Warning Signs

08.13.134:45 AM ET

Did Hannah Anderson's Kidnapper Give Off Red Flags?

The man who kidnapped California teen Hannah Anderson reportedly made creepy statements to the girl before his horrific abduction—a classic pattern for rapists and serial harassers, says Amanda Marcotte.

While there are still many unearthed details of the crimes of James DiMaggio, who apparently kidnapped teenager Hannah Anderson and killed her mother and brother in the process, one disturbing detail has emerged. Anderson’s friend, Marissa Chavez, told CNN that DiMaggio had made untoward statements to Anderson before, telling her that he had a “crush” on her and causing Anderson to ask Chavez not to leave her alone with DiMaggio in the future.

When the reporter asked Chavez why Anderson didn’t tell her parents about DiMaggio’s behavior, Chavez gave an answer that advocates against sexual abuse and harassment have heard a million times before: Anderson didn’t want to disrupt things by outing her harasser. “Because he was helping out with a lot of ride situations and he was a close family friend, she didn’t want to ruin anything between that,” Chavez says. It’s hard not to wonder if this horrible crime could have been stopped if someone had taken DiMaggio’s inappropriate behavior as an early warning sign.

Unfortunately, while the details of DiMaggio’s crime are lurid, the pattern is all too predictable. Sexual predators rarely start off big, with a rape or a kidnapping. Often, there are lots of red flags that a person or a community has a problem with sexual violence, but, as with Anderson, the people who are harassed or even assaulted all too often keep their mouths shut for fear of being viewed as a disruptive person who is making life harder for everyone else. Because of this, sexual predators often are able to operate freely, often getting bolder about how much they’re willing to push and abuse women—creating more problems and victims in the process. If women who were targeted by harassers and abusers felt freer to speak out, sexual assault and other forms of violence against women could be prevented.

The man who kidnapped California teen Hannah Anderson reportedly made creepy statements to the girl before his horrific abduction—a classic pattern for rapists and serial harassers, says Amanda Marcotte.

Social researcher David Lisak has demonstrated that sexual predators very rarely just run around forcing sex on women, in no small part because that’s easily understood as rape and often gets you sent to jail. Instead, most are very meticulous, testing boundaries and seeing how much they can get away with. The rapists that Lisak has interviewed “exhibit strong impulse control” and start off slowly by “testing prospective victims’ boundaries,” pushing a little more and a little more to see how far they can go. In theory, predators give us lots of warning that they’re dangerous men with this gradual escalation of harassment and off-putting behavior, but in practice, their targets are often afraid to admit—often even to themselves—that a man is creeping on them, lest they be viewed as drama queens that are making mountains out of molehills.

It’s a very real fear. Linguist and paranormal researcher Karen Stollznow, writing for Scientific American, described an alleged series of events at the hands of a colleague escalating in exactly this manner: First, it started with mild harassment disguised as teasing, then it got uglier and more obsessive, eventually snowballing into a series of alleged physical and sexual assaults. But when Stollznow complained to the perpetrator’s employer, she claims, he just got a slap on the wrist and Stollznow was put in a situation where she had to give up work opportunities to avoid her harasser.

Sadly, Stollznow’s experiences are all too common. Instead of being thanked for outing a dangerous man before he could do more damage, the targets are often frozen out or shamed for supposedly creating problems, which in turn shows their harassers that they’ll be allowed to get away with their behavior. (Indeed, Stollznow claims her harasser bragged about getting away with this treatment of another woman, saying all he needed to do was accuse the target of being “batshit crazy” to get her complaints ignored.)

In 2011, the Peace Corps faced a similar situation, when rape victims such as Jess Smochek accused the organization of ignoring warning signs about sexual predators in their midst. Smochek first complained to the Peace Corps about a group of men who were testing the boundaries of what they could get away with by stalking, groping, and trying to kiss her, but the Peace Corps refused to reassign her, even after she filed a report with the police. The group of men then reportedly raped Smochek repeatedly, a crime that could have been avoided if the warning signs had been taken more seriously.

This understanding that rapists usually test the waters with sexual harassment is critical to preventing rapes, something that the federal government has recently been trying to emphasize with its Title IX investigations into rape on campus. In reaction to accusations that the University of Montana had not done enough to prevent and punish sexual assault on campus, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education sent a letter to the school outlining recommendations for handling not just accusations of sexual assault but also sexual harassment. The letter specifically recommended encouraging students to come forward with reports of sexual harassment, even if they did not yet meet the “hostile environment” standard, because it’s now understood that sexual predators often escalate their behavior. “It is in the University’s interest to encourage students to report sexual harassment early,” the letter explains, “before such conduct becomes severe or pervasive, so that it can take steps to prevent the harassment from creating a hostile environment.” In other words, catching someone in the early stages of boundary-testing and putting a stop to them can keep a harasser from becoming emboldened and escalating to more serious harassment—and even rape.

In the hours after Hannah Anderson’s kidnapper was killed in a standoff with the FBI, there was plenty of speculation going around that Anderson willfully went off with James DiMaggio. For a lot of people, it was easier to believe that a 16-year-old girl would willingly run off with a longtime friend of the family than to accept that he was probably giving off warning signals that were ignored or downplayed by Hannah herself or the people around her. But new information suggests that this isn’t the case and that Anderson was taken under duress. Instead of spinning fantasies about a teenaged girl taken in by an older man’s inept flirting, we should see this for what it is: An older man who tested, probably repeatedly, his victim by seeing if she would tell on him for lower-level harassment and, when she did not, decided that this was his chance to make his move. It’s something that happens every day in this country, though usually with a lot less drama. It also means we have thousands of chances to prevent crimes by simply standing up to lower level infractions, if we’re willing to take those opportunities.