Sexual Assault Awareness Month: Avoid 'Daring' Behavior

Unlike the more innocent version of Truth or Dare you might remember from elementary school, the stakes are higher when choosing between these two alternatives with manipulative adults. In the previous column, we examined the danger of choosing “Truth” by means of oversharing private information with unsavory characters. Here, we examine the danger of choosing the other (equally foolish) option of daring to do something in response to a challenge by someone you do not know well enough to trust.

Again, we start with the caveat that most people you encounter are safe. For every predator lurking in a crowd looking for a potential victim to approach there are scores of law-abiding, helpful citizens ready to assist if they witness someone placed in danger. These good Samaritans make great witnesses in court.

Yet because the goal is not prosecution but prevention, knowledge of predator strategies is power. The most dangerous people are sometimes people we already know.

Choosing the Dare

Most people have done something on a dare. From parachuting out of a perfectly good airplane on a milestone birthday skydive to shaving your beard. For consenting adults, daring activities might mean anything from a mountain climb to a motorcycle ride.

The types of dares posed by sexual predators are ominously different. Unlike the lighthearted teasing from a coworker that you should “live dangerously” by ordering something new for lunch at the corner deli, sexual predators dare their victims to do uncomfortable, often shameful things they do not want to do. Like sending provocative selfies or revealing personal details during a one-way webcam session—where you are the one who cannot see the person on the other end of the camera.

If you have ever felt a pit in your stomach when someone encourages you to do something that makes you anxious, take note. This is a bright red flag. The dares of dangerous people are viscerally and emotionally unappealing. Yet the key is to make sure you recognize them for what they are—because sometimes they are disguised as challenges to be accepted, “be cool,” or to conform.

The Daring Challenges of Sexual Predators

Sexual predators often disguise their “dares” as appeals to the human desire to please others. Consider the newly transplanted young college student out to dinner with an (older) classmate, who urges her to go back to his apartment afterwards for a stronger drink. “You have got to learn to trust people here in the big city. You don´t think you are too good for us are you?” A new acquaintance that needs to ask “Don´t you trust me?” is usually reacting to your expressed reluctance. If you have just recently met this person, of course you don´t.

Yet many ploys designed to exploit vulnerability are often misperceived as opportunities to prove loyalty to new acquaintances, classmates, or co-workers. This is often by design when you are dealing with a sexual predator. Once you have agreed to take those extra shots, accepted the invitation to go home with a new acquaintance, or succumbed to pressure to engage in unwanted sexual activity, you have created opportunities for both victim blaming and blackmail.

Taunting Through Typecasting: Forced Disagreement

Predators may attempt to lure victims into a compromising situation through appealing to ego and desire for acceptance. This ploy is particularly insidious (and unfortunately successful) when used on young people seeking to be “cool,” modern, or to fit in with a social group.

Preying upon the desire to conform, predators will dare potential victims to prove a negative—by taunting them to prove they are something they are not. Consider the following types of challenges:

· “You don´t strike me as uptight. Surely you are open to new experiences, aren´t you?”

· “Come on, you can´t possibly be that boring!”

· “Please tell me you are not old-fashioned enough to believe in no sex on a first date.”

Born to Belong

Some predators coerce victims to do things against their better judgment by appealing to the desire to belong. This desire permeates all aspects of social and interpersonal behavior,[1] and is often enhanced when an individual migrates to a different community and seeks to integrate into a new social group.

Appealing to the desire to belong is particularly (unfortunately) effective when used on young people who have moved away from home for the first time and are seeking to fit in with a new group of peers. This includes individuals who have moved away to college, are studying abroad, or have joined the military.

This tactic is also used on new employees, particularly those who have accepted a job in a new city where they do not know anyone. During a party or “teambuilding” happy hour, a new colleague taunts the newcomer:

· “Prove you are worthy by taking another shot.”

· “Show me you can keep up with the rest of us.”

Playing it Safe

The practical common sense solution of course is to stay within your comfort zone instead of stepping out in response to peer pressure. Within any new peer group you will always find safe, boundary respecting friends and acquaintances that care about you enough to avoid putting you in an uncomfortable situation.

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert who spent years prosecuting sex offenders. She received the SART Response with a Heart Award from the Sexual Assault Response Team based on her significant contribution to the field of sexual assault prosecution. Dr. Patrick is the author of author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press, 2015), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House 2008).

She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, safe cyber security, and threat assessment. The opinions expressed in this column are her own.

[1] Mark R. Leary and Ashley Batts Allen, “Belonging Motivation: Establishing, Maintaining, and Repairing Relational Value,” in Social Motivation, ed. by David Dunning (New York: Psychology Press, 2011), 37−55 (37-38). Also see Roy F. Baumeister and Mark R. Leary, “The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation,” Psychological Bulletin 117, no. 3 (1995): 497−529.

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