Bill Cosby is an endearing and brilliant American icon, and apparently a caring husband and father. Does that mean he is not capable of being an alleged predatory rapist? Perhaps the most widely held myth about sexual or domestic abusers is that they are easy to spot. Some are easily detectable because they exhibit leering, angry and boorish behavior toward friends, neighbors, co-workers. Those are the ones who get caught. But in my experience having worked with thousands of abusers, only about one quarter of abusive men fit this stereotype. But here lies the problem: 25 percent is a substantial subgroup, meaning there are plenty of those guys walking around. As a result, our preconceptions about what abusers look like and sound like keeps being reinforced.
The problem is that most abusers do not fit this profile. Most do not get in trouble for their angry or controlling behavior because no one besides their victims sees it. In fact, many abusers are more likable than their victims. This is because domestic violence impacts victims more than it does perpetrators. As a result, victims of abuse often seem less friendly, more distrusting of others, and more angry and malcontented than their abusers. In contrast, neighbors and co-workers of undetected abusers often describe them as friendly, helpful and charming. In my research of intimate partner homicides, I found that this disparity even extends to these cases. Often neighbors of the killer comment that "he didn't seem like that type of guy." They often cite his helpfulness around the neighborhood: he was the one who was mowing everyone's yard and coaching the children's soccer team. Meanwhile, the victim was often see as more distant and less friendly. One result of these misconceptions is that victims of abuse become more isolated over time and are less likely to turn to neighbors for help. As one victim put it, "Everyone thought the world of him. Nobody was going to believe me." The same misconceptions extend to workplaces where abusers are often popular with their co-workers and are viewed by their bosses as valuable and productive employees. Until his arrest for domestic violence, Ray Rice was certainly seen as a productive employee.
Part of the problem in detecting abusers is that we fail to recognize that charm and horrifically abusive behavior can co-exist in one person. As in the case of Bill Cosby, we have a hard time accepting that a person can be an endearing role model, and at the same time, an alleged predatory rapist, if the allegations against him are true. Yet the sexual abuse scandal involving the Catholic Church has shown that this is often the case; a beloved priest can in fact lead a double life as serial rapist and pedophile. Part of the problem is that abusers, like mobsters, compartmentalize their lives. Some mobsters are famously good to their mothers and are known to charitable in their neighborhoods. This provides camouflage for their criminal careers.
Abusers also engage in camouflaging behavior. And when caught, they often rely on the bank of good will to preserve their positive reputations -- and to discredit their victims. Celebrity abusers typically have more social capitol to draw upon. They have fans as well as an entourage of supporters who help to protect their brand. When accused of abuse, part of the damage control operation is to claim that the sex was consensual and to accuse their victims of being opportunists, in the case of rape allegations, or to claim that their victim over-reacted, and that it was "all a big understanding," in the case of alleged domestic violence. While it is true that some victims exaggerate or fabricate abuse, research has shown that victims are far more likely to not report it, or to minimize it.
We tend to imbue successful people with qualities that extend far beyond their chosen field. We think that we know them based on their public persona. And sometimes we like -- and even adore -- people because of how they come across to us. But we have to be able to see beyond this and to recognize that we are not always getting the complete picture.