Sexual Assault: Separating Fact from Fiction
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Alcohol causes sexual assault.
Alcohol does not cause sexual
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
FICTION: Sexual assaults are mostly
committed by strangers.
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
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.
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.
Reeves Sanday, "The Socio-Cultural Context of Rape: A Cross-Cultural Study,"
Journal of Social Issues 37, no.4 (1981).
U.S. Department of Justice's National Crime Victimization Survey
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).
California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Illinois Coalition Against Sexual
Assault, The Aurora Center for Education and Advocacy