Rape one of the of the most ubiquitous, prevalent, and invisible issues affecting our society, both currently and historically. Those who have experienced rape or sexual assault often deal with their crisis silently. This is due in large part to the cultural, social, and psychological barriers that make open discourse about sexual trauma feel stigmatizing to survivors and uncomfortable for their audience.
This blog post will make an effort to lean into that discomfort in an effort to provide education about rape myths (particularly their prevalence on college campuses), and dispel misconceptions about sexual assault, rape, and its survivors that contribute to a culture that minimizes or dismisses the seriousness of sexual violence.
Defining the term “rape” is a logical place to begin. Most people kind of just assume that they understand what rape is but would likely hesitate if put on the spot to provide a concise explanation. The difficulty in accurately summarizing the definition of rape demonstrates its ambiguous nature and the serious issues that this ambiguity causes.
Put simply, rape is a form of sexual assault involving non-consensual sexual activity or penetration. It’s an act committed without the explicit and voluntary consent of the other person. The definition and legal understanding of rape can vary by jurisdiction, but generally, it involves these factors:
- Non-Consent: Sexual activity occurs without the explicit consent of one of the involved parties. This lack of consent can be due to various factors, including coercion, force, intimidation, incapacity to give consent (due to intoxication or being unconscious), or being underage.
- Penetration: In many legal definitions, rape involves penetration, which can include vaginal, anal, or oral penetration by any body part or object, without the victim’s consent.
It is important to make clear that rape affects individuals of all genders and there can be greater fear of stigmatization from male survivors, due to collective cultural beliefs about sex and power. With that said, it is equally important to recognize that out of all the survivors of rape and sexual assault, 91 percent are women and 9 percent are male.
The reality that rape disproportionally affects women is relevant and crucial in understanding rape myths. Because while above definition of rape may sound straightforward enough, college women are reported to have a difficult time identifying themselves as victims of rape because they often experience sexual assault in an ambiguous way that does not fit neatly into the framework of the cultural “rape script”. And if women experience sexual assault and do not label the event as rape, it becomes necessary to examine how current cultural myths are influencing the interpretation of the event.
Rape myths are widely held and accepted false beliefs or misconceptions about rape and sexual assault. A sociologist named Michelle E. Deming defined them more bluntly as “socially learned ideologies that excuse sexual violence against women and advocate that women should accept responsibility for their sexual victimization”.
That may sound hyperbolic, but Deming came to this conclusion after conducting a study in which college women were presented with three vignettes, each of which depicted different scenarios that met the legal criteria for rape. However, each vignette was purposely made ambiguous by the presence of cultural rape myths. The primary aim of this study was determining the extent to which women used rape myths to interpret and understand experiences of sexual violence.
Results of the study showed that women dismissed the first two scenarios as “not rape” based on some combination of the following myths:
Excusing the man: attempting to understand the motivation for the man’s behavior and excusing him based on “miscommunication”, “alcohol” or “misread signals”.
- Justifying acquaintance rape: the logic behind this is that rape is only committed by strangers in dark alleys. On the contrary, most sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim, such as a friend, acquaintance, or even a partner or family member.
- Blaming the woman: this myth suggests that a victim’s behavior, clothing, or actions somehow justify or invite sexual assault.
The women only endorsed rape in third and final vignette, which depicted a clear instance of rape in which there was no alcohol and no prior or existing relationship between the man and woman.
In summary, rape myths take the form of phrases such as: “it wasn’t really rape”, “he didn’t mean to do it”, “she wanted it”, or “she lied”. Rape myths also suggest that a woman automatically assumes partial responsibility for her sexual assault if she was wearing a certain type of clothing, had a certain demeanor, was drinking alcohol, or was walking alone at night.
Impact on Individuals
The experience of rape is associated with feelings of significant and persistent psychological distress, often which take the form of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Previous research has failed to take into account treatment for the unacknowledged victims of rape. The controversy around this issue centers on the question of whether individuals can be traumatized by the experience of sexual assault if they do not define the incident as rape or regard themselves as victims. Although typically less violent in nature, there is moderately strong evidence that suggests instances of unacknowledged sexual assault can be a traumatizing experience; the fact that the victim did not acknowledge the rape does not negate this fact. Indeed, up to 30 percent of responses by victims of unacknowledged rape suggested that met the criteria for PTSD.
The effects of sexual assault can be long-lasting. Survivors may struggle with intimacy, experience difficulties in education or employment, and face challenges in various aspects of their lives due to the trauma they’ve endured.
Changing the Script
It is important to recognize that college women live in a cultural environment that defines their social reality; they come to define their own experiences within the norms of their social groups. These norms influence how women define and interpret incidents of rape, the degree of personal responsibility they feel and the likelihood that they will report the incident. Challenging these misconceptions is crucial to creating a more supportive environment for survivors and fostering a culture that promotes consent, respect, and understanding of the realities of sexual violence.
Breaking the rape taboo involves fostering an environment where open and empathetic discussions about sexual violence are encouraged. It requires:
- Education and Awareness: Increasing awareness through education about consent, healthy relationships, and the realities of sexual violence can help break down misconceptions and empower individuals to speak up.
- Supportive Spaces: Creating safe and supportive spaces where survivors can share their experiences without fear of judgment or stigma is crucial.
- Challenging Stereotypes and Myths: Addressing and debunking prevalent myths and stereotypes about sexual violence helps change perceptions and encourages open dialogue.
- Advocacy and Empowerment: Encouraging advocacy efforts, supporting survivors’ rights, and empowering individuals to stand against sexual violence are essential in breaking the taboo.
By dismantling the barriers that prevent open discussion, societies can work towards creating environments where survivors are supported, perpetrators are held accountable, and conversations about sexual violence are normalized and treated with sensitivity and understanding.
Resources for individuals affected by rape or sexual assault are crucial for support, guidance, and healing.
- National Sexual Assault Helpline: 1-800-656-4673
- RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization.
- RAINN provides an abundance of information on their website about sexual assault, resources for survivors, and steps to take after an assault.
- RAINN also offers the option to online with a trained staff member who can provide confidential crisis support.
Counseling and Therapy: Mental health professionals, therapists, or counselors specializing in trauma and sexual assault can offer therapy sessions aimed at healing and coping with the aftermath of assault.
Seeking Mental Health Support
When seeking help or resources, it’s essential to find reputable organizations or professionals experienced in dealing with sexual assault cases. Consider scheduling an appointment with Chicago Counseling Center. Our therapists can provide guidance, support, and strategies tailored to your specific needs. Meet our team to learn more!
Deming, M., Covan, E., Swan, S., & Billings, D. (2013). Exploring rape myths, gendered norms, group processing, and the social contex of rape among college women: A qualitative analysis. Violence Against Women, 19(4), 465-485.