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Human Predators: Four Features and Four Phases of Assault

My college orientation sessions in the late ’90’s included tips like carrying a rape whistle, but none of the recommended safety measures prepared me for the surprise, fear, and awkwardness of having a guy I had studied with only once show up at my dorm room and simply refuse to leave. He was not a creepy jump-from-the-bushes kind of guy. He was a totally datable, good looking, future doctor – and I liked him.

Newer assault-prevention materials poke fun at old tips and put the onus on men. They say things like:

“Carry a Whistle! If you are worried you might assault someone ‘by accident’ you can hand it to the person you’re with so they can call for help!”

This is a welcome paradigm shift, but no amount of education is likely to result in the extinction of all the Harvey Weinsteins of the world. And there simply doesn’t seem to be much information out there about how to identify people like him (or my college “study buddy”) and escape potential assault situations early.

Through my exposure to reports of rape as a physician in the E.D., and the flood of stories from the #METOO movement, I started noticing commonalities in accounts of non-stranger assault. I may not be a forensic psychologist, but I am a diagnostician trained in pattern recognition – and serial predators do seem to share some features and non-stranger assaults do seem to follow a series of phases.

Knowing features and phases like the ones I am about to share may have helped me identify some predators earlier, escape dangerous situations sooner, and forgive myself faster. So I’m going to share my totally unproven observational theories – in spite of my weak qualifications to do so – because these are the things I wish someone would have taught me alongside (or in lieu of) precautions like carrying a rape whistle.

Predators of the “nice guy” variety seem to exhibit these features.


  1. They are charming.

If a guy uses terms of endearment like “sweetheart” or “honey,” too early and too easily – be wary.

In a brave op-ed in the New York Times, Lupita Nyong’o gave an account of her interactions with Harvey Weinstein that included these words: “He was definitely a bully, but he could be really charming, which was disarming and confusing.” And that was after he trapped her in a room, coerced her into a massage, and tried to take his pants off in front of her (while his children were a few rooms away).

So, don’t rule a guy out as a possible predator just because he’s likable (like Matt Lauer), rule him in. 

  1. They are practiced. 

The accounts of women assaulted by Bill Cosby are remarkably similar. Lots of serial predators seem to use the same lines and tactics again and again. SO, if you’re just getting to know someone and his lines/actions seem overly rehearsed – trust your instincts. They probably are. 

  1. They are handsy.

Touching you serves two purposes: it tests your resistance and conditions you to find his touch less alarming.

Also, note that a man would never grab another man’s wrist to look at his watch without asking. So, if a man grabs a woman’s hand to look at her ring, or takes hold of her necklace to examine it more closely without asking, he doesn’t see her as an equal and that’s a red flag.

  1. They exert control in other scenarios.

Harvey Weinstein ordered Lupita Nyong’o a vodka and soda.

She refused.

He tried charm.

She refused.

He insulted her.

She still refused.

He demanded the server bring it to the table anyway.

She left it untouched.

And while Mr. Weinstein did not get physically violent in a public place over her beverage choice, he was fully putting his predatory features on display.

Men who pressure people over decisions like what to eat/drink/wear are demonstrating a fundamental lack of respect for the autonomy of others and that same disrespect will show up in intimate encounters.

Experienced predators seem to respond to resistance from their prey with a pattern of gradually increasing control and aggression similar to what Harvey Weinstein exhibited in my last example. This method prevents alarm and has the added benefit of making some women feel complicit in their own assault. While there are certainly exceptions and variations, many non-stranger assaults seem to progress through these phases.


  • PHASE ONE: Baiting

When met with initial resistance, a skilled predator will simply double the charm. His persistence/insistence may be the only clue that this is not normal flirtatious flattery. If the encounter later results in an assault, a woman can feel embarrassed about enjoying this early attention.

  •  PHASE TWO: Setting the Hook

He will suddenly and without warning respond to a rebuff with an insult or by abruptly cutting off the charm/pulling back (just like setting a hook). Unlike the lighthearted teasing or feigned disinterest found in typical flirting, his actions or choice of invective will have a surprising sting. No one who is genuinely interested in someone would insult or ignore her in an intentionally hurtful way.

This is an effective tactic because it’s natural to want to reestablish a more pleasant interaction and it’s instinctual to want to defend oneself by proving you’re not “stuck up” or “boring” (or whatever taunt he has used). After an assault, a woman who tried to gain back her perpetrator’s attention, or prove her likability, can feel culpable because of it.

So if a guy’s words or actions feel like a slap, it’s okay not to be nice because this is the last best chance to escape before things get awkward.

  •  PHASE THREE: Cranking the Reel

He may pressure his prey to drink or offer drugs (like Bill Cosby). And he’ll try to move her somewhere more conducive to accomplishing his purpose. His touches will become bolder and he’ll be less responsive to resistance (less slack in the line).

RED ALERT if you find yourself apologizing for your own discomfort or desire to leave. That means you need to leave.

Regrettably, there is no way to exit PHASE THREE without awkwardness and there is no way to appease a predator without making unwanted concessions. (So embrace the awkwardness and get out of there!)

  • PHASE FOUR: Lifting the Net

He will resort to physical force. Experiencing this phase can be terrifying and life-changing – even if you escape. He may only trip you once, or put his hand over your mouth for a few seconds. He knows it rarely takes bone-breaking, trachea-crushing force to remind a woman the odds are not in her favor in a physical fight.

Unlike fish, women in date-rape scenarios understand the concept of catch and release. Because the probability of life on the other side is high, accepting coerced concession can seem less daunting than facing increased violence.  I think this is why some perpetrators fail to recognize what they’ve done is wrong. If sexual encounters are a game to be won, and a woman “gives up” after being reeled in and pinned briefly, he doesn’t see himself as an assailant or animalistic evolutionary failure; he’s a winner, a sportsman. And that’s something we can change.

The #METOO movement has been powerful and compelling, but as a mother of a young daughter, it’s been terrifying. She’s going to grow-up and go on dates and attend parties and I want her to be better equipped with the knowledge and confidence to escape wolves in sheep’s clothing than I was. I hope the things I have shared here will someday help her identify and avoid anyone who eyes her like prey. Despite all of my best efforts, however, she may still someday find herself in PHASE FOUR. So in addition to everything I wrote above, I’m going to teach her these four things about herself:

  1. She doesn’t owe anyone anything when it comes to her body.
  2. Head-butting is okay.
  3. Her character and worth are not diminished by coerced concessions or by any boy/man who insults/assaults her.
  4. Her voice is powerful, and she was born to use it bravely.


P.S. – I want express my appreciation for the women who participated in the #METOO movement. Your stories helped me write this article and your bravery is responsible for the positive changes we are already seeing.  Thank you.


Cover Image: Flikr – “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” by Josh McGinn, creative commons license.

One Comment

  1. Joe Joe

    When my daughter was 5 years old my wife and I pledged she would have Black Belt in Kenpo Karate before she went off to college. As a testament to her strength she started lessons 3 times a week at age 5 and continued on, along with soccer, dance, etc. until she achieve a Black Belt at 18 and went off to school. So forget the whistles, and cell phone and empower your daughters with lessons in the martial arts and teach her to effectively handle, carry, and use a gun.

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