Rape myths are not just a set of harmless beliefs. Rape and rape myths are destructive forces. They do not fall on deaf ears, nor are they said in a vacuum. Although some people may think they are just “saying words” or holding on to harmless beliefs, rape myths have profound impacts. They hurt. They hurt individuals, they hurt survivors, they hurt families and they hurt communities. They encourage silence, shame and pain. They shift blame away from the perpetrator, and, ultimately, keep us believing that sexual violence is natural and normal. And, most assuredly, perpetrators count on us believing them, in order to continue perpetrating sexual violence. There is no such thing as a “typical” rape, or even a “typical” rapist or “typical” victim. However, there are a lot of common elements and misconceptions that affect rape survivors, and understanding them will help you become sensitive to what they have faced–and are facing.
First—and this cannot be emphasized enough—rape is not about forcing someone to have sex. It is not sexual at all, in fact. This may sound like a surprising and bizarre thing to say, but hear me out. Although rape usually happens when a victim’s body is hurt in what is considered a “sexual” way, according to accounts from psychologists, rapists themselves claim that their actions weren’t about being aroused, attracted, turned on, or “horny beyond control.” Rather, it is a crime of violence in which the goal is to take power, not sex, from the person. Sex is the method used to take power and control; not the goal of the control.
Think of it this way: when someone robs another at gunpoint, the goal of the crime is to take something valuable from the victim, usually money, car, or other valuable stuff. It is not about fulfilling a robber’s desire to point and use a gun. The gun (and the threat) is the method used to take something else from the victim, and rapists use sex as their weapon, not as the thing they want to get. While most rapes don’t involve a gun (in fact, few rapes involve a weapon at all), it is common that bodily injury can happen. This is a real danger: although an injury may have occurred, it is often in such a private place or done is such an unthinkable way to the body that many victims decide to never report the crime at all, keeping it a secret—but also preventing themselves from getting medical attention.
It is crucial to understand that it is a terrible myth that the victim somehow “asked for” it, liked it, brought it on themselves, wanted it, or is exaggerating the experience. Even when the attacker is someone they are dating–a boyfriend/girlfriend, or even a husband or wife–this is still a violent assault made by a person wanting control over the victim, not something they wanted or enjoyed (or gave in to and then later changed their minds by making up a “rape story”). No matter what you talk about with the victim you are helping, it is never appropriate to hint or suggest, or even ask, that they may have liked it, brought it on, or provoked it.
A second related fact that parents often struggle with is that the victim is absolutely not responsible for their victimization. Not even slightly. This is where there’s often the urge to ask,
“Yes, but what if s/he…?”
“Yes, but how about when…?”
Many often assume that the victim could have prevented the rape by taking certain precautions, avoiding certain situations, changing their appearances or behaviours, resisting more forcibly, not drinking, etc. It’s even easier to make these assumptions if they show no visible injuries; it might be assumed that, “Well, the perpetrator apparently wasn’t violent, right? I mean, s/he’s not hurt, so clearly if they had fought back, then they could probably have escaped!” Some parents even subconsciously wonder whether the victim gave subtle hints of consent if they didn’t resist as violently as they feel they should have. This assumption unfairly suggests that they share some blame for the assault, and that if they were able to change enough things about their appearance, location, or behaviour, they would be safe. This kind of attitude demolishes whatever strength and confidence the victim has left. Here’s why that’s all wrong: Victims who have survived rape have reported in studies that fighting back made the attacks against them become more violent in 20-35% of the cases. In other words, the decision to fight the attacker can possibly threaten their own safety even more. Rape happens in every hour of the day and in any setting, and to every age group. It’s been found that when a person is being attacked, there are three instincts that can happen, and these instincts are chosen by the body, not the thinking mind:
- Fight. People often assume this is the best instinct, and will even sometimes blame victims who don’t make this choice. The police and the court often get this one wrong, too, by suggesting that if they didn’t fight back, they can’t claim s/he (the attacker) was raping them.
- Flight. The risks here are that they may be stranded, and it may provoke more anger by their attacker which makes their risk of injury more severe if they are caught.
- Freeze. This is the most common instinct–for both males and females, a person feeling threatened may curl up, become tense, cover their faces with their arms, and even become silent. Again, law enforcement agencies, courts and secondary survivors often misunderstand this instinct and blame the victims with the idea, “if they just froze, didn’t scream, didn’t fight, and just remained silent and still and numb, they can’t say it was an attack, right?”
There is nothing wrong with any of these instincts, except that victims will often look back at their experience in hindsight and criticize themselves later. Some victims play the memories over and over in their heads for years to come because they keep thinking they did something wrong, or should have been able to stop it. At this point, it is entirely appropriate to disagree with them and tell them they are wrong to blame themselves–that it was not their fault, that their survival decisions are perfectly normal and may have saved their lives, and that you support them.
Third, it is important to understand that there is nothing they could do differently that would have prevented it. Rape victims will almost always find ways to blame themselves for the assault by listing all the ways they could have fought differently, dressed differently, screamed differently, hit differently, or been somewhere different. Victims who blame themselves are trying to find a sense of control again. It’s a natural but unhealthy way for them to create a false sense of control over whether this could happen again. In reality, there is nothing about a victim that makes rape happen. Rape happens when a man or woman makes a decision to hurt an individual they feel they can control. Rape happens because of the rapist, not because of the victim.
One of the worst ways to “help” a victim is to name a list of things they could have done differently, or did wrong. When victims blame themselves, this is the only time when it is proper, and necessary, to disagree with them and tell them they are wrong. Sometimes we think of all the ways a victim could “prevent” rape: Don’t go into bad situations, don’t dress in provocative clothes, don’t drink or use drugs, etc. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it suggests these behaviours make rape happen. Notice that they also suggest that the way to stop the rape problem is to make victims guess all the things they should do differently so nobody will ever hurt them in the future: how they should act, dress, where they can be (and when, and with whom), and what they should do. This kind of thinking puts responsibility on victims to predict the future and not to be victims, rather than putting responsibility where it belongs. And when victims are raped, this thinking adds to their shame and humiliation by suggesting that they failed to follow unwritten rules, and therefore “deserved” whatever happened.
Other common myths and facts are:
Myth: Sexual assaults are rare deviations and affect few people. After all, no one I know has been raped.
Fact: Sexual assaults are very common. Most likely, someone close to you has been profoundly affected by sexual assault. Not only are victims reluctant to discuss their assaults but many succeed in totally blocking the assault from conscious memory. However, the trauma remains and may come to the surface at another crisis or when the opportunity to discuss it with a sympathetic person arises.
Myth: You can tell a rapist by the way he looks.
Fact: Rapists are not physically identifiable. They may appear friendly, normal, and non-threatening. Many are young, married and have children. Rapist types and traits however can be categorized.
Myth: A man can’t rape his wife.
Fact: The idea that a man can’t rape his wife suggests married women do not have the same right to safety as do unmarried women. Most battered women have experienced some form of sexual abuse within their marriage. It is also known that estranged or ex-spouses sometimes use rape as a form of retaliation.
Myth: Only “bad” women get raped.
Fact: No other crime victim is looked upon with the degree of suspicion and doubt as a victim of rape. Although there are numerous reasons why society has cast blame on the victims of rape, a major reason found in studies is that of a feeling of self protection. If one believes that the victim was responsible because she put herself in an unsafe position, such as being out late at night, drinking alcohol, dressing in a certain way, or “leading on” the rapist, then we are able to feel safer because “we wouldn’t do those things.” But, the basic fact remains that without consent, no means no, no matter what the situation or circumstances. This is, perhaps, one of the most dangerous myths anybody can believe.
Myth: Sexual assault is an impulsive, spontaneous act.
Fact: Most rapes are carefully planned by the rapist. A rapist will rape again and again, usually in the same area of town and in the same way.
Myth: Rape is a crime of passion.
Fact: Rape is an act of VIOLENCE, not passion. it is an attempt to hurt and humiliate, using sex as the weapon.
Myth: Only women and gay men get raped.
FACT The vast majority of male rape victims, as well as their rapists, are heterosexual. Rapists are motivated by the desire to have power and control over another person, not by sexual attraction. Male rape is not homosexual rape. Many male victims do not report the assault because they fear further humiliation.