Take a moment to consider something we don’t always think about—a difficult topic that is rarely discussed: rape. We hear about it in the news, on social media, in public safety announcements, on TV. But we don’t always take the time to really think about rape. For example, if someone asked you for an explicit definition of rape right now, do you think you could give an accurate one?
If you’re as informed as the general public is, the answer to that question is probably no—and that’s okay! Because over the course of this blog series, we’ll be taking the time to break down the myths and facts about sexual violence.
Simply put, people tend to know more myths than facts about rape. Rape myths are dangerous because they normalize sexual violence and tell us that violence is the natural order of things. They say that only certain types of people can experience rape and only certain types of people can be perpetrators, which leads to victim-blaming and leaves the root causes of sexual violence unaddressed.
So why do people subscribe to rape myths?
- Because they believe in stereotypes and discriminatory ideas.
- Because they have never thought to question myths they have been told since childhood.
- Because the myths give them a sense of safety. For example, if you believe that women who dress provocatively are more likely to be raped, then you could take comfort in the idea that dressing modestly would protect you from violence.
It’s important that we recognize the myths that we ourselves hold about sexual violence because rape myths have serious consequences. Without critically rejecting them, we encourage perpetration, discourage bystander intervention, and promote victim blaming—sometimes without even realizing that we’re doing it.
People who accept rape myths are more likely to commit rape.
Rape myths act as a justification for perpetrators’ aggression—a way to rationalize what they’ve done as something other than violence. Perpetrators often believe that victims secretly want to be coerced into sex, or that they “deserve” to be raped. Rape myths allow perpetrators to justify their violent behaviors. And when bystanders make comments or jokes supporting rape myths, that encourages perpetrators and provides “cover” for their actions. In order to effectively prevent sexual violence in our society, we must address the common myths that support acceptance of rape, denigration of survivors, and impunity for perpetrators.
People who accept rape myths are less likely to intervene when they witness sexual violence.
Bystanders are less likely to intervene in cases of sexual assault when they accept rape myths. For example, a bystander may witness a situation in which someone is too drunk to consent, but they may not intervene because they accept the rape myth that victims are responsible for preventing their own assaults. When bystanders don’t intervene, rapists think their behavior is okay (or at least accepted by their peers), and it allows them to further rationalize the violence and continue to perpetrate.
People who accept rape myths are more likely to blame the victim.
Many rape myths disguise themselves as efforts to protect women—as “safety tips” to “prevent” rape. You’ve probably heard phrases like, “Use the buddy system,” “Don’t walk alone at night,” “Dress and act modestly,” or “Always carry a cell phone!” The idea that women are even partially responsible for preventing their own victimization leads to risk-reduction strategies that often encourage victim blaming. Regardless of the efficacy of these tips for any individual person, they fail to address the fundamental problem: the behavior of perpetrators.
Additionally, “while it’s not a bad thing for women to learn how to assess risk, learn self-defense, and learn how to define personal boundaries,” it puts the responsibility on the survivor to not be raped and does not guarantee their safety. Furthermore, if one person reduces their risk of rape by following a restrictive safety plan, they’re only trying to ensure that they’re not the person experiencing rape. This is not true prevention because the perpetrator will end up targeting someone else. Only by addressing perpetrator responsibility and active bystander intervention can we help make everyone safer and ensure that we are all able to live without fear and constraint.
The pervasive nature of common rape myths often plays a big role in keeping survivors silent, increasing feelings of self-blame and stigma that survivors experience after an assault. Identifying and recognizing harmful beliefs as myths can help us support survivors with compassion and without question.
In honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we are going to explore the following common myths and explain the facts that counter them over the next few weeks.
If you want to make an end to sexual violence in your community we hope that you’ll follow along and start important conversations with your friends and family about these damaging beliefs.