The Lies Rape Myths Tell Us and Why We have to Dispel Them by Jessica Smythe

Rape myths are stereotyped and false beliefs about sexual assaults, rapists and rape victims. They often serve to excuse sexual violence, create hostility toward victims and can lead to bias in criminal prosecution. Rape myths significantly influence the perspectives of jurors and in many cases lead to victim blaming, they originate from various cultural stereotypes such as traditional gender roles and acceptance of interpersonal violence. Rape myths are very common. Schwendinger and Schwendinger identified the concept of rape myths in 1974. Feminists such as Brownmiller (1975) supported the concept defining rape myths as cultural beliefs which ‘deliberately obscure the true nature of rape’ (p.312.). In layman terms, rape myths are just that; myths or inaccurate beliefs which skew perception of rape.

Such myths often attempt to justify why rape has occurred. An example of this type of myth would be ‘they were intoxicated’ or ‘she was wearing a short skirt’; thus there is a reason for why the incident occurred. These type of ‘she asked for it’ rape myths preserve victim blaming. That is, they imply that the incident occurred in relation to the survivor’s behaviours and not the perpetrators. It gives the idea that perhaps if the survivor was not intoxicated/wearing a short skirt, then the sexual violence may not have happened.

There are other variations of rape myths other than ‘she asked for it’. Further rape myth themes, identified by Fitzgerald (1999), include ‘he did not mean to’, ‘it was not really rape’ and ‘she liked it’. Again, these act as a way to justify the event.

Although these myths are common, they are not set in stone. Society tends to change with time, especially when people push for change. For example, before 1918, women were not able to vote. Before 2014, same-sex marriage was not allowed. Of course, this is not the case now. Things can change when action takes place so lets get this topic heard!

Rape myth busters

1. STEREOTYPE: A rapist is a stranger.

REALITY: 90% of the most serious sexual offences (rape or sexual assault) are committed by someone the victim knows (McGregor, 2017; Waterhouse, Reynolds & Egan, 2016; rapecrisis.org.uk)

2. STEREOTYPE: Rape only happens in dark alleys

REALITY:  60% of rape attacks happen inside a building, and for 31%-39% of rape attacks occur in their own home, followed by the offender’s home (24%), followed by in a park, other open public space or on the street (9%) (Office for National Statistics and Home Office 2017; Waterhouse, Reynolds & Egan, 2016; rapecrisis.org.uk; Planty, Langton, Krebs, Berzofsky, & Smiley-McDonald 2013) 

3. STEREOTYPE: Rape only happens to certain types of people.

REALITY: Rape can happen to anybody whatever their gender, class, race, ability, or age. (rapecrisis.org.uk; Rayner & Gardner, 2015) 

4. STEREOTYPE: People who get drunk or take drugs or do not take personal safety precautions should not be surprised if they are raped or sexually assaulted and must take some of the blame.

REALITY:  No one deserves to be raped or sexually assaulted. Being vulnerable does not imply consent. If someone is under the influence of alcohol or drugs or is unconscious, then they are not able to consent. As the Sexual Offences Act, (2003) states, when a person lacks the choice or capacity to consent, then the fault and responsibility lies at 100% with the rapist and not the victim (rapecrisis.org.uk)

5. STEREOTYPE: Only attractive women and girls, who are flirtatious and dress provocatively, are raped.

REALITY: What someone was wearing when they are raped or how they behave is irrelevant. A person’s behaviour or clothing choices is not an invitation to sex, nor does it mean that they are consenting to sex (rapecrisis.org.uk). Additionally, women with disabilities are just as likely or more likely to experience sexual violence compared to a woman with no disability (Nixon, Thomas, Dafern & Ogloff, 2016; Womenshealth.gov 2018). 

 6. STEREOTYPE: Women say "no" but they mean "yes".

REALITY: When anyone says "no" they mean "no". Sex without consent is rape. Women are in fact more worried about rape than any other crime (Scott, 2003; rapecrisis.org.uk).

 7. STEREOTYPE: They did not struggle, so they were not raped.

REALITY: There are three possible survival responses to a traumatic event like rape: fight, flight or freeze. Freezing involves more than just us stopping ourselves from moving. Instead freezing is controlled by the logical part of our brains, it is an instinctive response, where we have no control. Therefore, many people who are sexually attacked are unable to move or speak from fear, shock or because they are incapacitated (involuntary paralysis). Freezing can be one of the most common reactions during rape (Waterhouse, Reynolds & Egan, 2016; rape crisis at: https://www.rapecrisisscotland.org.uk/i-just-froze/)

8. STEREOTYPE: If a victim experiences an orgasm or an erection during sexual assault or rape, then that means they wanted it, enjoyed it and were not assaulted.

✓      REALITY: Orgasm and erection result from physiological reactions and cannot be controlled mentally. Therefore, the experience of physiological pleasure during rape is not related to whether an act is rape or not (rapecrisis.org.uk). 

9. STEREOTYPE: People lie about being raped because they seek attention or regret having sex.

REALITY: In fact, as the media focuses greatly on false rape allegations, the public perception about people lying about sexual assault is very common. However, false allegations of rape are very rare. Instead, the many of victims will decide not to report, mainly because they feel they will not be believed (rapecrisis.org.uk; Lonsway, Archambault, & Lisak, 2009). 

10. STEREOTYPE: ‘Real’ victims report rape immediately.

REALITY: People often do not report rape immediately because of societal pressure, the fear of not being believed and trauma. Telling someone about what has happened can be incredibly difficult (Grubb & Harrowe 2008). 

11. STEREOTYPE: Someone who has willingly drunk lots of alcohol or taken drugs should not then complain about being raped.

REALITY: In law, consent must be fully and freely given by someone with the capacity to do so. If a person is unconscious or incapacitated by alcohol or drugs, they are unable to give their consent to sex. Having sex with a person who is incapacitated through alcohol or drugs is therefore rape. No-one deserves to be raped or sexually assaulted; 100% of the responsibility lies with the perpetrator (rapecrisis.org.uk). 38% of victims of rape or sexual assault were under the influence of alcohol. 2% of victims chosen to take drugs.

12. STEREOTYPE: It’s only rape if someone is physically forced into sex and has the injuries to show for it.

REALITY: Many people who are raped do not sustain any internal and/or external injuries are unlikely (rapecrisis.org.uk; TeBockhorst, O’Halloran, & Nyline 2014). Many people who are sexually attacked are unable to move or speak from fear and shock (involuntary paralysis). Attackers will sometimes use weapons or threats of violence to prevent a physical struggle or sometimes they will take advantage of someone who is not able to consent, because they are drunk or asleep for example. Just because someone does not have visible injuries, does not mean they were not raped (Grubb & Harrowe 2008; Waterhouse, Reynolds & Egan, 2016; rapecrisis.org.uk; TeBockhorst, O’Halloran, & Nyline 2014). 

13. STEREOTYPE: If two people have had sex with each other before, it’s always OK to have sex again.

REALITY: If a person is in a relationship with someone or has had sex with them before, this does not mean that they cannot be sexually assaulted or raped by that person. Consent must be given and received every time people engage in sexual contact. It is important to check in with our sexual partners and make sure that anything sexual that happens between us is what we all want, every time. 90% of the most serious sexual offences are committed by someone they know (McGregor, 2017; Waterhouse, Reynolds & Egan, 2016; rapecrisis.org.uk; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 2011).

14. STEREOTYPE: Rape within a marriage or relationship does not exist

REALITY: Rape within a marriage or relationship does exist and does happen (rapecrisis.org.uk). The Office for National Statistics and Home Office (2017) estimated 3.6% of victims have experienced domestic sexual assault by a partner or family member. Around three times as many adults experienced sexual assault (including attempts) by a partner (3.1%) than by a family member (0.9%).

15. STEREOTYPE: A man being sexually assaulted by a male attacker is synonymous with the loss of masculinity.

REALITY: Men who are sexually assaulted are not less masculine. Raped is a serious and traumatising experience which happens to both men and women (rapecrisis.org.uk). 12% of men reported being raped or sexually assaulted in the last year (2017) and only 20% of male victim’s report to the police. Therefore, 80% of men who have experienced rape or sexually assault do not report to the police (The Office for National Statistics and Home Office 2017). 

16. STEREOTYPE: Men who are sexually assaulted by a male attacker must be gay.

REALITY: Being the target of rape has nothing to do with a man’s sexuality (rapecrisis.org.uk). Office for National Statistics and Home Office (2017) revealed men are 3 times more likely to experience rape or sexual assault by someone they know compared to a stranger. 12% of men reported being raped or sexually assaulted in the last year (British Crime Survey 2009 to 2010). 

 

Consequences

Rape myths can be helpful in the sense that they create fake security. For example, a female who wears baggy jeans might think that she is exempt from experiencing any form of sexual violence because she ‘doesn’t wear short skirts’, thus feeling safer in society. However, as seen above (Ref: myth buster 3&5), no one is excused from experiencing an attack, short skirt or baggy jeans.

While these myths may be subconsciously used to create security, the acceptance of rape myths has considerable consequences. For example, the suggestion that ‘the victim liked it’ (aforementioned rape myth theme) in order to contest rape incidents can increase unacknowledgement. That is, the survivor may not know they have been raped. Lack of acknowledgment has been demonstrated in a study by Gavey (2013). A group of females who had been raped were interviewed about the incident. Despite the incident matching that of the legal definition of rape, the majority of females in the study did not identify their experience as rape, possibly due to the acceptance of rape myths. This is problematic as it may mean the incident in not reported to the police or that the survivor doesn’t get the support they need.

Rape myth acceptance also effects areas beyond acknowledgement, including the judicial system. Thomas (2010) found that the jury often consist of white, middle class men. Such demographics hold a greater acceptance of rape myths than other ethnicities and class (Grubb & Turner, 2012) thus attributing to victim blaming. This is an issue because jury individuals are responsible for the conviction of a perpetrator and if they are more likely to victim blame, the outcome is unlikely to be favourable for the survivor. This is another severe consequence of rape myth acceptance.

So why do individuals hold rape myths?

In short, it is possible that people accept rape myths because rape is misunderstood. The Sexual Offences Act (2003) defines rape as an individual penetrating another individual’s vagina, anus or mouth with his penis when the victim does not consent. This definition identifies that the factor defining good sex from rape is consent. However, in one study, a sample were given non-consensual sexual scenarios (rape). Only 65% were acknowledged as rape (Cook & Messman-Moore, 2018). This implies that other situational factors are considered when identifying rape. Research by Hills et al. (2019) has found that factors such as wanting and pleasure influence whether an incident is rape.

The only factor which should be used to identify rape, in line with the legal definition, is consent. Thus, the research shows how rape is misunderstood when relying on factors such as pleasure to identify rape. Therefore, if an individual uses a factor such as pleasure to identify rape, they are likely to hold the rape myth belief of ‘she/he liked it so it can’t have been rape’.

Although rape myths are engrained into society, this does not have to be the case forever, we can mould the society which we want to live in. Research is being conducted, even as you read his, to identify ways to reduce the acceptance of rape myths including the development of campaigns. However, we do not have to wait for such research to be completed, we can all make a difference. We can educate ourselves around the topic, be open minded and if you witness rape myth acceptance in others (and feel safe enough to) challenge their views in a respectful way.

 Jessica Smythe studied MSc Investigative Forensic Psychology at Bournemouth University and is a STARS Dorset volunteer.

All images by Jayne Jackson for the photography exhibition "Asking For It" which challenges victim blaming. Further details here: https://www.jaynejacksonphotography.co.uk/asking-for-it 

References:

Brownmiller, S. (1975). Against our will: Men, women, and rape. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Cook, N. K., & Messman-Moore, T. L. (2018). I said no: The impact of voicing non-consent on women’s perceptions of and responses to rape. Violence against women24(5), 507-527.

Gavey, N. (2013). Just sex?: The cultural scaffolding of rape. Routledge.

Grubb, A., & Turner, E. (2012). Attribution of blame in rape cases: A review of the impact of rape myth acceptance, gender role conformity and substance use on victim blaming. Aggression and Violent Behavior17(5), 443-452.

Home Office (2003). Sexual Offences Act. London: Crown Copyright.

Hills, P. J., Seib, E., Pleva, M., Smythe, J., Gosling, M. R., & Cole, T. (2019). Consent, wantedness, and pleasure: Three dimensions affecting the perceived stress of and judgements of rape in sexual encounters. Journal of experimental psychology: applied.

Schwendinger, J. R., & Schwendinger, H. (1974). Rape myths: In legal, theoretical, and everyday practice. Crime and Social Justice, (1), 18-26.

Thomas, C. (2010). Are juries fair? (pp. 1-65). London: Ministry of Justice. Retrieved July 20, 2019, from https://www.justice.gov.uk/downloads/publications/research-and-analysis/moj-research/are-juries-fair-research.pdf