There are 17 of us cramped onto the small pontoon. We’re in Belize, it’s midday, high sun, and we’re heading to the ancient Maya site of Lamanai. The boat, for a moment let it be our boat, its motor coughing against our weight, has just pushed into the choppy water of the New River. It’s windy, a tropical storm is forming in the Caribbean Sea 40 miles behind us and our guide wants to get started so we can get back.
I don’t know when the river was renamed New River, but our guide says that it was originally known as the River of Strange Faces. From my vantage point, I can’t see faces but I count heads: 11 women and six men. As the only solo traveler in the group, I get the single seat at the stern, near the guide and directly in front of the temperamental motor, which sips gasoline through rubber tubing the guide repeatedly jiggles to get just right. If you know something about motors you might be figuring yourself with a fix. I’m counting on your willingness to look for solutions.
We’re together in Belize but this isn’t a travelogue. Belize is where, on a different solo trip, I was kidnapped and raped at knifepoint by a man pretending to be a cab driver. I don’t blame the country, god knows it happens everywhere, and I’ve returned many times, my trips part vacation and part attempt to dip my feet in the waters of both before and now.
Are you with me? I know the mention of rape can be uncomfortable, it seems especially so for men. Still, men, this essay is (mostly) for you.
I called a cab and was waiting along the dirt road. Cabs in the tiny village of Belize where I was on vacation come in all makes and models, so when a reddish orange van pulled up and the driver called, “Taxi,” I hopped in the front seat, according to custom. He chatted about the soccer game in town and I thought he was friendly. Then he pulled a knife and pressed the blade against my stomach. My adrenaline surged. He careened down the long stretch of empty road. Terror froze me in my seat. Even if I wanted to jump out he was speeding too fast and where would I go? As he turned onto a cutoff in the jungle, under the starlit sky in a tangle of trees and vines beside the Caribbean Sea, I told myself: Do what it takes to stay alive.
What’s your proximity to rape? Before I didn’t give much thought to its complexities, and I was lazy with definitions; I equated rape with all forms of sexual assaults. Like most people, I’d been conditioned to think rape is only a women’s issue. When I heard “rape” I thought “she.” This makes sense: sexual violence against females is a massive global problem; women are the loudest voices speaking against the rape culture that normalizes sexual violence; the few books on the topic are usually shelved in Women’s Studies; and sexual assault statistics primarily count women. One-in-six American women experiences sexual assault or attempted sexual assault.
Now, my perspective has changed. For one thing, now I play a strange numbers game, and I slip into it as we proceed down the New River. As our guide announces termite mounds sitting like enormous mud balloons in the crooks of trees, a Kiskadee bird with its sunshiny belly, and snake cactus that has coiled round and round a horizontal branch like an insistent noose, I do the now math. Based on one-in-six, chances are fairly good that at least one other woman on the boat has been or will be sexually assaulted. It’s a sick thing to count, I realize, but I do it often. Count the women, divide by six.
In fact, people of all genders are experiencing sexual violence in epidemic proportions. Set your timer for every two minutes; each time it beeps someone is being sexually assaulted. I’m doing this exercise right now. It’s horrifying.
According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), in the United States the numbers are one-in-six females, one-in-33 males, and 15 percent of victims are younger than 12 years old. We’re talking nearly 300,000 sexual assaults every year. With those numbers, you’re almost certainly acquainted with multiple people who’ve been sexually assaulted.
But men, I think we’re counting wrong. We ought to be counting you.
All genders commit sexual assaults, but the vast majority are committed by males. I should have said: Set your timer for every two minutes; each time it beeps a man is sexually assaulting someone.
How many men does it take to assault someone every two minutes?
While most rapists are men, most men don’t rape. I’d lose all hope if this weren’t true. But there are 300,000 sexual assaults a year, so men and boys are indeed raping in dark corners of streets, in bedrooms (sometimes their own), at parties, in forests and cars, behind bleachers, in prisons and churches and schools.
Is one of the tourists on our riverboat to Lamanai a sex offender? Possibly. Every man I know would say “not me.” Then who? Your buddy, a teammate, the guy you passed on the street? The issue cuts close to home. If you know a victim, you may know the offender. Four out of five sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. Again, language shapes thought. Let’s reframe this: Four out of five sexual assaults are committed against someone the offender knows.
Men, you have an issue, which is yours still to claim. Somehow it got forced onto women. Rape has affected me profoundly, but it’s not my issue.
Rape is not a women’s issue.
After I was raped I became obsessed with wanting to understand what – and who –I had just encountered. What broken part of him was he trying to soothe by harming me?
Studies point to common antisocial personality traits among men who rape: impulsivity, difficulty expressing emotions, tendency toward anger and aggression, sensitivity to rejection. Some have unresolved trauma from past abuses, or suffer from mental illness or substance addiction. Many have a history of committing other crimes, including sex crimes. But this profile doesn’t reveal the whole hurt.
The generally accepted answer is that rape is about power. When I put that up against my experience, it seems incomplete. Power to … what?
When my rapist finally stopped the van on a narrow path, he instructed me to get out of the car. The knife was in charge; I did what he said. He walked behind me, his hand and the blade pushing me farther away from the dark road. I was wearing flip-flops, and a bikini under my T-shirt and shorts; the tendrils of the jungle brushed against my skin, and his. I curled smaller inside myself, a seed inside its coat.
In between instructions – walk, sit down, move, don’t move, he poured out the sorrows of his life. He was volatile with grief, fury and fear.
I was clear even then that this wasn’t about me. I was caught in his pain. His.
The way I read him is that he wanted the power to control his own outcomes and fill his cavities of pain. He wanted to connect. He said so. He went about it all wrong, of course, but the power he was seeking had purpose. If he had a repertoire of skills to handle anger and grief would he have acted out on me?
We’re all living among sexual violence with damaging consequences. My rape traumatized me and those who love me, and no way could it have benefited him. He harmed himself by harming me. We need to soothe the symptoms, yes, but we need to address the cause at its source.
Men, together we ought to turn the spotlight toward you. I’m not suggesting we simultaneously turn our backs on victims. People who are sexually assaulted deserve to be treated with care by experts who can help them move from trauma to well-being. We need to reverse the blaming and shaming of victims, offer accessible and affordable options for physical and emotional recovery, and ensure a safe place in the judicial process. But focusing the issue of sexual assault on survivors and potential victims puts an ugly onus on vulnerable groups to somehow both receive your blow and stop your fight.
People will stop getting raped when, by and large, men stop raping. What will make you stop? Prevention strategies often suggest “how men can help.” Look at the inherent assumption that it’s not your responsibility, when you are the only ones who can end the abuses you yourselves commit.
It should never be a victim’s responsibility to not get raped or for women’s forums to figure out how to stop aggressors from attacking us. Even if potential victims bend themselves into defensive shapes as we’re so often advised -- carry mace, avoid a bar late at night, travel in pairs, lock doors and windows, poke an attacker in the eye -- we will not reverse the rape epidemic. We might self-protect in the moment. Or possibly not. What’s saying "no" when an authority figure says you must? What’s a poke in the eye when there’s a knife?
I often hear rapists referred to as monsters. Sexual assaults are definitely monstrous acts and every one is an affront to the body, mind and spirit. But abstracting offenders into monsters somehow further mystifies them and ignores the complexity of who you men are, and who you are to us. It’s a dangerous cycle. Sex offenders dehumanize victims. Society dehumanizes offenders. And the cycle repeats.
I’m doing it even now. It had to be pointed out to me that the terms “offender,” “perpetrator,” “victim” and “survivor” turn individuals into one-note archetypes. Each of us is a multidimensional person who is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done, and more than the worst thing that’s been done to us.
I think the issue is served by applying names, faces and personal human narratives. Who are the men who harm and what are the conditions of your lives? After all, you’re all around us. We live together in apartment complexes, ride subways side by side, trust you with our degrees and cars and cancers. You represent every religion, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, age and race. Divide the 150-some million men living in the United States into any subset and people who commit sexual violence are among you.
Let’s get back on the boat to Lamanai. We’re sputtering down the New River when the temperamental motor stalls. Some problems clearly need immediate intervention, without it we’re adrift. Several men and women jump up to help and after some maneuvering, the motor, if not hums, at least runs. You can see what I’m getting at. We’re far adrift in this issue of rape. How will we step up?
Continuing on our way, we pass Bullet trees that with age develop knots resembling bullets. We see, or maybe just hear about, a “Jesus Christ bird” that walks on water by hopping among white lilies that decorate the river. The female bird lays eggs on a floating nest the male makes from sea grass, then entrusts the nest to the male to protect.
Each time I visit Belize, I sit in a low wooden chair shaded from the sun by a palm frond, walk the edge of the beach where sea grass collects in clumps, take excursions to Maya ruins or snorkel out at sea. Will I catch sight of him? What would I do? From the safety of my home, I imagine myself asking, Why? Why that day, why with me, why sexual violence? I know how it affected me. What did it do to you?
Men, it’s time to deal with rape from your point of view, and I mean with a sincere willingness to understand. People who are well don’t rape. Hurt people hurt people. What is hurting so many of you?
I wish those of you who have harmed others would speak for yourselves, without, of course, a language of justification. I want to understand what drives you to rape, but you aren’t talking. Most people who commit sex offenses -- along with a great number of people who’ve been assaulted -- are living in the silence of their secret. According to RAINN, 68 percent of all sexual assaults are never reported and 98 percent of offenders never go to jail.
Rape is hard to prove, yes, but how hard are we trying? All too often, adult and child victims aren’t believed when they come forward, and the process itself can be revictimizing. Furthermore, there are huge racial and economic disparities in the way both victims and offenders are treated within public health and safety. People in low-income communities and communities of color are often blamed for the crimes against them. Juvenile survivors and offenders are regularly thrown into systems designed for adults. It’s appropriate to question our nation’s commitment to prioritizing or even pursuing sexual assault claims, let alone rehabilitating the people who commit the crimes.
Rape is a public health issue. Rape is a public safety issue. Rape is a community issue.
From any perspective, these men aren’t getting caught or getting better.
When I was in the jungle with my rapist, compassion became my only defense. I couldn’t overpower him or escape; all I could do was turn toward his pain.
There were two constants: his knife against my back, chest, throat, and his refrain, “I’m not a bad person.” He knew what he was doing was wrong and desperately wanted to reassert his goodness. I said I believed him. If I couldn’t see goodness somewhere in him, how could I believe I’d survive?
I listened to him rant, offered undivided attention, tried to assuage my fears so I could attend to his. It wasn’t immediate, but by wanting him to be well, by trying to soothe him at the origin of his aggression, the aggression itself began to dissolve. I didn’t walk away from the encounter untouched but I walked out alive.
Now I have questions about compassion and its place in criminal justice. If compassion was a powerful antidote to my rapist’s violence, what would happen if compassion were applied on a much larger scale?
In pursuit of answers, I enrolled in Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), where neuroscientists, psychologists and contemplative scholars study the effects of compassion on the brain and how to cultivate compassion within individuals and groups.
Compassion is a distinct emotion composed of the recognition of suffering, the wish for the suffering to be relieved, and a willingness to act. We can bear witness to suffering all day, but it’s not compassion if we revel in it or turn away from it. Compassion recognizes our common humanity with the one suffering, empathically attunes us to what they’re feeling, and sets us up to respond. There’s no one way compassion looks. At times a compassionate response initiates action, other times not, but consistent is the wish for the other to be well.
The good news is humans have a natural capacity for compassion, and it can also be cultivated. CCARE has created a curriculum designed to help generate greater compassion for ourselves and others. Now I’m certified to teach this course. I’m confident our communities will be stronger if we acknowledge each other’s suffering -- and when applicable admit our role in it -- and act with altruism. I don’t want to oversimplify it, or suggest that compassion alone can reverse a rape culture, but compassion is worth pursuing.
As a person who’s been harmed, it’s my right to get well. It should also be my right to see that the person who harmed me gets well.
I would like to include this in a charter of victims’ rights.
As long as I’m aiming high, I’ll add: People who commit sex offenses should be held accountable. They should receive restorative treatment geared at changing their mind-set. As they serve prison terms and undergo rehabilitation, they should be embraced by their communities in order to improve their chance of living healthy lives and lower recidivism. No one should be falsely accused of a sex crime. While not common, this does happen; it damages lives and is used as an argument to debunk legitimate claims of abuse. Prevention programs should be implemented for all genders in every community.
Hopefully we agree the goal is to reduce -- no, eliminate -- sexual violence, and that it’s essential to remove a dangerous person from society. At the same time, there’s a persistent notion that we need to lock up offenders with long, harsh sentences and make them suffer for their crimes, that this satisfies justice and helps victims heal.
I wonder, though, what tough-on-crime punishment ultimately achieves. For sex offenders who are incarcerated, what is the correlation between standard of care in prison and recidivism? Since such a low percentage of men who rape even end up in prison, are sentencing practices an ascertainable deterrent? I’m genuinely asking what is the current role of corrections and who is it for?
I believe there’s room to engage with new ways of thinking. A growing number of advocates now call for smart-on-crime solutions that focus on prevention, alternative sentencing, and reentry programs.
A friend recently asked me: If a rapist was going to move next door to me in five years and I was in charge of how he spent that time, what would I do?
I would not toss him in an industrial prison, dust off my hands and hope for the best. To be clear, I’m not suggesting incarceration is wrong. But incarceration without a meaningful plan is both inhumane and dangerous.
I’ve never seen my rapist again and he’s not in jail, at least not for my rape. But if I were in charge of his “sentencing,” I’d set up an individualized program designed for redirection and reconciliation. He would have to take responsibility for his crime and want to change for it to work, but the goal would be a thorough scouring of his issues. What skills does he need to learn? What personal qualities need to emerge? Which relationships require mending? What is already good that he can build on? I’d spare no expense, gather a team of experts who could guide him to mental health and moral confidence. He’d learn how to calm his anger, control his impulses, sharpen his creativity and intellect, and expand his capacity for empathy and joy. He’d participate in acts of service, practice how it feels to give rather than take, how restraint, sacrifice and kindness can be rewarding. He’d make amends to those he’d harmed, including me. If he also suffered from a mental illness or substance addiction, he’d receive appropriate treatment.
If a rapist were preparing to live next door to me, I’d want him to have positive experiences that melted his hard edges. I’d want him to replace frustration and disappointment with gratitude and respect. I’d want an entire support network to help him transition into my neighborhood. All this, regardless -- and because -- of the grim deeds of his past.
I’m not a policymaker. I don’t know how to do that. But I know that not putting experts and resources into this isn’t working. We require a mind-set overhaul from which new programs will emerge. I’m advocating the mind-set of compassion rather than retribution. I’m saying there’s room for compassion in hard places. Rape is not a women’s issue, it’s a human rights issue, and each of us has the right to be safe and well.
The wind picks up and the sun burns hotter. We climb out of the boat onto the bank of the River of Strange Faces, and trek over the hidden footprints of Mayan men and women up the hill to a clearing. Standing among the ruins, it’s easy to feel part of our long human history. If you imagine yourself there with me, you too can climb the temple steps, kick the pebbles of time, and look out over the lush rain forest. This dense jungle was once cut down, the entire tropical forest eradicated during the long and prosperous height of this civilization. Now, the trees have reclaimed their spot, as nature does.
Traveling down the New River, I think of Lamanai and the collapse of civilizations. There are myriad reasons Lamanai eventually fell, bringing down its kings and warriors and priests, and maybe collapse is inevitable for any organized system. Sometimes there’s a catastrophic event. Sometimes external forces and internal pressures are enough to do it in. I think we’re chipping away at ourselves, two minutes at a time, and hollowing each other out. The strength we need as a human civilization requires that we care for one another.