The scenario can be fairly common: You’re walking out of a grocery store, and a stranger offers to help carry your groceries. Despite your polite decline of the offer, they insist or even grab your bags anyway, and little warning bells start to go off.
When someone pushes your boundaries and makes you feel uncomfortable, “there’s no reason to mind your manners,” said Wendy Patrick, a deputy district attorney in San Diego and a nationally recognized expert on sexual assault.
Patrick spoke to Madigan Army Medical Center staff members March 31 about the red flags that can help identify sexual predators as a part of April’s Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.
“If there is one thing we can take away from both the research and our practical experience, it’s that there are things in retrospect that many victims have pointed to and said, ‘I should’ve seen that for what it was,’” she said. “There’s always something we see in the rearview mirror.”
One of the biggest myths many believe is that it’s easy to spot a predator.
“There’s this preconceived notion that we know what sexual harassment and sexual assault predators look like; what I can tell you from 23 years of doing this is that this guy is just as likely to roll up in a Lexus and to wear a three-piece suit,” Patrick said.
In fact, being well credentialed is a part of the halo effect that often inhibits sexual harassment reporting. If someone is good looking, well-spoken, or well-credentialed, they are often given the benefit of the doubt.
Typecasting would-be predators is “dangerous because we rely on stereotypes,” Patrick said. One common stereotype is that predators are strangers.
“Proximity breeds familiarity, which is a false sense of security. Just because someone works with you every day, or you see someone in the hall every day or you see them in the neighborhood or the grocery store, does not make them safe,” Patrick safe.
She encourages people to consider, “How do we regain our objectivity? How do we trade in our rose-colored glasses, which we develop pretty quickly when we like somebody, for our reading glasses?”
Looking for red flags is a start, to include seeking to understand the people around you. What do they focus on and what are their goals? What is their lifestyle — are they serial first daters? Who do they hang out with?
Patrick, said that even a lack of associations can be a clue, such as a lack of friends or a lack of past romantic relationships.
These red flags may look a little different with online dating. A dating profile can reveal a lot about a person, such as if videos, photos or links show a promiscuous attitude or if favorite songs contain lyrics which are degrading toward women.
If profiles have only one photo, that can be a flag as well. She also cautioned that it may be better to meet someone sooner rather than later.
“If there is more online time before a meeting, a predator can cultivate a relationship of trust,” she said.
In person, a common tactic is boundary probing. Using inappropriate vocabulary, telling off-color jokes or stories, or constantly “accidentally” touching can all be warning signs that someone is probing your boundaries.
“It’s only a test,” Patrick said. “It’s the reaction that often predicts what is going to happen after that — you can tell by someone’s face whether they are uncomfortable with what you’re saying, or whether they’re interested, or whether they’re passive.”
A “good victim,” from a predator’s point of view, is someone who is more lenient and tolerant of these boundary probes because they are less likely to report.
Sexual predators may also engage some reverse psychology with possible victims, once again pushing boundaries and challenging them to prove that they are not uptight, boring, old-fashioned, paranoid or defensive.
“We’re born to belong. Many of us don’t want to be seen in a negative light, and we really do try to fit in,” Patrick said. “This is how potential predators talk us into things.”
It all comes down to listening to those warning bells that red flags create.
“We don’t owe someone who makes us uncomfortable anything. This is the one area of our lives where we should not be minding our manners if it’s going to be potentially dangerous.”