This post is a follow-up to the post that I wrote last year called For Those Who Don’t Understand Schrodinger’s Rapist. I wrote that post because I couldn’t understand how so many people had read Starling’s original Schrödinger’s Rapist post and managed to misinterpret it so egregiously. I discussed a couple of the more common misconceptions about the analogy and why they were misconceptions. Over the course of the last few months, I’ve gotten a few responses that have made it clear that there is an aspect of the Schrödinger’s rapist analogy that still merits some clarification. This post is about that.
One of the more common objections that I see with respect to the Schrödinger’s rapist analogy is that it doesn’t make sense to be afraid that a random stranger in a public place might rape you. The vast majority of rapes are committed by people that the victim knows, not random strangers. This is, I think, an understandable objection, though not one that holds up under scrutiny, for a few different reasons.
First, the original Schrödinger’s rapist post is not actually about fearing every random stranger. It goes into detail about doing an analysis of particular red flags when making a judgment call about a random stranger, and using that analysis to inform a risk assessment (examples: 1 2). Two specific examples of red flags that Starling mentions are ignoring signs that a person doesn’t want to be disturbed (they’re reading a book, have headphones in, aren’t making eye contact, have their arms folded, etc.), and wearing a shirt with a rape joke on it. Both disregard for boundaries and appreciating sexist humor correlate with likelihood to rape, so these are not unreasonable red flags, and they do put the guy in question in a higher risk category than “random stranger”. If you accost a random woman in public who has given no indication that she is interested in interacting, you are associating yourself with a higher risk category of people than the average stranger — the category of people who are either oblivious to or unconcerned about other people’s boundaries.
Second, the original post is explicitly directed toward people who are looking for love and romance. The entire context of the piece is about people whose purpose for approaching a woman in public is potential romance or sex. What this means is that whether or not there is any chance that you, as a stranger, are going to assault someone right there in public, the risk assessment still applies, because your objective is to become someone who isn’t a stranger. Your objective in accosting a woman in public that you want to get to know better may not be rape, but your objective is to become familiar enough with her that you would qualify as at least an acquaintance or friend. That takes you out of the lower risk category of “stranger” and into the higher risk category of “someone the person knows”.
Try an analogy: imagine you’re going to look for a new cat with a friend. You’re at a pet shop, and you pass by one that hisses and tries to scratch you from inside of its cage. “I’m definitely not getting that one!”, you say. Your friend replies, “Why not? Most people who get injured by animals are injured by animals that they own. You don’t own that cat, so there is really nothing to be afraid of.” That would be ridiculous, right? The whole point of the trip is to decide whether or not you want to own that cat, which makes its hostility a very important thing to keep in mind. By the same token, the stranger on the street who wants to get to know someone better may not be a high risk at that moment, but the whole point of the interactions we’re talking about is that they are a precursor to a higher risk situation. In light of that, it’s not unreasonable to assess a stranger on the street by the level of risk they would present in that higher risk situation.
If you read the entire post, you’ll see that this is borne out in the anecdotes Starling uses – for example, she writes about the guy who emailed her 15 times in a row after one date. That story isn’t about making an assessment of whether or not the guy is going to rape her at that very moment (not something you can really do via email, I think we can all agree). It’s about making an assessment of whether or not he might, potentially, given the opportunity in the future, commit assault.
Third, even if we completely disregard the risk of rape, rape is not the only risk from interacting with a stranger in public. As Ozy Frantz puts it, “If a strange dude approaches me while I’m presenting female and on a bus, my concern is not that he is Schrödinger’s Rapist, it’s that he’s Schrödinger’s Dude Who Lectures Me For Thirty Minutes About How Reading Instead of Talking to Him Means I’m an Elitist Bitch.”
That shit happens (all the time). There are lots of different types of unpleasant interactions that can come out of being accosted by a stranger in public. That most of them aren’t as bad as rape doesn’t mean that they don’t justify someone not wanting to talk to strangers in public. It’s just as reasonable for someone to want to avoid a lecture as it is for them to want to avoid assault. In point of fact, it’s completely reasonable for someone to just not want to talk to people in public in the first place for no other reason than that they don’t like to. This doesn’t make that person a jerk, it makes them a human being with preferences. If you willfully ignore those preferences, there doesn’t have to be any risk in the situation at all for you to qualify as a jerk. Not respecting people’s preferences is a shitty thing to do, full stop.
Strictly speaking, one might argue that the relative risk of a random stranger committing sexual assault right there in public is pretty small (though, it still needs be said, not zero). However, when we’re talking about Schrödinger’s Rapist, keep these things in mind: we’re not talking about random strangers, we’re talking about strangers who exhibit the particular red flags that correlate with a higher likelihood of committing rape. We’re not (for the most part) talking about the possibility that someone will commit rape right then and there, but about the possibility that someone might become familiar enough to have an opportunity to commit rape in a more enabling situation. We’re not talking about just the possibility of sexual assault, but also about the possibilities of verbal assault, stalking, general unpleasantness, boundary crossing, etc., all of which are reasonable justifications to be apprehensive about strangers in public.