On Sept. 4, Georgetown University told its students to stop calling him “The Cuddler.”
Because cuddle is far too soft a description for what the suspect does. In a typical attack, a man enters a student’s residence through an unlocked window or door, lies down next to her, and attempts to sexually assault her. He’s been accused of everything from laying a blanket atop his victim to placing his penis on his victim’s thigh. According to D.C. Police, the episodes span a 20-month period stretching back to January 2008.
Despite the disturbing MO, “Georgetown Cuddler” persists as an on-campus nickname for this criminal. When two assaults were reported days before the start of the fall semester, the university attempted to put an end to the moniker. “Descriptions that refer to some suspects as a ‘cuddler’ can detract from the serious nature of these incidents,” a letter to students read.
Beyond the warning against the popular nickname, Georgetown’s campus alert was conspicuously short on descriptors. “As you may know, our campus and surrounding neighborhoods have experienced incidents over the past year, and several in the past week,” the university hedged. Students who may not know about the history of sexual assaults around campus—including incoming freshmen—were afforded no further elaboration on the nature of the “incidents.”
Molly Redden, who has covered the beat for campus publication the Georgetown Voice, recognized the university’s decision to invoke the nickname even as it denounced its use. “Referring to the suspect as ‘The Cuddler’ does detract from how serious the incidents are,” says Redden. “At the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised if the university used the nickname as an indicator of which specific crimes they’re actually referring to.”
While administrators view “Georgetown Cuddler” as an inaccurate and inappropriate nickname, it provides students a helpful—even necessary—shorthand for covering an ongoing campus safety risk. Georgetown’s letter denouncing the nickname was the school’s most transparent response to the string of attacks to date. But the Georgetown Voice has been publishing the nickname for nearly a year—and alerting students to the school’s sexual assault problem each time the “Cuddler” is invoked.
“When I write something that’s ‘Cuddler’ related, it gets more attention on campus,” says Voice projects editor Will Sommer. “I would never make it seem as though something is a ‘Cuddler’ attack when it isn’t. But when you associate the ‘Cuddler’ thing, it lends a narrative to it.” That narrative, Sommer says, has been missing from Georgetown University’s previous response to the assaults—a series of “Public Safety Alerts” (PSAs) which fail to address the incidents as a campus trend.
Sommer says he was likely responsible for debuting “The Cuddler” in campus media last fall, in a post on Voice blog Vox Populi. Looking back on the coverage, Sommer says, “I thought, Oh my God—did I come up with the Cuddler? What a disaster. But if you look at the post, you can see that I’m not making clear what ‘Cuddler’ even means. By that point, it looks like it requires no explanation.” By the time the term migrated from the student body to the student press, it had already inspired editorial backlash. In his inaugural post referencing the “Cuddler,” Sommer suggested that Georgetown stop referencing the “Cuddler.” “Given the seriousness/scariness of the Cuddler’s attacks, we need to get this guy a new nickname,” he wrote. “‘The Cuddler’ just sounds way too sweet, like he’s a child scared of the dark and in need of affection.”
Over the next year, Voice staffers continued to rally against the nickname’s use—while marking off suspected assault locations on its Google map, “Suspected ‘Georgetown Cuddler’ Incidents.” In November 2008, the Voice published a piece debating the appropriateness of Cuddler-based jokes which included an interview with a student who dressed as the “Cuddler” for Halloween. In February, Redden lamented the term’s stickiness, writing, “I can’t keep using quotes around ‘Cuddler’ to try to mollify my discomfort in using the term forever!”
Possible alternatives to the “Cuddler” have been discussed. “We talk about it a lot. Everyone wants a different name, but we can’t find something good,” says Sommer. “The ‘Cuddler’ is a very catchy thing.” So far, Voice staffers have failed to alight on a viable substitute for the “Cuddler.” “We came up with ‘Cuddle-Rapist,’” says Sommer. “Doesn’t really roll off the tongue, does it?” Even “The Cuddler” has proven more sensitive than some alternatives. “We’ve tried ‘crapist,’ but it sounds too much like the people who make pastries,” says Juliana Brint, the editor of Vox Populi. “There really are no good nicknames.”
Even bad nicknames can produce good PR. “The discussion about the ‘Cuddler’ nickname has made people more aware,” says Sommer. “When someone dresses as the ‘Cuddler’ for Halloween, it makes people think about the fact that there are Cuddler victims out there who could see that costume. So it’s really given a lot of attention to the issue.” Despite the potential positives, other campus outlets have declined to devote much ink to the nickname. The Hoya, Georgetown’s student newspaper, first mentioned the name “Cuddler” in its 2009 April Fools issue, and again in an April 24 investigative report. In an e-mail, Hoya editor Kevin Barber said that Hoya staffers “always limit our use of the term to reference…the campus community’s widespread use of the phrase to describe these sorts of incidents.”
Despite its liberal use of the “Cuddler,” the Voice takes care to clarify the seriousness of each sexual assault incident it reports. It’s also criticized Georgetown University for employing other euphemisms in its reports on the attacks. Georgetown’s PSA alerting students to two similar incidents in April 2008 classified the offenses as “burglaries” instead of sexual assaults, even though one victim “awakened to find an unknown male in her bed.” In the most recent incident, the university PSA described a sexual assault against a student but failed to provide additional details. “I was a little irritated that, instead of giving details about the digital penetration, the university said that the suspect ‘began sexually assaulting her,’” says Brint. “That’s kind of a meaningless phrase. It didn’t indicate at all how serious the incident actually was. I do think that’s problematic.”
Georgetown says its PSAs announcing the sexual assaults were “based on information that is reported to the Department of Public Safety,” and that the assault reports were supplemented by the Sept. 4 letter “underscoring the need for students to remain vigilant.”
Brint says that she was “happy” to see the university finally address the incidents directly and to discourage the use of the nickname on campus. That doesn’t mean that she’s going to stop using it. “My guess is that it’s going to persist,” she says. “It’s hard to get these things out of the vernacular.” In lieu of a less offensive moniker, Brint says the Voice has adjusted how it will refer to the offender. “We’ve been trying to minimize as much as possible our use of that term,” she says. “But we will include it once, for clarification’s sake.”
RELATED: A “Georgetown Cuddler” Timeline: How the sexual assault nickname became a Georgetown institution.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery