Rape: The frightening stranger isn’t the scariest part of it

Petula Dvorak
Columnist November 12, 2012

Aaron Thomas was scary.

He jumped out from behind bushes and lurked in dark corners. Women were objects, not people, to this serial rapist, who is scheduled to plead guilty Tuesday to rape and abduction charges in Prince William County. He said so himself, when he spoke with The Washington Post.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

But you know what’s scarier? Guys like him aren’t the majority of America’s rapists.

Predators like Thomas — who became known as the East Coast Rapist after more than a dozen attacks since the 1990s in the Washington area and New England — are the minority.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 13.8 percent of such attacks are by a complete stranger. More likely to rape you is a friend, a date or a relative, statistics show.

There is a sexual assault in this country every two minutes. That means more than 200,000 a year, according to the D.C.-based Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).

But Thomas isn’t a total anomaly. That repulsive, cruel inner core that makes him so cinematically frightening — he hurt other kids, tortured animals and set a girl’s hair on fire — is the same stuff that turns the seemingly nice guys into serial attackers, too.

Remember when we first started talking about date rape and acquaintance rape? The widespread assumption was that these attackers were otherwise nice guys who got a little too drunk and carried things a bit too far. They didn’t understand that just because you’re making out in the dorm room doesn’t mean it’s an open invitation to go all the way, right?

So we thought that maybe a “No means no” campaign would stop date rapes from happening.

Well, no, actually.

Because most of the people who were doing the raping — acquaintances, friends, dates, family members — knew their victims meant “no,” and that was part of the allure of their crime.

Some of the most solid evidence of that has been developed by David Lisak in decades of work. The psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston has surveyed about 2,000 college-age males, about 120 of whom basically admitted to rape and averaged about six rapes each.

“We’ve come to understand, it’s not the innocent guy who has one beer too many and does something foolish,” said Scott Berkowitz, the president and founder of RAINN. “These are criminals who plan out how they are going to select their victims, how they are going to do it.”

The best example of that caused a furor this summer, when a thread on Reddit asked to hear stories from “the other side of the story” on sexual assault.

One Redditor wrote about his tactics. He prefaced it by telling everyone he’s a really nice guy, a community activist, volunteer, liked by all and so forth.

“I am a post-college aged male who raped several girls through use of coercion, alcohol, and other tactics over a course of 3 years,” he explained. He got tired of “all the sluts and sorority girls” who threw themselves at gorgeous him, so he began getting his thrills by being a predator. He was very calculating, looking for small-statured and modest girls and going on at least one very proper, genteel date.

Then he would invite them to his place and rape them.

He said that “the great nights were the ones who squirmed, ones who didn’t want to give in.”

“I’d have to shush them down, and try to work on them slowly enough so they didn’t know what was going on until it was pretty much already happening,” the man wrote.

“To be honest, even remembering it now, the squirming always made it better, they didn’t want it to happen, but they couldn’t do anything about it,” he said.

This man, as well as the men who admitted to rape in the surveys, didn’t believe they were actually rapists. And that’s just like Thomas, who called it “the R word” when he talked to The Post’s Josh White about his crimes.

Thomas used a fake gun to march three trick-or-treaters into the woods to attack them. He admitted that he started by attacking prostitutes, assuming they wouldn’t report him. And still, he did not consider himself a rapist.

Listen to this line from the anonymous Reddit rapist: “I didn’t know how to stop, and just when I thought maybe I could, I’d find myself back in my pattern, back on the hunt.”

That was a sentiment echoed over the phone from the Prince William County jail, where the East Coast Rapist is being held: “I don’t know why I couldn’t just stop.”

The Reddit rapist is a self-described college graduate, community volunteer, good-looking husband and successful businessman. The East Coast Rapist is a convicted felon, has been homeless, and was violent and utterly impressed with his own ability to keep getting away with it.

Thomas faces the possibility of several life terms in prison.

The Reddit rapist has never had to answer for his actions. He had one thing to say before he left the conversation this summer: “Let me leave you with this message, you never know who someone truly is, so be careful.”

The RAINN hotline is 800-656-HOPE.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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