What does a predator look like?
The question has long been crucial for the cynics who fuel America’s culture wars, leveraging fear to win votes. It is also crucial to those of us who genuinely want to confront the scourge of sexual assault.
To hear the culture warriors tell it, predators put on wigs and sparkles and read stories to children at public libraries: Taking their cues from bigots of decades past, conservatives have tried to make drag queens into monsters, accusing them of being pedophiles and of “grooming” children. To these hate-mongers, transgender women are equally terrifying, menaces supposedly lying in wait in girls’ and women’s bathrooms, ready to attack.
Both stereotypes are ludicrous, but those who push them are working from a playbook as old as America: Demonize marginalized people, and deploy them as foils, by calling them a threat to women and children — white women and children, that is.
It’s a cruelty with which older members of the LGBTQ+ community are acutely familiar, as are Black and brown Americans of every age. The line there runs right from Emmett Till to the 1990s hysteria over fictitious “super predators” to Trayvon Martin and countless Black men and women and children shot and killed because armed neighbors took one look at them and decided they were life-threatening.
If only abusers were as easy to spot as the haters contend.
The truth is, they look like everyone else — including, and especially, cisgender white men. They wear uniforms, cassocks, and nice suits. They teach our kids in school and coach them in sports. They’re popular and respected and trusted. They are devoted parents, brothers, husbands, uncles. They live in tony towns and humble ones. They are strangers and friends, creeps and colleagues. They appear utterly unremarkable.
“The reality is that there are people who cause harm and sexual violence, and survivors of sexual violence, all around us every day,” said Hema Sarang-Sieminski, deputy director of Jane Doe Inc., a coalition of groups fighting sexual assault and domestic violence.
Take the two cases playing out in Boston courtrooms this week, where two clean-cut attorneys are answering rape charges.
A dozen women have accused former Suffolk and Essex County prosecutor Gary Zerola of strikingly similar rapes since 1996. Zerola, named a “most eligible bachelor” by People magazine in 2001, has been acquitted or avoided prosecution on previous charges. He’s currently standing trial for raping an acquaintance who says she woke up to him assaulting her after she got drunk on a night out with Zerola and his girlfriend.
And Matthew James Nilo, a 35-year-old lawyer, was arraigned Monday after being arrested in attacks on four women in Charlestown in 2007 and 2008. Investigators connected him to the unsolved rapes this year using advances in genetic genealogy. In three of the attacks, Nilo, then a North End resident, allegedly lured women into his car, drove them to remote Terminal Street in Charlestown, threatened them, and raped them.
Police had to rely on genealogy to make the connection, because the lawyer wasn’t in any DNA database.
“That happens over and over again,” said Barbara Rae-Venter, a genealogist who works to help identify suspects in murders and rapes told the Globe. “The people we identify have no record. They are not on anybody’s radar.”
One in four women, and one in 26 men, have experienced a completed or attempted rape, according to the CDC. One in two transgender people reports being sexually assaulted. If so many of us are survivors, it stands to reason that a significant share of us are perpetrators. And most of them are not on anybody’s radar.
That notion is hard to take for a lot of people. But that reluctance to acknowledge the frequency of assault, and the apparent ordinariness of those who commit it, empowers abusers and isolates victims.
“We don’t want to see that this harm is so prevalent and around us, it is far easier to imagine a small number of serial rapists, extreme offenders,” Sarang-Sieminski said.
And easier still for some people to imagine that those predators are members of groups they deride, rather than a member of their own. Where would be the comfort — or the political advantage — in doing otherwise?