Folks who live in Cincinnati are certainly familiar with Cincinnati style chili. Most of us love it and have strong opinions about which restaurant has the best recipe. If you don’t live in Cincinnati, perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s usually included in those “weirdest foods from every state” lists, due to the inclusion of chocolate and sometimes even cinnamon in the recipe. It’s most commonly served one of two ways – over hot dogs with cheese, onion, and mustard, or over spaghetti with cheese, beans, and/or onion. Out-of-towners and transplants usually don’t see the appeal, but reluctantly try it while making sure we know it’s not actually chili (they’re right), and usually they don’t like it. At least not right away. And that’s okay. I’ve lived in Cincinnati my whole life and I love it. My family loves it. In fact, my wife, stepson, and I go to our favorite Cincinnati chili location, Skyline Chili, every Tuesday night. It started before I was in the picture as a spot where a single mother could get a free meal for her small child, but it’s a tradition I was happy to join. Now, he’s too old for the free meal, but we still go once a week as a way to make sure we have time scheduled together in an increasingly busy world. This is also where many important conversations are had.
A few weeks ago, we were having an innocent and jovial conversation about aging. My wife and I were telling him that as an adult, you become your parents without realizing. I was talking with him about how even though I never lived with my dad, I still find myself saying words like him. Or I see the way he walks in the way I walk. Or just my general attitude is often very reminiscent of his. I said “yeah Jay. I didn’t even spend that much time with him in the grand scheme of my childhood, but I still see so many of his traits in me.”
“Doesn’t that scare you?”
I told him it didn’t and asked him why I should be scared. “Your dad is a monster.”
Of course he thinks that. That’s the common sentiment we all feel when someone does something despicable like abusing a child. Or sexually assaults someone. But I had to correct him. As monstrous as sexual violence is, we have to stop thinking of abusers and rapists as monsters. And I promise it’s not because I am trying to defend them or their actions.
I told him that my dad wasn’t a monster, but a person who decided to do a terrible thing. But by my siblings’ account, they only knew him as a great dad. And if my stepson ever met my dad without knowing what he’d done, he’d actually like him. My dad is funny. He’s charismatic. He’s very smart, and he’s very mechanically inclined. He is a hard worker, and he’s liked by the people in his life. And he sexually abused me for several years. The positive and negative descriptions are not mutually exclusive.
Nearly 75% of sexual assaults happen by someone known to the victim. That’s not to diminish the stories of people who experience sexual violence at the hands of a stranger, but it’s to say that more often than not, we know the people who are doing these crimes. And most of the time, we’d never describe them as monsters. We were recently flooded with reports of rampant sex abuse in the Catholic church. The parents of the kids who had been abused didn’t attend this church because it was led by monsters. Of course not. They likely would have chastised the idea of sex abuse. Just like the rest of us.
When we think of sexual violence as something that’s only perpetrated by “monsters”, we are more likely to ignore the warning signs in the people around us. When we ignore those warning signs, we give up our ability to be an active bystander. Instead, we have to recognize that sexual violence is a behavior that is perpetuated by people we probably otherwise like. It’s the guy we might make excuses for.
“He’s actually harmless.”
“He just likes to joke around.”
“It’s just how he was raised, but he’d never do anything.”
“He’s got a bad reputation because his ex was super crazy.”
“I like to party with him, but I don’t want my sister around him if he’s drinking.”
And after we learn something awful about someone we like, it sounds similar.
“I had no idea. That’s really unlike them.”
“I just can’t believe it.”
“They were always so nice.”
There aren’t always signs we can watch for as bystanders. That’s fair. But often times, there ARE signs. And we have to recognize that the people who are committing sexual assault are not monsters we’d never associate with, but our neighbors, friends, fathers, and brothers. They are teachers at our schools and priests at our churches. They coach our kids, date and marry our family members, and win our hearts and friendships. We like to throw around the trope that “real men don’t rape.” But they do. And they abuse. My dad is a real man. The priests who have abused children are real men. Harvey Weinstein, Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, Jared Fogle, and Brock Turner are all real men.
It is up to all of us to be active bystanders when we see signs that could lead to sexual assault and abuse. Step number one is recognizing who is actually perpetuating the violence, and those people are a lot less monster, and a lot more friend.