Karen Moskowitz/StoneLast week, the so-called East Coast rapist Aaron Thomas was arrested. Authorities say that DNA evidence indicates that Thomas is the man who attacked 17 victims in Connecticut, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Virginia (including three teenaged girls whom he preyed on while they were trick-or-treating and one woman whom he raped in front of her baby). This news is simultaneously a relief and a reminder of one of my biggest fears.
The statistics on rape are rather upsetting: One in six American women will be sexually assaulted at some point in her lifetime. And though many women, in their worst nightmares, imagine being attacked by a stranger (like Thomas) in a strange place, the reality is different: Rapes frequently occur in the home, and "known doers" - men who live in the victim's house, are related to her, or have some kind of social contact with her - are the rapists in 75 percent of cases. One in four rapes happen within the home.
Jana Leo, author of the new memoir Rape New York didn't know the gun-yielding man who ordered her to have sex with him, but he was standing in front of the door of her Harlem apartment, armed and waiting, when she arrived home one fateful afternoon. Her building didn't lock properly so he'd simply let himself in. And as she found out later, he'd been living on her roof on and off for months before the attack. He also hung out in her apartment building so often that she bumped into him there one day shortly after the rape. (He was eventually charged and convicted, thanks to DNA.)
As Leo writes in her memoir: "Intruders (25 percent of rapists) take advantage of fragile moments, such as opening the front door of a building, or entering an apartment. Assault is more likely to happen in transitory spaces such as entryways, staircases, elevators, basements, roofs, lobbies, corridors, and entrance halls. Rape occurs most often in places where a certain intimacy is possible."
I asked her for some pointers about how we can all make ourselves a little safer in our homes. Here are her suggestions:
1. Make sure no one can get into your building (except the people with keys).
It seems obvious, but plenty of residential buildings in urban settings don't lock properly - and because we don't want to be a pain, we let it go. But we shouldn't. If you're writing a rent check every month, no matter how small it is, what you deserve, at a minimum, is safety. So make sure that all the means of egress to your building lock properly - not just the front door, but the basement and the roof. And make sure they are kept locked. If they aren't, talk to your landlord about it. (Worth noting: Many states, like New York, require self-closing, self-locking doors, for safety purposes. If your apartment building doesn't have them, send a written request to your manager or landlord.)
2. Have windows that lock.
It should not be possible for someone to get into your apartment or home simply by climbing through a window, or jimmying it open. So make sure your windows lock, and get cheap and easy-to-install security devices that clip on to your window frame for extra protection. Consider getting gates on them, too. They may not be pretty, but they are the best bet for keeping intruders out.
3. Know your neighbors.
Talking to the people who live near you about safety issues and concerns can be helpful. It's easier to ask a landlord for improvements as a group, and when a community comes together to solve its safety problems, it can have a much bigger impact than one person working alone.
4. Never buzz up someone who claims to be delivering a package unless you're actually expecting one.
It's not hard to get a UPS uniform, Leo says, and criminals often use that kind of a costume to get access to a house.
5. Don't listen to your iPod when you're alone in dark or unpopulated places, especially at night.
Having music in your ears will prevent you from hearing someone who might be trying to sneak up on you. Keep your wits about you at all times.
6. Never open your car remotely until you can reach the door with your hand.
If someone is trying to take advantage of you, he might hide until you've unlocked the door, and then do his best to get into your vehicle.
7. Listen to your fears.
If you feel unsafe on a certain street that you regularly take home from work, take a different route, even if it's longer. Don't brush aside your concerns, telling yourself that you're being silly. Often, our reptilian brains know better than our conscious minds when there is something to be worried about.
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Reprinted with Permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.