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Sexual Assault: Separating Fact from Fiction

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Because sexual assault is shrouded in secrecy, there are a number of myths that inform people's opinions, thoughts and beliefs about sexual violence. Myths about rape can provide us with a false sense of security; we may think that if we don't engage in certain behaviors or dress a certain way, that it can never happen to us. Separating fact from fiction is important for a number of reasons including(1) it helps to create a safe environment for survivors to heal, (2) it decreases the amount of victim-blaming that often occurs after a sexual assault, (3) it shifts the focus from the survivor to the perpetrator and helps everyone examine behaviors and attitudes in society that promote a rape culture.

When you hear some of these common myths, stand up, speak out and share the facts:

FICTION: Men rape women because of a uncontrollable biological sexual urges.

FACT: There are many societies in which men never rape women. Rape is not universal. This fact has been well documented by Peggy Reeves Sanday (1). There are connections between a high rate of rape, the glorification of violence, the objectification of women, the encouragement of tough and aggressive behavior in men, and the prevalence of war. Because the rate of rape is high in some societies and low in others suggests that it is behavior that can be encouraged or discouraged, depending on the values of the society and, in particular, the values connected to masculinity and femininity and the power relations between men and women. As Sanday notes, societies that regarded the roles of men and women as equal in status, even though different, were societies with little or no rape.

FICTION: Rape is not a big deal. It's only sex.

FACT: Rape is a big deal and it's illegal. Rape is not committed between consenting adults but is forced and violent, even when physical force is not used. Rape survivors have more in common with victims of other serious crimes such as physical assault, burglary and attempted murder than with partners in a consenting sexual relationship.

FICTION: Women lie about being raped to get back at someone or to protect their reputation.

FACT: False reporting of rape is no greater than false reporting of other major crimes such as burglary, kidnapping and murder. There is no need to dispel myths that victims of those other crimes are lying, yet people assume that rape survivors are making a  story up. Rape survivors in our society face undue scrutiny and blame while the perpetrator is given sympathy or at least left unexamined. While it is hard to imagine someone you know being accused of rape, 90% of rapes in college are committed by rapists who are acquaintances of the survivor (2). Believing this myth, or at least questioning the validity of a survivor's experience, contributes to the fact that rape is one of the most underreported crimes in the United States. It silences survivors from coming forward for fear of being accused of lying.

FICTION: If a person goes to someone's room or house or goes to a bar, she assumes the risk of sexual assault. If something happens later, she can't claim that she was raped or sexually assaulted because she should have known not to go to those places.

FACT: This "assumption of risk" wrongly places the responsibility of the offender's actions on the survivor. Even if the person went voluntarily to someone's residence or room and consented to engage in some sexual activity, it does not serve as a blanket consent for all sexual activity. If a person is unsure about whether  someone is comfortable with an elevated level of sexual activity, the person should stop and ask. When someone says "No" or "Stop", that means STOP.

FICTION: Most sexual assault survivors react hysterically.

FACT: Individual responses to a sexual assault are as varied as the individuals themselves and may appear immediately or may be delayed. An individual's reactions to an event depends on many factors including personality, experiences with similar events in the past, intensity of the event and reactions of others. Reactions range from hysteria to calm, rational behavior. Reports from women who react in a calm, rational manner are frequently dismissed and discounted because these women do not exhibit stereotypically "female" hysteria.

FICTION: Alcohol causes sexual assault.

FACT: Alcohol does not cause sexual assault. Be aware that drugs and alcohol are often related to date rape.  Rape is not the punishment for poor judgment or high risk behavior. Rape is never the survivor's fault. The responsibility for committing rape lies completely with the perpetrator. Someone who is intoxicated cannot give consent. Having sex with someone who is intoxicated or high is considered rape.  

FICTION: Men can't be victims of sexual assault.

FACT: One out of six males in the United States has experienced some form of sexual abuse in his lifetime. The age at which the sexual assault of a male is most likely to occur is 4 years old. Most perpetrators of child sexual abuse against boys are men who identify as straight. Some rapists target men, either as a hate crime against someone they think or know is gay or as abuse in a same-sex relationship. When sexual assault happens to men, they face great barriers coming forward due to homophobia and the myth that men can't be victims. Part of this myth stems from the idea that men always want sex, therefore they can't be raped. This false belief causes many men to be silent about their abuse/assault.

FICTION: Women should protect themselves more.

FACT: There are things that people can do to reduce their risk of being raped, but individual avoidance of rape does not prevent sexual assault. Most suggestions for reducing sexual assault deal with stranger situations, like carry mace, don't walk alone at night and don't take rides home from strangers. Such tips ignore the fact that the vast majority of rapes on a college campus are committed by someone known to the survivor - often someone s/he trusts. These tips imply that women should be the ones responsible for avoiding rape, rather than demanding that the perpetrator be responsible for choosing not to rape.

FICTION: Women provoke rape by the way they dress or the way they flirt.

FACT: Men rape women because they can get away with it. Women's dress and behavior have nothing to do with it. There is no correlation between who is raped and the clothes they are wearing or their flirtatious behavior at the time. Women of all ages are raped. They are usually going about their everyday activities or simply interacting with someone they know. Rape is an expression of power and control. A man might justify his raping by pointing to the woman's behavior, but that is an excuse rather than a reason. It is a cruel irony that women are encouraged to be sexually attractive and seductive and then, if they are raped, they are blamed for the other person's violent act.

This myth suggests that men wouldn't even think about rape were it not for women acting "sexy." It expresses the belief that it is up to women to draw sexual boundaries and that men are not responsible. It suggests that men can't (or shouldn't have to) control their sexual appetites. It justifies the use of violence as a result of sexual arousal. It also confuses rape with sex.

FICTION: Sexual assault is an impulsive, uncontrollable act of passion. 

FACT: Rape is an act of violence, not sexual desire. The majority of rapes are planned. It is the vulnerability of the victim that attracts the perpetrator. Anyone, regardless of age, sex, physical appearance, marital status, ethnic, religious or socio-economic background can be raped.

FICTION: Sexual assaults are mostly committed by strangers.

FACT: Most recent research documents that in approximately three (3) out of four (4) rapes, the survivors knew the person who raped them (3). Women are often forced into sex by their husbands, boyfriend and partners. In contrast to the stereotype of men in dark alleys assaulting women, men assault women at all times of the day. Often the woman initially trusts the person who subsequently sexually assaults her and welcomes him into her home or accepts an invitation to go to his house. She is then blamed for his actions and, sadly, often blames herself, especially if her prior understanding of rape was based more on myth than fact.

FICTION: Men who rape are mentally ill.

FACT: Men who rape are mostly ordinary, everyday guys. Only a tiny percentage of men who rape are considered clinically insane by standard psychiatric criteria. It is these cases that are often highlighted by the media. The vast majority of men who rape are indistinguishable from your friends. The major difference between men who rape and men who don't rape is their attitudes toward women. Men who rape typically believe they have a right of sexual access to women whenever they please and therefore don't view what they do as rape. They typically view women with contempt and sometimes deep hostility. These  men see women as manipulative and needing to be "put in their place." They believe the myths about rape. They have a firm belief in women's rightful place as dependent, passive and "in the home." They believe men's rightful role is to be in control, and they are often very jealous and controlling toward loved ones in their own lives. These attitudes are strongly reinforced by the popular media.

FICTION: In a rape, the person who is raped is the only one who suffers.

FACT: Sexual assault affects the survivor's family, friends, and neighbors. The fear of sexual assault affects all women. The economic costs of sexual assault affect us all. Sexual assault is a societal problem.

 

Citations:

(1) Peggy Reeves Sanday, "The Socio-Cultural Context of Rape: A Cross-Cultural Study," Journal of Social Issues 37, no.4 (1981).

 

(2) U.S. Department of Justice's National Crime Victimization Survey

 

(3) Lawrence A. Greenfield, Sex Offenses and Offenders: An Analysis of Data  on Rape and Sexual Assault (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, 1994).

 

Sources: California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, The Aurora Center for Education and Advocacy