On Tuesday of last week, WRAL.com reported a suspected sexual assault in Cary. Police responded to a call from an unidentified man in the management office of Merriwood Apartments who reported being the victim of physical and sexual assault. The man, who initially described himself as a woman, said he had been held hostage in one of the apartments for more than eight hours during which he said he had been “beaten […and] raped” by another man. The victim, a Cary resident, then claimed to have fled while the suspect was going to the bathroom and was taken to WakeMed hospital for non-life-threatening injuries.
Police issued a warrant for the arrest of Chapel Hill resident Adrian Atwater, 34, on charges of second-degree kidnapping, second-degree sex offense and felony strangulation. Atwater had previously been arrested and convicted of assault by strangulation; felony breaking and entering; assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill; felonious restraint; assault on a female; assault with a deadly weapon and communicating threats.
While tragic, the incident is nonetheless significant in that it challenges all of the prevailing “conventional wisdom” regarding the gender dynamics, and even definition, of sexual assault.
It should come as no surprise that myths about sexual assault are deeply ingrained. The popular perception of “rape” is that it is a generally rare occurrence (although it does seem to happen to “certain people” more often than others), and consists of strange men lurking in dark alleyways, waiting to pounce on careless women who walk alone at night, who may or may not be dressed “in a certain way.” However, the reality of sexual assault is infinitely more complex and infinitely more troubling:
According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), an estimated 10% of rape survivors are men. Another national statistic states that 1 in 6 men will experience sexual violence, before they even reach adulthood.
At Orange County Rape Crisis Center, approximately 6-12% of clients each year are male. Most men who are sexually assaulted are attacked by other men. And while some sexual abusers do target specific genders, however, as this incident appears to demonstrate, sexual assailants often see just a vulnerable individual, caring little about actual gender or sexual orientation. This fact gets at the truth that underlies all forms of sexual violence: that rape and sexual assault are a matter of power and control, not of sexual gratification.
Another aspect of the incident in Cary also challenges prevailing preconceptions about sexual assault: specifically, the idea that most rapes and assaults are committed by “strangers in dark alleys at night.” While all indications are that the Merriwood Apartments incident did occur at night, Cary police have indicated that there was at least some relationship or familiarity between the two men. This is not unexpected, considering that an estimated 75-80% of all rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, such as a partner, friend, acquaintance, or even a family member–or even someone the victim may have invited into their own home.
This incident serves as a reminder about what is perhaps the largest misconception about sexual violence: the idea that “rape” can only occur between a man and a woman. While it is true the crime of “rape,” as defined by NC General Statue §14-27.2(2), is technically limited to “vaginal intercourse by force or without consent,” a functionally identical charge of “sexual offense” exists. This charge, described in NCGS §14-27.4(a)(2), declares that any “sexual acts (not including vaginal intercourse) by force and without consent” are nevertheless a crime. And under North Carolina law, the crimes of “rape” and “sexual offense” are are both Class B1 felonies, with identical procedures, penalties, and sentencing guidelines.
From a domestic violence standpoint, the story is significant because the two individuals did have some past relationship. While the exact nature of their relationship is not clarified in the article, it was implied that the their acquaintance was recent, informal, and brief. This is important because it further challenges yet another common preconception about domestic/relationship violence–namely, that it is only a problem for married or co-habitating couple. Many abusive relationships are often accompanied by sexual violence, or the threat thereof, as many abusers use invasive, degrading, or exploitative sexual acts as a means of establishing dominance and enforcing compliance in a relationship. But the definition of a “relationship” is much broader than many people believe. By definition, any relationship that becomes abusive constitutes domestic violence or relationship violence, regardless of the duration or “depth” of the relationship. That is to say, relationship violence is relationship violence, regardless of whether the “relationship” is a long-term, cohabitating relationship, or even a brief intimate encounter with near-total strangers.
While undoubtedly tragic and terrible for the victim, such events as those that transpired in Cary nevertheless serve as useful models with which we, as a society, can reflect on our own popular perceptions of relationship and domestic violence, and can serve as “teachable moments” with which we can re-evaluate our collective social perceptions. And while these moments are shocking when they occur, with hindsight and careful introspection they can be very revealing about underlying social/cultural issues; promoting frank and open dialogue about topics which very seldom attract headlines, or honest discussion.