MYTHS ABOUT RAPE
To ever prevent rape, we need to be honest about the realities of rape as it is happening to people, as rape is being lived by its perpetrators and survivors. Instead, we have created a cloud of myth around rape to protect ourselves from some uncomfortable truths. These rape myths prevent our culture from progressing and perpetuate an environment of sexual violence.
Rape Myth #1: Stranger Rape
The Stranger Rape Myth is the idea that most rape is random and that rapists don't know their victims. The image that follows is of a crazy rapist waiting in the bushes or lurking in dark alleys. Stranger does happen and it absolutely real. Statistically, most victims and survivors are raped by people that they know. The Stranger Rape Myth is based on our societal need to distance ourselves from rapists. By calling them strangers, we can place perpetrators in the “other” category. This is much more comfortable than the darker truth of sexual violence: that the people who are raping our friends and abusing our children are our own friends, neighborhoods, coaches, and even family members. Perpetrators of sexual violence are not “other.” They are within our communities and are people that we know.
Rape Myth #2: Women should not (fill in the blank) because then they will get raped
Women are told they are not supposed to do a lot of things, lest they will get raped and/or murdered. Most women have heard these messages. Don't wear provocative clothing. Don't leave your house at night. Don't walk alone. Don't travel alone in unfamiliar places. Don't go running in the park alone. Don't go camping alone. Don't do anything alone. As someone who has traveled alone by bike, backpacking and hitchhiking, I cannot count how many times people have told me that I am “lucky” that I wasn't raped.
If women follow all of these “avoid being raped” messages, they severely limit the ways in which they can move through the world. The question is, does this practice actually protect women from violence? Just like the myth of stranger rape, these warnings are not based on the violence that is being perpetrated or experienced. 64% of women who reported being raped, physically assaulted, and/or stalked were victimized by a current or former husband, cohabiting partner, boyfriend, or date. (Full Report of the Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women, Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey, November, 2000). The most dangerous place for a woman, statistically and ironically, is the same place women are told to stay to protect themselves. If we were basing our violence prevention messages in reality, we would be telling women to carry mace in the kitchen and into the bedroom. Because the “don't walk through the woods alone” message is so divorced from reality, it does nothing to protect people from actual violence. So, what purpose does it serve? The fear of rape is used to control women and limit their lives. The threat of rape is used as an excuse to narrow what women ought to do and limit women's personal freedom.
Rape Myth #3: By carrying a rape whistle, you can prevent rape.
The discourse around how to prevent rape is completely wrong. Rape prevention is directed towards people who are rapable, not people who are rapists. Women are told to walk in groups, watch their drink, carry a rape whistle, take self-defense classes, etc. The warnings of “don't go to a party alone” have become a standard part of freshmen orientation at American colleges. Yet these warnings and women's efforts to follow them have not decreased actual incidents of rape. The warnings do, however, created a fertile ground for victim blaming. The idea that you can protect yourself from rape implies that if you do get raped, you did not do a good enough job of protecting yourself. You should have watched your drink. You shouldn't have wandered off by yourself. The implicit “you messed up” message of “rape prevention” culture is internalized by a lot of women who feel ashamed and/or stupid after being raped. Imagine a society in which the responsibility is placed where it belongs. Instead of telling women to limit the way they move through the world and to watch their backs we would tell everyone to obtain clear consent from their partners. And the only message we would ever send to survivors of sexual violence (and this cannot be said enough) is: IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT!
Rape myth #4: Rape is clear and obvious
The narrative of rape that we hear in the media is the story of a man overpowering a woman: with a knife, gun or sheer physical force, a man aggressively violates a woman as she tries to stop it, but cannot. The problem with the pervasiveness of this narrative is that, although it is one of the ways in which rape happens, it is not the only way. The experiences of survivors of rape and unwanted sexual experiences that fall outside of the paradigm of “forcible rape” are left with their experience unrecognized and delegitimized. If the sexual assault did not involve penetration, if the victim was drunk, if they said no but didn't really mean it or didn't say it enough-- then it’s not really rape. This inaccurate and narrow definition of rape creates the dramatic under-reporting and prosecution of rape in the United States. The US Justice Department estimates that only 26% of rapes and attempted rapes are ever reported to the police. And only 5% of perpetrators will ever spend a day in jail (US Dept of Justice, 2001)
This “all or nothing” definition of rape hurts survivors. Most survivors of sexual violence experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One of the first steps of healing from PTSD is naming and labeling the trauma. Survivors who don't meet the narrow definition of rape struggle to name what has happened to them. To even begin the process of healing, “imperfect” rape victims must overcome a culture that says what they have experienced does not meet the definition of rape; that what they have experienced has no name.
To adequately support survivors of sexual violence, we need to embrace fact that rape is not clear nor obvious. It is complicated. It can be ambiguous. It is often infinitely subtle. For example: you are my date and I have consented to having sex with you, but not consented to having sex with you without a condom. As we are both excitedly getting ready to have sex, you slip it in. I ask you to get a condom and you ignore me. I ask you to get a condom again and you hold me down. Is that rape? I would say yes. What would the police report say?
The problem with defining rape based on the victims words and actions is that everyone's sexual boundaries are different and any standard will leave some survivors in the “maybe it isn't” category. By this kind of measure, the experience of survivors can easily be determined to be invalid, their rape not traumatic enough.
But (people will say) if we abandon having a clear standard for rape how can we prevent it from happening? Instead of emphasizing whether or not a situation is technically or legally rape, let’s emphasize that all sexual encounters should clearly and obviously be consensual. The standard for measuring the health and integrity of sex should not be whether one of the parties acted in a criminal manner- but rather, the standard should be that the sex was pleasurable and empowering for all parties (however those parties experience pleasure and empowerment). We must shift the responsibility from the “perfect” rape victim who does everything in their power to fight off a rapist, to the responsible sexual partner who always obtains clear consent.
Rape myth #5: Rape is about sex
Rape is not about sex. Rape is about control. Rape is not about horny and sex-crazed men who cannot handle themselves. It is about perpetrators who want control so much that they choose to violated and take the control of another person's body. Rapists are not “out of control” Rapists are in complete control. Rape is an exercise and demonstration of power. This is why rape is used as a weapon of war.
The myth of the sex-crazed rapists supports other problems that surround rape culture, like victim-blaming. If you wear a short skirt or act sexually provocative you are “asking for it”. The idea that rape victims are sex objects is played out routinely in pop culture. Movies are full of gorgeous women being brutally raped and murdered; colloquial conversations are strung with axioms like “ugly girls don't get raped”. The gender roles of a predator/prey dynamic are constantly reinforced. The message that rape comes from uncontrollable male sexual desire teaches us that male sexual desire is dangerous. How are men supposed to develop healthy sexuality when their desire is held up as the main cause of rape? Our culture needs models of not only healthy masculine sexuality but also respectful and honest expressions of it. If male sexual desire was demystified and respected, instead of limited and vilified, its expression would come out less often as violence and more often as consensual (and hopefully awesome) sex!
Rape myth #6: Rapists are monsters.
Rapists are not monsters. Rapists are people that have done something wrong. Through sexual predator labels and lists we vilify rapists and perpetrators of sexual violence. People want clear categories for the type of person that would do something so horrible and want that category to be clearly different and separate from mainstream society. But, as explained above, most of the perpetrators of sexual violence are people that we know. They are us. The perpetrators of sexual violence are not imagined, crazy perverts, but rather our neighbors, family members, football coaches and religious leaders. To prevent sexual violence we need to honestly confront who is committing these atrocities. To adequately deal with the reality of who is committing these crimes, we need a more complicated approach towards perpetrators that integrates the violence of their acts with the reality of their humanity.
While we recognize the need for our society to have a more holistic approach to perpetrators of sexual violence to move towards ending sexual violence, we feel that survivors have the right to feel HOWEVER they want about their perpetrators and abusers. Too often our culture tells survivors how they should feel about their experiences. Sexual violence is a deeply person experience. How to feel about the person who violated you is a deeply personal decision. If you think they are the scum of the earth, that is OK. If part of your process of healing is forgiving the person who violated you, that is OK too.
The myth of rapists as monsters gives us a false sense of security. If child molesters are strange, anonymous men driving white vans, then by successfully avoiding strange white vans, we can successfully avoid sexual abuse. But children who are sexually abused are more likely to be abused by a family member than by a stranger. How can we teach our children to avoid sexually abusive parents and uncles? Actually preventing sexual violence is messier and more difficult than our culture has accepted. We perpetuate these myths about rapists to avoid that messy and complicated process.
If only monsters perpetrate sexual violence, what happens when a woman is raped by her husband, who she loves, and who is not a monster? What do you do when you coach does something sexually inappropriate? Or if you think you saw your neighbor touch a child, but you could not imagine her to be that type of person? Vilifying perpetrators silences victims. Because most victims and witnesses intimately know the abuser or rapist, and because the label of abuser or rapist is so extreme, people struggle to speak up about sexual violence. We don't want to label people we know as monsters, even though they've committed monstrous acts. To adequately support the victims abused, raped and molested by the people they know and love, we need a more complicated approach towards perpetrators that integrates the violence of their acts with the reality of their humanity.
The hindering effect of vilifying rapists is that it stops the conversation at “rape is wrong”. If we are ever going to prevent rape we need a conversation that goes beyond “rape is wrong and done by bad people”. Categorizing rapists as awful people and separate from us puts a neat ribbon on the whole rape discussion bundle so that we can collectively avoid the more uncomfortable topic. The more uncomfortable topic being: What in our culture and what in ourselves creates this epidemic of sex as violence