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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, August 07, 2002

'It can be anyone' 'It can be anyone' (August 07, 2002)

Recent Palo Alto rape reminds that criminal stereotypes don't apply

by Faiza Hasan

The rape of a 94-year-old woman in Palo Alto stunned locals and made headlines around the Bay Area. The crime is horrifying because of the age of the victim and the alleged rapist, 18-year-old Jorge Eduardo Hernandez, who just graduated from Gunn High School. But what makes it unusual is that Hernandez, who by all accounts is a normal, popular high school jock, does not fit the society's stereotype of a rapist.

Most people believe rapists are violent and hardened criminals lying in wait for their victims. But what many don't realize is that according to police and those who work with rape victims, a rapist can be anyone -- there is no profile, no characteristics that can be used to identify a rapist.

"Usually you won't be able to identify the people who commit sexual assault by just looking at them," said Jill DiGiovanni, client service coordinator at the YWCA rape crisis center in Palo Alto. "They might even be upstanding pillars of the community. It can be anyone, there is no stereotype, no profile."

Rape, like murder, is an act of violence and often cannot be predicted. "It is the use of sex as a weapon, " said DiGiovanni. "A rapist is a person looking to hold power over someone." Rapists usually choose victims who are easy to handle. Women, children and the elderly are the most vulnerable.

A rape deals with issues of power, domination, revenge, and humiliation. It is an act of aggression and violence accomplished through sexual means. According to the YWCA rape crisis center, one out of three American women have been raped or have experienced some form of sexual aggression.

Some psychologists say rapists share certain characteristics like aggression, problems with anger management, distorted views about sex and objectification of women as sexual objects.

"Though rapists come from different ages, backgrounds, social classes," said DiGiovanni, "one unifying characteristics is that most rapists are men, and that 85 percent of the rapists are someone the survivor knows. Of those that are caught, most are 25 to 35 years old and -- when questioned -- they (reveal) they were maybe in their teens when they raped for first time."

Though sex offenders might have similar psychological problems, they come from all kinds of racial, economic and social backgrounds. They can belong to any age group, and can be complete strangers or close relatives and friends.

In the case of the 94-year-old Palo Alto woman, Assistant Police Chief Lynne Johnson was not surprised by the age of the accused rapist or the fact he did not know the victim.

She was, however, surprised by the age of the victim. "We get very few of those," she said.

Police maintain that the age of the victim does not change the way rape cases are investigated or will be investigated in the future.

Over the years, the Palo Alto Police Department has dealt with many rape cases. But it is only when they are dealing with serial rapists, like the infamous College Terrace rapist of the 1970s, that the department enlists the FBI's help to build profiles.

"We look at the modus operandi of the rapist," said Johnson. "There can be no one profile of a rapist unless it is a serial rapist."

The Palo Alto Police Department was one of only a handful of departments that decided to change the way rape cases were investigated in 1970s by showing more sensitivity to the needs of the victim. Thanks to a grant, the department was able to involve local rape crisis centers like the one at the YWCA, as well as doctors and psychologists to help improve rape victim assistance.

"The grant said that the way we were looking at rape victims was wrong, that victims of rape don't bring on the crime," said Johnson.

"It changed the way we look at rape," she added.

E-mail Faiza Hasan at [email protected]


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