To Catch a Predator Early

In the past week, Mishaël Lopes Cardozo, swordplay instructor, competitor, and film performer, has been outed as a serial sexual harasser and abuser. Dozens of women and men have shared accounts of his behaviour, which ranges from making grossly inappropriate and derogatory comments to women he was teaching at events, to physical assault (including deliberately kicking a male student in the groin so hard he fell over during a teaching demonstration), groping, exposing his genitals to women without their consent, and isolating and sexually targeting women half his age, some of whom were still teens.

Aside from these deeply upsetting accounts, a lot of people — primarily men — have noted his decades-long history of “mildly inappropriate” or “off-colour” comments. These include using penises as a frequent sword metaphor while teaching; telling stories about public masturbation, complete with hand gestures, in a guest seminar; bringing up oral and anal sex out of the blue while teaching or socializing outside class, again, with hand gestures; and singling out and laughing at the people he made uncomfortable.

The same people who saw him do this stuff for years have expressed surprise and sometimes disbelief at the much more serious behaviour he’s now being accused of. I’m going to assume for the moment that most of them are acting in good faith, and that there’s a common blind spot that’s at play here. So let’s fix it.

Regular “inappropriate” behaviour and “off-colour” commentary is a red flag that someone may be a predator.

This goes double if the person doing it is in a position of power (e.g. they’re a guest instructor running a seminar, a staff member or member of management in any organization, or the biggest and strongest person in the room).

Here’s how it works

  1. It allows a predator to test the waters in a community/space. They can gauge the extent to which their bad behaviour might be tolerated. Do people laugh at their gross jokes? Do they flinch but let them pass in silence? Do people take cues from the predator’s behavior to join in?

    This is textbook boundary-testing, and is often a precursor to assault when done on an individual level. In groups, it establishes how likely the predator is to face resistance if they escalate.

    Speaking to one of his victims, Lopes “admitted in taking pleasure in pushing limits just to see who has the balls to stop him.” If he pushed those limits as a guest in someone else’s space, and nobody stood up — or, worse, readjusted the existing community boundaries to accommodate him — then that told him that there was probably nobody present who would intervene on a victim’s behalf.

  2. It allows them to fish for targets. They can watch for reactions like freezing, or fear, or nervous laughter/compliance in response to inappropriate remarks (all signs a target is less likely to fight back). And they can note who looks angry, or who pushes back, and make sure to avoid them.

    Again, this is a frequent precursor to assault in one-on-one interactions. Predators often start by saying or doing mildly unacceptable things. If their target doesn’t push back hard enough (often because they’re legitimately frightened for their safety), then they escalate to assault or rape. Maybe during the same interaction, maybe later.

    Another victim’s account shows this pattern clearly
    . Lopes starts with inappropriate comments about a much younger woman’s body. Next, he brings up explicit sex acts when they’re alone together and starts trying to get her to drink and use other substances. He bullies and pressures her into silence, and eventually strips naked and prevents her from leaving his house. His public comments are basically just the first step in this kind of chain of escalation.

  3. It builds a public persona that allows them plausible deniability. If they’re “always like that”, if they’re just regularly “mildly inappropriate”, it’s a lot easier for others to shrug off reports of harassment or groping as exaggerations or misunderstandings of “exotic” but benign behaviour.

    Here’s an account
    where Lopes harassed a student in front of her class and she was told “not to ‘take what he says seriously’ because he’s ‘just a teddy bear’.” Here’s another where he was invited to teach a seminar by hosts who were aware of his public behaviour and shrugged it off as “Lopes is… Lopes.”

I’ve used Lopes as a case study here because he’s the current subject of discussion, and accounts of his behaviour are readily available as concrete examples of this problem. We’ve conveniently got stories of both red-flag public behaviour, and more private assault and coercion, so it’s easy to see the connection between the two.

He’s not unique, though, and this isn’t really about him.

It’s about a pattern of behaviour that’s easy to spot once you’re aware of how it works. It’s about an opportunity to prevent much worse things from happening when you see someone testing boundaries in this way.

There’s a non-zero chance that your friendly, local jokester who makes people a little uncomfortable on a regular basis is grooming you. Maybe as a target, maybe as a witness. Don’t let them continue.

Here’s what you can do

When you see someone making inappropriate or boundary-pushing comments in a group setting, start paying more attention.

If you can, set a clear boundary. Any of the following options is a good start, depending on your relationship to the person and how safe you feel under the circumstances:

  • telling them to knock it off, or that they’re not funny; you can be friendly about this if you want to
  • showing them with body language that you’re not impressed; this can be as simple as not laughing or smiling at their comment
  • pulling them aside and privately telling them that they screwed up
  • publicly reminding them of your group’s standards of behaviour, either by pointing to a formal document like a code of conduct, or using some variation of “we don’t do that here”
  • disagreeing with them or asking them to explain themselves; again, this can be friendly

Then watch how they respond. If they back off, correct their behaviour, and/or apologize, great! You’re either dealing with an honest mistake where someone misread the room and is now fixing their screwup, or a very cautious predator who’s realized that they don’t have room to play here.

If they keep pushing or escalate, then you have a definite problem. It might be time to bring in a senior member or leader in your group for backup, call security, or otherwise look for ways to remove the predator from your space as soon as possible.

In either case, keep an eye on how they interact with vulnerable people in your group. Do they behave themselves with those in power, but push boundaries with those without it? Red flag. One simple thing to watch for is personal space management. If they consistently stand closer to or make more physical contact with vulnerable folks, that’s a red flag.

If there are vulnerable folks who trust you within your group, ask them for their impressions of this person. Listen carefully to what they say, and follow up on any indications of discomfort. This may take a while, and they may be hesitant to say anything too negative for fear of retaliation. Make them feel as safe as possible, and believe what they tell you. Ask how you can follow up on any concerns they bring up, and then actually do it.

If you run any kind of club or organization, have a code of conduct and enforce it. Make it super clear that this kind of low-level bad behaviour isn’t acceptable in your space, and consistently shut it down when it pops up. Lead by example and pay attention to class dynamics regularly. If you see that you’ve accidentally made someone feel unsafe, fix your behaviour.

Weeding out the creeps and boundary-pushers early makes it a lot less likely you’ll have to deal with a rapist down the line. Sexual assault happens on a continuum, and it’s much easier to address at the low end.

Sure, it’s uncomfortable, risky, and sometimes embarrassing to call out a popular figure for what feels like gross-but-not-overtly-dangerous behaviour, or for things you’ve done yourself, or let slide, in the past. But it’s a hell of a lot easier and better than cleaning up the aftermath of a rape, or a decade’s worth of ongoing harassment and assault.

Pay attention to the small stuff, and you’ll end up dealing with a lot less of the big stuff.

For more information on how to identify and address low-level predatory behaviour, I strongly recommend A.R. Banks’ “Creepology“. The author has made it free for the time being in response to the current series of incidents, and it’s also well worth getting your hands on at full price.