When in Danger, Profiling Is Rational

I recall once walking home from an evening college class. I was on a lonely little path between the university and town, and the sun was just setting. Ahead of me on the path was a young lady, presumably another student. She was a bit shorter than me, and over time, because of my longer stride, I was catching up to her. It was not intentional; at first, I did not even notice that I was overtaking her. But she noticed. And then I realized that she was walking unnaturally faster. She accelerated to a near-run as she realized that a guy she did not know was twenty yards behind her and getting closer.

My first reaction was anger: how dare she assume I was a rapist?

But the more I thought about it, the more her prejudiced attitude -- her “sexual profiling” -- made perfect sense. For practical purposes, all rapists are men. A woman legitimately can assume that an unknown man is infinitely more likely to be a rapist than an unknown woman.

Only a very tiny fraction of men are rapists, of course, but this woman had no way of knowing whether I was part of the tiny fraction who are rapists, or the vast majority who are not: the risk was greater than zero. Consider the danger involved if she wrongly assumed that I was not dangerous. Her assumption was grossly unfair to me, but it was completely rational.

I did not want to scare her, so I slowed to a crawl. I was no longer angry at her bigoted assumption -- instead, I was sorrowful that she had to worry about me. I was angry at how a small number of rapists have made women rationally fearful of a man they don’t know.

Let’s put the blame for this groping fiasco where it properly belongs: the terrorists who give us reason to fear explosives in all the wrong places, and the terror of common-sense screening procedures.