Profile of a College Rapist

Sexual assault trigger warning on this post.

Matt Yglesias writes about incidences of sexual assault in college, and a recent NPR story about David Lisak’s extensive research on college rapists. Thomas has also written extensively about this, and I would recommend reading his takes. NPR summarizes Lisak’s findings thusly:

There’s a common assumption about men who commit sexual assault on a college campus: That they made a one-time, bad decision. But psychologist David Lisak says this assumption is wrong —-and dangerously so.

It might seem like it would be hard for a researcher to get these men to admit to something that fits the definition of rape. But Lisak says it’s not. “They are very forthcoming,” he says. “In fact, they are eager to talk about their experiences. They’re quite narcissistic as a group — the offenders — and they view this as an opportunity, essentially, to brag.”

What Lisak found was that students who commit rape on a college campus are pretty much like those rapists in prison. In both groups, many are serial rapists. On college campuses, repeat predators account for 9 out of every 10 rapes.

In other words, the people who insist that on-campus rapes are the result of two people getting drunk and making a bad decision and the woman regretting it in the morning? Those people are wrong.

Unfortunatley, Matt’s take on the issue is… somewhat troubling. I’ll preface this by saying that Matt is a really smart guy and a feminist ally, and I also initially misread his post (I confused his comments about Lake’s quote to be about Lisak’s research) and I made the mistake of reading some of the comment thread, so that’s probably coloring my take a little bit. But I find his take-away from the NPR piece to be a bit lacking.

Here’s what NPR writes, and what Matt posts, about Lisak’s research:

[Lisak] found them by, over a 20-year period, asking some 2,000 men in college questions like this: “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated [on alcohol or drugs] to resist your sexual advances?”

Or: “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used physical force [twisting their arm, holding them down, etc.] if they didn’t cooperate?”

About 1 in 16 men answered “yes” to these or similar questions.

And these dudes who admit to having sex with people against their will? They don’t define what they did as “rape.”

Later in the NPR story:

“It’s very common for them to go out Wednesday through Saturday at a minimum, drink fairly heavily and hook up sexually with people that they may not know particularly well, may have met for the first time that night, or had been introduced through friends, or MySpace or Facebook,” [Peter Lake] says. “So you have a lot of sexual activity, you have alcohol, you have a population that’s sort of an at-risk age, and it’s in some ways, it’s a perfect storm for sex assault issues.”

And here’s what Matt says:

It’s seems incredibly pernicious to me to be running these things together. Lisak’s question specifically posits that the victim “did not want to” have sex, but was “too intoxicated … to resist.” What Lake is talking about conjured up an imagine of a young woman with impaired judgment doing something while drunk that she later regrets. Obviously, that does happen. But it’s quite a different situation from an encounter where even the perpetrator acknowledges that the victim was unwilling.

He updates later by saying:

Let me clarify this, as I don’t think I made my point very clearly. What I’m trying to here is that insofar as we’re talking about rapists who are clearly aware that their victims are unwilling, the effort by Lake to paint this as a situation where “drink[ing] fairly heavily” is the key variable is hugely problematic. A person who’s going to rape women he knows perfectly well don’t want to have sex is engaged in pathological violent behavior and would be a menace even if all alcohol were extirpated from the planet. The booze is incidental.

Well, no, the booze isn’t totally incidental. The booze is what makes the victim more accessible to the rapist. The rapist is seeking out situations where he knows he can find targets who will be less able to defend themselves. It’s like muggers who rob old ladies — the age of the old ladies isn’t incidental. Matt is right that a rapist is pathological with or without booze, and would be a menace even without alcohol. But it is important to recognize that some rapists do purposely use drugs to incapacitate their victims.

Matt also says that “What Lake is talking about conjured up an imagine of a young woman with impaired judgment doing something while drunk that she later regrets.” Now, he’s talking about that final quote about people going out drinking and whatnot — he isn’t talking about the Lisak study. But that line about how young women go out and get drunk and then regret their choices later? That is used all the time both to justify sexual assault and to warn women of the dangers of leaving the house to socialize. So if Matt is wondering why his feminist readers are a little salty at this post, that might be why.

That said, I do think Matt makes a good point that it is dangerous to conflate so-called “hook-up culture” and college drinking with rape. As Lisak’s research bears out, dudes who commit rape do it on purpose. These aren’t one-time misunderstandings or miscommunications or next-day regrets. These are men who know that the person they’re with either does not want to have sex or cannot possibly consent to having sex, and they have sex with that person anyway, explicitly against that person’s wishes. They know they are doing harm. They get off on doing harm. The Lake quote implies the opposite — that with a bunch of people drinking, it’s a “perfect storm for sexual assault issues,” because alcohol impairs everyone’s judgment and, whoops, now someone is saying something about rape!

It’s tough to discuss the interplay between alcohol and sexual assault, because too often the conversation veers into “drinking will get you raped” territory, with women being warned of all the things they should or shouldn’t do in order to avoid rape. Of course, drinking won’t get you raped — only being in the presence of a rapist will result in rape. At the same time, though, rapists do use certain tools to get to their victims. Often, they exploit trust — if you’re a regular feminist blog reader, you probably know by now that most sexual assaults are committed by people the victim knows. Women are also much more likely to be assaulted in their own home or in the home of someone they know than in a public place — the rapist in the bushes exists, but isn’t nearly as common as the rapist you hung out with a few times.

And college dudes who rape their classmates? A lot of those dudes rely on alcohol. It makes their victims less able to physically resist, and it has the bonus of laying some of the blame on their victims. After all, dudes know that women are treated to Ways To Not Get Raped lectures all the time — don’t go out at night by yourself, don’t walk down a dark alley, don’t drink too much. I don’t have any actual statistics on this, but my bet is that the woman who is raped by the stranger who jumps out of the bushes is more likely to report the rape than the woman who is raped at a party by the dude in her Bio class, especially if she was drinking. Men who rape on campus are repeat offenders in large part because they can get away with it. The discourse around sexual assault assumes that women must take self-protective steps, and if they’re raped anyway then they must have done something wrong. Campus serial rapists rely on that bias.

As Thomas points out, serial rapists also tend to embrace hyper-masculinity and woman-hate. If a dude sounds like he hates women or wants to control them? He’s probably not lying. And dudes on campus use alcohol instead of (or in tandem with) brute force as their tools. Thomas’s thoughts draw an apt conclusion:

Guys with rigid views of gender roles and an axe to grind against women in general are overrepresented among rapists. That won’t come as a surprise to most readers here, I expect. But it is important confirmation. Guys who seem to hate women … do. If they sound like they don’t like or respect women and see women as impediments to be overcome … they’re telling the truth. That’s what they think, and they will abuse if they think they can get away with it.

Lisak doesn’t actually say this, but having read some of his work in depth now, I really think the major difference between the incarcerated and the non-incarcerated rapists are that the former cannot or do not confine themselves to tactics that are low-risk to them. The undetected rapists overwhelmingly use minimal or no force, rely mostly on alcohol and rape their acquaintances. They create situations where the culture will protect them by making excuses for them and questioning or denying their victims. Incarcerated rapists, I think, are just the ones who use the tactics that society is more willing to recognize as rape and less willing to make excuses for.


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About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
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31 Responses to Profile of a College Rapist

  1. Thomas says:

    I really think Lisak’s work (and the work of McWhorter, et al. which largely replicates the core of what I’ll call his “Predator Theory” with a different sample, as I discuss in the original Meet The Predators post) is absolutely pivotal. Thanks for putting even more of a feminist spotlight on it.

    It totally invalidates the “innocent mistake” narrative that pervades discourse on acquaintance rape (and that clearly pervades Lake’s thinking, even though he appears to me to be distancing himself from it).

    I would also like to see Lisak’s Predator Theory examined in more marginalized populations, because I expect that the selection of least-prosecutable tactics and most-isolatable targets remains a constant, though the application may change. Examining sexual assault on campus is in some ways the easiest because populations of college students tend to be easiest to survey, but there’s a whole world out there with plenty of sexual assault in it that needs studied and fixed just as badly.

  2. FashionablyEvil says:

    I think this bit from the NPR story sums things up really well (and squares nicely with Thomas’s observation about incarcerated rapists vs. non-incarcerated rapists).

    “It’s quite well-known amongst college administrators that first-year students, freshman women, are particularly at risk for sexual assault,” Lisak says. “The predators on campus know that women who are new to campus, they are younger, they’re less experienced. They probably have less experience with alcohol, they want to be accepted. They will probably take more risks because they want to be accepted. So for all these reasons, the predators will look particularly for those women.”

    Still, Lisak says these men don’t think of themselves as rapists. Usually they know the other student. And they don’t use guns or knives.

    “The basic weapon is alcohol,” the psychologist says. “If you can get a victim intoxicated to the point where she’s coming in and out of consciousness, or she’s unconscious — and that is a very, very common scenario — then why would you need a weapon? Why would you need a knife or a gun?”

  3. But that line about how young women go out and get drunk and then regret their choices later? That is used all the time both to justify sexual assault and to warn women of the dangers of leaving the house to socialize. So if Matt is wondering why his feminist readers are a little salty at this post, that might be why.

    I totally understand this. I was trying to say that I thought this is exactly what Lake was doing by putting alcohol at the center of his story. Essentially saying that the problem of campus rape is that there’s a lot of booze around, rather than there are a lot of rapists around.

    Maybe “incidental” was the wrong word to use here. But what I take to be the takeaway from Lisak’s research is that alcohol is being used as a weapon by rapists who understand that their victims are unwilling. Lots of things, however, can be used as weapons. And it’s a dodge, at best, to put the emphasis on the weapon rather than the assaulter.

  4. April says:

    I listened to this, and was really pleased with NPR’s coverage. And the people who called in really brought the issue close to home. Hopefully a lot of people heard that who needed to.

  5. Thomas says:

    BTW for anyone who goes to Yglesias’s post, MAJOR TRIGGER WARNING for the comments. Half way though I found myself plotting ways to get the the real IDs of some of the pro-rape trolls (not apologists; outright pro-rape), track them down and do things that even Dick Cheney doesn’t advocate. And I’m not a survivor.

    Really, don’t read the comments over there.

  6. And yet, if we really wanted to push this issue into majorly uncomfortable territory, we’d wonder why the act itself is so compelling and so prevalent. There may be a sharp distinction between those who might be excused as making a bad decision (or four or five or six) and those who have some more recognizable pathological compulsion, but the more I think about subjects like these, I recognize that absolutes don’t exist and we are speaking in terms of a continuum.

  7. Thomas says:

    Matthew, I’m a big supporter and promoter of Lisak’s work, and I think your takeaway is correct. The rapists he has identified in his surveys (and interviewed in follow-up interviews, as his paper says and as one of your commenters noted) have a deliberate process for identifying targets and structuring the events to protect themselves. Alcohol is their primary weapon, and it is that way because of the social attitudes that Lake believes and promotes.

    I’ve written about the implications of the Predator Theory at more length than I can summarize here, but Lisak shows that the repeat rapists are also committing a large proportion of the domestic violence and of the child abuse. We need to stop thinking that alcohol and rape go together because of miscommunication; mostly, they go together because rapists plan select intoxicated targets and plan to get their targets intoxicates. And, as my post on this NPR story says, Lake is wrong about the likelihood of rehabilitating these guys. We need to protect society from them; they are abusers.

  8. Jill says:

    Agreed, Matt. Your clarifications make a lot of sense.

  9. tigtog says:

    We need to stop thinking that alcohol and rape go together because of miscommunication; mostly, they go together because rapists plan [to] select intoxicated targets and plan to get their targets intoxicate[d].

    Exactly. Any bloke you know who keeps on going home with really intoxicated people and those people always avoid him afterwards? That’s a bloke you should be really suspicious about and maybe decide to step up and chaperone intoxicated people when that bloke is around, instead of the common response of pitying him for all those “misunderstandings”.

  10. becky says:

    the comments of all those rape-enthusiasts on matthew’s blog (who are allowed to keep on and keep on “commenting” on the topic over there) are truly some of the most disturbing and disgusting things i’ve ever read. they alone make the empirical findings very plausible, sadly. don’t know what to say – i’m just furious right now…

  11. bitchphd says:

    I think your distinction between incarcerated and unincarcerated rapists is right on, with this addition: incarcerated rapists are far, far likelier to be poor and/or brown than rapists who get away with it.

  12. KMTBerry says:

    The Patriarchy™ needs to get a clue and INCARCERATE these predators. It doesn’t surprise me AT ALL that those who serially rape in college are the same guys who beat their wives and abuse their children.

    So often men who are in positions of power (judges, legislators, police) are so busy identifying with the PERPS (“what if that was me? I have had sex with drunk women”) that they forget to identify with the innocent VICTIMS (“that could be my daughter”) and they fail to see that the same group of predatory, sociopathic males are making our country unsafe for everyone.

    it really isn’t that hard to identify these guys.

  13. umami says:

    I do not understand the people on Yglesias’s blog who are saying that having sex with someone who is drunk and doesn’t want it isn’t rape.

    What the hell is wrong with them that they are all focusing on the “drunk” and completely missing the “doesn’t want it” part of the statement?

    That’s a real question, not a rhetorical one. I honestly cannot see how they are all skipping over the phrases “even though they did not want to” and “too intoxicated to resist”

    What the hell is happening inside their putrid little brains? Do they think that drunk women have no right to say no?

  14. umami says:

    Also, i find even your updated post to be a bit harsh on Matt, because the way I read his post was that there was an implied “and that’s stupid, because that’s an urban myth about rape accusations that has no relevance whatsoever to actual rape” at the end of his line about ” a young woman with impaired judgement who does something that she later regrets”

    But now that I think about it, given the sensitivity of the issue, given how frequently that rape myth is invoked without scepticism or questioning even by alleged liberals, and especially given what his godawful commenters are like, he really should have spelt that part out properly.

  15. Josh Jasper says:

    I don’t want to derail from here, but I think a later post about the personal side of hookup culture, alcohol, sex and expectations might be illuminating. Have there been posts like that here? If so I’ve missed them. If this is an OK space to talk about that to some extent, please let me know also. I do have some things I’d like to talk about regarding the issues.

  16. Jennifer says:

    I would like to point out that the mistake narrative for acquaintance rape is particularly dismissive of women. It basically asserts that we cannot tell the difference between having made poor decisions due to lowered inhibitions and having been forced into sex either because we were well beyond the point of decisions or by use of physical force. Let me say, that I have made poor decisions in sex partners before due to alcohol and/or low self-esteem and/or poor communication skills. While I felt miserable about it thereafter, I was well aware that I had made a mistake and that my sexual partner had not forced or coerced me. I have also been raped by an acquaintance who used physical force and ignored my protests. The two situations were not even passingly similar.

    The mistake narrative rests on the assumption that women either cannot distinguish between regret and coercion or that we are dishonest and report regret as coercion.

  17. William says:

    Perhaps I’m misreading Matthew, but I think questioning why alcohol is so central to a discussion like this is important because it displays how some of these images of rape (especially on college campus) can weave their way into even a fairly sympathetic and well-intentioned study like Lisak’s. The image of the drunk woman who regrets her bad judgment in the morning is part of the discourse. It is real in that it is something that is involved in most of the discussions and is an image which a great many people (falsely) hold. Call it an image, a meme, a stereotype, a phantasy, whatever; what is important is that it is going to be a part of the discussion which needs to be addressed and challenged if any kind of progress is to be made.

    Alcohol might not be incidental, but by linking the discussions we add fuel to the defenses that are likely to come up in the discourse. The core of the questions Lisak asked is the awareness of a lack of consent that these rapists have. Involving alcohol is very likely an important part of any mean of addressing the problem, but by constantly invoking it we unconsciously summon the image of the drunk woman filled with regret who makes a false accusation. That image is as much a tool of the campus rapist as alcohol. It serves to allow people to maintain the illusion that rape is uncommon, rapists fit a certain othered parameter, and that the victims aren’t really victims.

  18. PrettyAmiable says:

    “it really isn’t that hard to identify these guys.”

    Sometimes, but other times it is. Rapists and rape sympathizers come in all shapes, colors, sizes, etc.

  19. evil_fizz says:

    I’m a prosecutor, and I have to tell you, one of the things we struggle with is identifying the people who are the serial rapists. I don’t know these people. I don’t socialize with them. I don’t watch them at parties and see if they’re treating women drinking as prey. If I get some good witness interviews, I can make some assumptions about whether they’re in the serial category or not, but not always. And my misogyny radar isn’t exactly evidence in a trial.

  20. Henry says:

    TY evil_fizz.

    You’re in the system fighting, please push for lifetime institutional commitment for sex offenders – right now we have a revolving door for perps (like the recent case in CA). I’m glad to see the predator theory & repeat offender status applies to acquaintance rapists too – when I studied this issue years ago it was an open question among sociologists. Now we can move on to push lifetime institutional commitment for sex criminals as opposed to the current revolving door system which results in more crimes, and more killings. I’d like to see a war on sex crimes, much like the war on drugs in terms of money spent (only with a hopefully better outcome) – much better use of our resources.

  21. William says:

    Now we can move on to push lifetime institutional commitment for sex criminals as opposed to the current revolving door system which results in more crimes, and more killings.

    Lifetime commitment? I really, really hope you meant to say lifetime imprisonment and aren’t supporting the horrifying practice of using the mental health profession to confine individuals after they have finished their sentences and “protect” society by only exposing persons who have been deemed mad to sex criminals. The word commitment has some very specific meanings when it comes to the law, and defining sex offenders as mad (especially as a feint for increasing the terms of their incarceration) maligns mad persons everywhere.

  22. evil_fizz,

    what does it take, exactly to prosecute a rapist? One of my friends was raped in college and despite having a rape kit done and having to have a surgery for an injury from the attack… the extent of the investigation that was done was asking the guy if he raped her. he said no and they told her there was nothing else they could do. and they didn’t do anything, neither did our university. ultimately, she dropped out of school because she had a class with her attacker and had to see him 3 times a week. her case is one of three that i am aware of that happened to girls at my university. all three of them got the same treatment. the law did nothing. the school did nothing (except, of course, telling the girls they were “asking for it” for drinking alone with a boy). so, if a rape kit and positive DNA id, a severe injury, and victim’s testimony are not enough… what does it take?

  23. Sarah says:

    [Peter Lake] says. “So you have a lot of sexual activity, you have alcohol, you have a population that’s sort of an at-risk age, and it’s in some ways, it’s a perfect storm for sex assault issues.”

    I think the comment about alcohol here is not necessarily implying that ‘when people are drinking heavily it’s easy and common for mistakes or misunderstandings to occur which end up (incorrectly) reported as rapes’. Given that many rapists preferentially target women who have been drinking, or find it easier to rape women who have been drinking (and easier to get away with it afterwards precisely because their victims had been drinking), you could say that drinking does in fact create a situation that “is a perfect storm for sex assault issues’, because it makes it easy for rapists to attack women.
    The quote is equally applicable to both interpretations. However, most people are more familiar with the idea that women drink and regret doing something, and make up a rape the next day, than they are familiar with the fact that rapists like to target women who have been drinking.

    You quote Matt as saying ‘Lisak’s question specifically posits that the victim “did not want to” have sex, but was “too intoxicated … to resist.” What Lake is talking about conjured up an imagine of a young woman with impaired judgment doing something while drunk that she later regrets.’

    I hope this meant “what this conjures up FOR MANY PEOPLE is an image of… – because someone “not wanting to have sex but unable to resist” in no way conjures up an image of impaired judgment, bad decision, and then later regret: for me it specifically conjures up the idea of rape, and I think the way it’s phrased here should certainly conjure up that image for many.

  24. William says:

    I think the comment about alcohol here is not necessarily implying that ‘when people are drinking heavily it’s easy and common for mistakes or misunderstandings to occur which end up (incorrectly) reported as rapes’.

    It doesn’t necessarily imply that, but I think that in any discussion of something as heavily denied as rape you can’t rely on the author’s intended communication. Instead you have to consider what a listener is likely to hear. The fact that the “got drunk and incorrectly reported a rape” scenario is only slightly more common than hen’s teeth out in the real world doesn’t change the fact that a great many (perhaps even most) people who hear “alcohol” and “rape” in the same sentence are going to conjure that image. Its wrong, it runs counter to reality, but thats the rape culture.

    What was especially problematic for me is that this study is looking at the behavior of rapists and instead we still end up focusing on the behavior of victims. We’re talking about men who recognized a lack of consent. By mitigating that focus with the involvement of alcohol I feel that we provide fertile ground for rationalization and make it easy for people who don’t want to believe that rape is common and takes many forms to imagine that the kinds of rapes this study is talking about aren’t really rapes (and, by extension, that the perpetrators aren’t rapists).

  25. james says:

    I don’t know. I think drinking might be important, but focusing on the victim might be looking at it the wrong way. We’d all agree that lots of people get drunk and then end up starting fights they wouldn’t have started were they sober; and because of this people try to control and moderate alcohol use in order to prevent violence.

    Why should rape be that much different? Are the rapists we’re talking about always impulsive or brave enough try and rape while sober? I doubt it. It certainly seems that a lot of rapes are committed under the influence of alcohol. Perhaps that’s coincidence, but perhaps not.

    • Cara says:

      No, James, your suspicion is entirely correct. Research shows (pdf) that in most rape cases where alcohol is involved, both the victim and rapist were drinking. In cases where only the rapist or victim was drinking, the rapist was twice as likely to be the one who was intoxicated.

  26. PatriarchySlayer says:

    I’m going to have to go with Jill on this from “I Blame the Patriarchy”. We need to implement the “Yes Means Yes” style of consent. Men should have to prove that the women was enthusiastically consenting to sex. That means that her being unconscious means rape..her being really drunk is rape…
    So instead of saying, “Well, she didn’t say no”, the better thing to say is “Did she say yes?”

    I think that would solve a lot of our problems. Some might argue that it would create more…but I highly doubt that.

  27. Acey says:

    My husband raped and sexually assaulted me in my sleep four times, twice while my babies were in the bed. He was also sexuall abusive toward me on other occasions. He knew ahead of time how important consent was to me and that I had a history of sexual assaults. But he did it anyway. After the first time, I freaked out at him. He did it again a few months later. I freaked out. He did it again a few months later. I freaked out. He did it again. That time, I kicked him out of the house and got help. I was strong enough not to dissociate. But the therapist I saw told me I was overreacting and that it was miscommunication. So I let him back in the house and tried to save my marriage.

    He kept being emotionally abusive in other ways though and I was eventually strong enough to take the risk of seeing another counsellor. She agreed with my view of the situation. But, by then, I had PTSD. I’m still struggling with PTSD.

    My husband stopped raping me when I woke up and screamed at him. But, by then, he’d already raped me.

    Moreover, it wasn’t miscommunication. I have since learned from him that he deliberated over the rapes for some time, thought it through, knew it was wrong, knew I wouldn’t like it…and did it anyway.

    This has been the most disturbing relevation for me. I thought there was some chance of working things through when I thought surely he misunderstood consent or something. But he did know. And he did it anyway.

    It’s no surprise to me that he also chose to do things I wasn’t okay with when awake.

  28. Michelle says:

    What Lake says about “a perfect storm,” might have some truth to it (if rapists use alcohol as a weapon, what better place to deploy the weapon than at a party where coercing someone to drink some more will probably go unnoticed?) But, correlation does not equal causation.

    And the solution is not for people to drink less, or “not put themselves in those situations,” it’s for men to not rape.

    Easier said than done, of course…some days I feel like we’ll never get over this, I don’t know about everybody else. We shouldn’t be living in a society where we congratulate men (or women) for being decent human beings and not taking advantage of someone who’s really tipsy. But all we can do is keep moving forward and working.

  29. Thomas: It totally invalidates the “innocent mistake” narrative that pervades discourse on acquaintance rape /i<

    It actually doesn't. Though they didn't define what they did as "rape", the guys who answered "yes" in this study still understood that they were forcing someone else to have sex with them. Anyone who really did "accidentally" rape someone would not have that understanding, and would have answered "no". That said, I still think such cases are probably vanishingly rare.

  30. makomk says:

    PatriarchySlayer: the version of Jill’s proposal that I saw seemed to go further than that. From what I could tell even proving enthusiastic consent wouldn’t be a defense to a rape accusation. *checks*. Yep, in fact the whole point is that there’s no defense; if a man and a woman have sex, and she decides for whatever reason to call the police and tell them it was rape at any point in the future, then it’s rape. The only way of avoiding this is to either be female or not to do anything that’s going to result in a woman you’ve had sex with calling the police on you.

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