Also…he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
      Oh my…with a harsh sentence like that he must have been Black.

      During sentencing the women read statements about how they are haunted by nightmo, and become fearful when they see someone on the street who looks like him.
      Whew, he’s not Black. Thank goodness!

  8. Interesting reading about sad reality which many men are aware of too. I am a big guy. Just yesterday in the evening I noticed a woman looked backed at me with fear in her eyes when I was on my way from train station to home in the night. I pretended I needed to stop and waited until she walked far away before I kept going

    1. Thank you for your understanding comment. It just goes to show that secure and empathetic men don’t take a woman’s concerned behavior (such as looking behind her or crossing the street) as a personal affront.

    2. Thank you so much for understanding, N, and that it isn’t personal. It’s just this innate, biological fear that women have in themselves. By 13 I was beginning to automatically assess my surroundings. I’m planning on going on a hike today by myself, and I’m trying to carefully asses: where can I go where I won’t be too alone and isolated, and vulnerable to a potential dangerous man. This is how the majority of women think ALL THE TIME.

  9. I was just reading along here, glad to see the conversation, but not feeling particularly intense about it all. And then I read this comment. My eyes filled with tears. Of sadness for women who feel scared, for all the times I have myself, but also for this incredible act of kindness and selflessness. Thank you, N, for the respect and validation.

  10. I have multiple friends who have been raped, one friend whose best friend as a teenager was abducted, raped, and murdered, and many more friends and myself have experienced sexual harrassment to varying degrees. I am wary of any approach by any unknown man, and remain wary even if that man starts to become more familiar over time. Yes, there are men I trust. Yes, women have been raped BY MEN THEY TRUST. As the article says– you can’t really be sure unless the man proves himself a rapist. (And the reality is–you may not KNOW that a man has already proved himself a rapist.) You can’t prove a negative. You can’t prove that someone *isn’t* a rapist, because they could always potentially become one, even if the probability is low. Sure, that’s not a nice or even “fair” reality for men who just want to chat someone up or whatever, but it’s also the reality that we live with. Women have to live with the fear and uncertainty side of the equation (and, you know, the actual assault), and men have to live with the distrust and necessary understanding of how they are frequently viewed, even if it seems unfair to them because they haven’t done anything wrong.

    1. Also, my response overlooks the reality of male victims of rape, who are often even more silenced and ignored than female victims of rape. Yes, women are victims FAR more often. I just want to put out there that I’m sorry for discounting any men who have experienced this trauma as well.

      1. I am what the woman who wrote this authentically fears and loathes.

        No, I am not a rapist and have no inclination to become one. I am merely creepy.

        However, because I am also self-aware I know I have no damn business saying a thing or even looking at any unrelated woman beyond the narrow requirements of my job.

        The reason why everyone is talking past each other is that nobody is admitting what they are really thinking.

        Women are right to fear creepy men who might be sexually attracted to them. They might actually be rapists. It is also important for women to acknowledge that it is creepiness, not maleness, that triggers this fear.

        It is also important for men to realize who they are. Men are not created equal and not all men are attractive to women. Some guys are just creepy and that is a painful truth that many of us can’t accept. Subpar men will see woman talking with “chads” or “alphas” and think they can do the same thing which is why they have issues accepting this suspicion and paranoia.

        Not all men are dateable no more than all men can become millionaires or rock stars. I am one of them. This discussion would be much easier if we acknowledge and accept this inequality.

  11. I also really liked this comment by “Liza-the-Second” near the top of the original post:

    When we talk about rape as something that happens to 1 in 6 women, it is something that happens to women. Oh no, women! You have a problem! A women’s problem! That has to do with women! What are women going to do to solve this problem?

    Perhaps if we rephrased that as “one in sixty (or however many) men will commit rape in his lifetime,” the problem might start to look a little different to certain people.

    1. This was a comment that stuck with me, as well. Reminded me of Gabby’s twitter thread about all unwanted pregnancies are caused by men. This kind of reframing is so important to get out from under and to refresh the discourse.

  12. I read this post and it’s linked article and hundreds of it’s comments yesterday. It put into words and into focus that unspoken and not quite conscious feeling I had for so any years. Now I am a bit older and a bit heavier and feel a bit safer!

    Thank you for sharing this with us here. The numbers of men raping women is just horrifying. I fear for my daughter and am even more committed to teaching my boys proper boundaries and respect.

    Thank you!!!

  13. This post was so timely for me. Tomorrow, I’m going to pick up a bike I’m buying from a man on craigslist. The mental gymnastics I have gone through to figure out how to get this bike and avoid any potential assault are absolutely ridiculous. They ranged from “ask the guy to meet in a public place,” to “ask my dad to come with me to the pick up the bike and then ride home.” Ultimately, I settled on the latter, even though it puts my dad and my daughter (who should be napping at that time and instead will be accompanying us on the 45-minute car ride) into a seriously inconvenient position.
    Over the past week, I’ve considered calling off the “dad as protector” request many times, but each time I end up with a vision of something awful happening. Is this likely? No. Not at all. But could this guy be bad? One of the 1-in-60? Sure. He could be.
    Now contrast the mental effort, actual time, and emotional labor (hemming and hawing about asking my dad, thinking about the best way to do so, reconsidering, etc) required of this task with what my husband would do: set up a time to meet, put it in his calendar, and then go pick up the bike. Done.
    Imagine what women (and other vulnerable people) could do with all of the leftover time and energy we expend trying to avoid being assaulted!

    1. This mental load! This constant wondering, looking over your shoulder, avoiding going certain places alone (the gorgeous wooded path at the end of my street) or at night (the gym), carrying a keyknife on my keychain, worrying about an escape clause should the repairman coming to my house turn it to be a creep. It’s exhausting and upsetting. My husband, until a couple years ago when I mentioned fear of rape to him casually, was shocked it was something I’d ever worried about. I couldn’t believe that worrying for his personal safety at the hands of another man was something he’d NEVER worried about or considered. It dawned on me then just how very different the female reality is and how very privileged men are not to have this on their minds.

      1. Very true. I had to book a hotel room for myself as I was attending a conference and I went on to Google Maps to see whether the road looked safe to walk along at night . My husband said it had never, ever occurred to him to wonder about safety in this way.

  14. I heard my husband talking with our teenage son about being mindful of how women around him may feel at night, when alone, etc. He was explaining that when he goes running, is getting in a lift, is in a parking garage he’ll try to gauge what will help the other person know he’s safe and how to best give them space (wait for the next elevator, run down a different route, etc.) I’ve talked with him about my experiences moving about in the world and having to constantly assess safety but hearing him tell our son that he needs to be aware of that and careful to notice the women around him and if they may feel concerned by his presence… it made me feel so grateful, and so sad. Even in little day-to-day interactions, my son has grown tall and when he was speaking to his little sister my husband gently pointed out that his tone of voice and size & proximity (she was bending her head back to look up at him) might be making her feel a bit intimidated, and he apologized and sat down to continue talking. I have hope that these conversations are at least starting to happen, because this is heartbreaking.

  15. This article really puts into words the mental load (as coined above) it is to constanly assess your safety. But it is totally something we do and something men, unless told, wouldn’t even consider.

    I found this line so succinct:
    “…each of those messages indicates that you believe your desires are a legitimate reason to override her rights.”
    because that is really what influences our opinion (or odds calculations).

    Thanks for sharing.

  16. Fun fact: the pseudonymous author of the Schroedinger’s Rapist blog post attended BYU, which is where I met her—a remarkable and articulate person who I am fortunate to know.

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