Myths and Realities about Sexual Assault

Adapted from information provided by Sexual Assault Support Services; Eaves and Eaves, 1993; US Department of Justice

When we begin to examine our society's prevalent beliefs about sexual assault and abuse, we come to recognize the ways in which sexual violence is implicitly condoned through cultural beliefs.  Many cultural myths fall into four categories: those which blame the victim (she was wearing a short skirt), those which excuse the perpetrator and his/her choice to use force to gain power and control (he couldn't control his sexual needs), those which blame a third, external factor for the assault or abuse (he/she was drinking), and those which pertain to how sexual assault is generally viewed in our society.

Myths which blame the victim:

Myth: The survivor must have 'asked for it' by the way they dressed or acted
Reality:
Blaming the survivor is used as a tool to rationalize why such a horrific crime happened.  No person should be sexually assaulted because of how they walk, dress, or act.

Myth: Nice girls don't get sexually assaulted - she must have secretly wanted it
Reality:
No one wants to be sexually assaulted; it is not enjoyed, expected, or 'asked for.'  It is a crime of violence, degradation, and humiliation resulting from the perpetrator's disregard and lack of concern for the personal sanctity and wishes of another.

Myth: Only young, beautiful women are sexually assaulted
Reality
: Sexual assault can happen to babies, the elderly, and people in every age group in between.  Men are also sexually assaulted.  Vulnerability, or perceived vulnerability, not physical appearance, is the major factor in sexual assault.  Sexual assault cuts across lines of race, sex, class, age, sexual orientation, and background.

Myth: It's only rape if the survivor puts up a fight and resists
Reality:
Just because a person did not physically put up a fight, does not mean that s/he consented to sexual activity.  There are many reasons why a survivor may not put up a fight to resist their attacker.  They may feel that fighting or resisting will make their attacker angry, resulting in more severe injury.  They may not fight or resist as a coping mechanism for dealing with the trauma or because they are not physically able to do so due to injury, intoxication, or disability.  

Myth: All survivors of sexual assault will report the crime immediately to the police.  If they do not, they're lying.
Reality:
There are many reasons why a sexual assault survivor may not report the assault to the police.  It is not easy to talk about being sexually assaulted for many people.  Other reasons for not immediately reporting or not reporting at all may include: fear of retaliation by the offender, fear of not being believed, fear of being blamed for the assault, fear of being "revictimized" if the case goes through the criminal justice system, belief that the offender will not be held accountable, wanting to forget the assault ever happened, not realizing that what happened was sexual assault, shame, and/or shock.  Because a person chooses not to report at all or does not report immediately, does not mean the assault never occurred.

Myth: If a person goes to his or her date's room in a house or goes to the bar, he or she assumes the risk of sexual assault.
Reality:
This "assumption of risk" wrongfully places the responsibility of the offender's actions with the victim.  Even if a 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.  Explicit consent should be given for every stage of sexual activity.

Myth: If she was drinking, it was her fault she got raped
Reality:
Alcohol is often used to blame the survivor while simultaneously it is used to excuse the perpetrator.  This reasoning is masked behind our cultural expectations for women and men in terms of sexuality; women are expected to be the gatekeepers, while men are expected to be the aggressors.  Hence, there is an assumption that she shouldn't have made herself vulnerable, and he was only doing what was natural in that out-of-control drunkenness.  Responsibility for the rape is wrongly displaced from the perpetrator to the victim in this way. If a person is drunk, they are incapable of giving consent.

Myths which excuse the perpetrator:

Myth: The primary motive for sexual assault is sexual
Reality:
Sexual assault is an act of power, humiliation, control and violence that is achieved through act of forcible sex.

Myth: Rape is an impulsive act; rapists are motivated by an uncontrollable sexual desire
Reality:
Eighty to ninety percent of all rapes are pre-planned.  Both the place and the victim are usually decided on beforehand.  Rape is not a crime about sex, but rather a violent crime about power and control.  The rapist's primary goal is not sexual satisfaction, but to control, hurt, and humiliate the survivor.

Myth: A sexual act must include a weapon to be defined as rape or sexual assault
Reality:
Only in 20% of sexual assaults is a weapon used.  In these cases, a weapon was more likely to be used by an offender who was a stranger to the victim.  A weapon need not be present for an assault to occur.

Myths which blame an external factor on sexual assault:

Myth: 'One too many' doesn't matter
Reality:
Seventy to eighty percent of one or both individuals involved in acquaintance rape (survivor and rapist) have been drinking prior to the assault.  If a person is drunk or unconscious, they are incapable of giving consent.  Perpetrators may blame the sexual assault on alcohol, but no amount of alcohol could force someone to commit a sexual assault.  Only a perpetrator can make sexual assault happen.

Myths about the way sexual assault is generally viewed by society:

Myth: Most rapists are apprehended and brought to prosecution   
Reality:
Only one rapist in 20 is ever arrested, one in 30 is prosecuted, and one in 60 is ever convicted.  This is the lowest conviction rate for any violent crime.

Myth: You can't be raped by your partner
Reality:
In the US, a woman is more likely to be raped, assaulted, injured or killed by a male partner than any other type of assailant.  Although rarely recognized and named as rape, sexual abuse is frequently used to gain power and control by abusive partners.

Myth: All rapists and abusers come from poor backgrounds.  Interracial rapes are most common.
Reality:
Rape and abuse are committed by people from all ethnic, racial, and socio-economic backgrounds.  Although it may still be easier to convict African-American men who rape White women, most rapes occur between people of the same racial, cultural, and economic groups.  FBI statistics of reported rapes show that less than 10% are interracial.  Furthermore, while it may be more difficult for abusers of lower socio-economic classes to hide their abuse due to a higher rate of interaction with social service agencies than their wealthier counterparts, abuse and sexual assault occurs throughout all classes.

Myth: Rape usually happens in dark alleys and streets.  Most people are raped by strangers.
Reality:
Studies show that more than fifty percent of rapes occur in the survivor’s home/living space.  Thirty-four percent of assaults happen in the daytime.  Eighty-five percent of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows and in some capacity trusts.

Myth: Abuse and sexual assault do not occur in same-sex relationships
Reality:
These crimes occur at about the same rate in same-sex relationships as they do in heterosexual partnerships.  It may be more difficult for lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered people to get help or to speak about sexual assault or abuse due to threats by the offender to reveal their sexual orientation to others or out of fear that revealing the violence will also reveal their sexuality within the context of our homophobic culture.

Myth: Men can't be sexually assaulted
Reality:
Although the majority of rape survivors are women, studies suggest one in every ten victims is male.  Male survivors may have a difficult time seeking help for the trauma as they face our culture's rigid stereotypes of masculinity; they may have their sexuality called into question by the assault as they work through the trauma.  Most sexual assaults against men are committed by other men who are non-discerning of the gender of the victim.  Sexual assault is a crime that involves using power and control over another individual where an imbalance of power exists due to age, size, power, development, or knowledge.  While gender is the primary risk factor for sexual assault, any of these factors may also occur with the assault of a male.

Myth: Men who rape other men are gay
Reality:
Rape is not about sexual orientation or desire - it is an act of power and control.  A survey of convicted rapists found that at least half of these men did not care about the sex of their victim - they raped both men and women.

Myth: People lie about rape for revenge or attention
Reality
: While rape is the most frequently committed violent crime, it is also the least reported.  Rape is falsely reported at about the same rate as any other crime - 3%.

Myth: A person who has really been sexually assaulted will be hysterical
Reality:
Victims of sexual violence exhibit a spectrum of responses to the assault, which can include: calm, hysteria, withdrawal, anger, apathy, denial, and shock. There is no "right way" to react to being sexually assaulted.  Assumptions about the way a victim "should act" may be detrimental to the victim because each victim copes with the trauma of sexual assault in different ways that can vary over time.

Myth: If one person spends a lot of money on a date, the other person is obligated to have sex with them
Reality:
Coerced and forced sex as a 'payment method' for an expensive date is rape and it is against the law.

Myth: Rapists are sex-starved deviants with long criminal records
Reality:
The typical rapist is married or partnered and has a sexual relationship with that person.  S/he is sixteen to twenty-five years old at the time of his/her first rape and is socially accepted into the community.  Furthermore, as we know that 85% of all survivors know their rapists, the typical rapist may be raping the partner with whom s/he has a sexual relationship.

Myth: A college male who has raped an acquaintance is not likely to ever repeat the behavior
Reality:
The majority of men who commit acquaintance rape have done so repeatedly.  For them, acquaintance rape is just part of the social game.  They do not stop to think about what they are doing or how it will affect their date.  They rationalize the behavior through the faulty logic of 'hesitation games,' stating that the date really wanted to have sex, but didn't want to appear too 'easy' so he had to push her more insistently. Consent is not the lack of negative feedback; it is the presence of a positive and non-coerced yes.