"Cuddler" attacks not so adorable

Attention, Washington, D.C., media: Sex crimes are not a form of snuggling

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published January 13, 2010 7:14PM (EST)

He's called the "Cuddler." Sounds cute, right? A human equivalent to a blanket with sleeves. He creeps into women's homes -- like Santa! like the Tooth Fairy! -- gets in their beds and gives them a good snuggling.  The Associated Press reported his latest handiwork Monday, noting "D.C. police said a woman awoke to find a stranger cuddling her in bed."  They added that, "Investigators are looking into the possibility that the incident is related to others, some including sexual assaults, in the past two years on or near the Georgetown University campus." So turn off your electric blankets, ladies; the Cuddler may be nearby and ready to spoon.

Oh, wait. Did you say "sexual assault"? I guess that's the other phrase we use for breaking into someone's home and groping her. But who doesn't prefer a snappier term?

As Amanda Hess laid it out this fall in Washington City Paper's Sexist column, the crimes -- and the Cuddler nickname  -- have been haunting D.C. for the last two years. The name traces back to March of 2008, when a local police officer told the University of Maryland's newspaper the Diamondback, "Our Cuddler has struck again," to describe a series of sexual assaults near the campus.

It wasn't long before the term had caught on, and a Cuddler was born. And there's just something so nonthreatening about the word that inspires people to make light. By October of 2008, costumed "cuddlers" were showing up at Halloween events, blankets and pillows in tow. And what could be more amusing for April Fool's than for the Georgetown college newspaper, the Hoya, running a winking interview with the Cuddler? "A girl can't reject you when she's comatose," he explained, because "everyone's fair game." Oh stop! My sides! They're splitting!

Of course, not everyone is amused with the rather misleading terminology. In her Sexist column, Amanda Hess has been admirably and consistently calling bullshit on the local media, as has Feministing. Yet the latest incident -- prompting the Washington Post to embrace the headline "Another D.C. 'cuddler' on loose"  -- prove the persistence of a cutesy catchphrase.

So let's clear this up. Even before this week's incident, Georgetown's Vox Populi blog reported up to seven assaults fitting the pattern in the last two years. Though police still don't know if all the assaults -- which vary in their severity -- are the work of one person, the fact remains that the "cuddling" label is still being liberally applied to the actions of a person or persons who are, make no mistake, engaged in the illegal activities of breaking and entering and sexual assault. Crimes that range from groping to kissing to holding the victims down  to full-on rape. So excuse me if I'm not feeling it on the warm and fuzzy nomenclature here. Calling entering into a woman's home in the middle of the night and touching her against her will "cuddling" is like punching someone in the mouth and calling it kissing. Or raping someone and calling it "sex."  It diminishes it. Assault is not the new first base.  And there's nothing cozy about violation.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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