When it comes to rape, there are a lot of things we think we know - or at least that many people believe. But in my opinion, attitudes about rape and sexual violence need to change. And that starts with getting the facts straight. So here's one: The FBI estimates that only 37 percent of all sexual assaults are reported. Surprised? Here we debunk 10 other big myths about rape and sexual violence. (Have you survived sexual trauma? Read Sex After Sexual Assault: How to Find Joy After Trauma.)
Myth 1: Most rapes are perpetrated by strangers.Fact: Statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice show that no more than 26 percent of reported rapes are perpetrated by a stranger. In fact, 26 percent of rapes are committed by a current or former intimate partner, and 45 percent occur at the hands of a friend or relative. So, the notion that rape is something that happens in a dark alleyway at night doesn't reflect reality for a large number of victims (check out the next myth for more details). By believing this myth, it becomes easier for other people - and even victims - to question the legitimacy of most rapes.
Myth 2: Rape occurs outside at night.Fact: Fifty to 70 percent of rapes occur in the victim’s home or another residence. By believing that rape is committed by bogeymen in the night, we choose to remain ignorant of what rape so often involves: victimization at the hands of a partner or acquaintance. Plus, when we believe that rape occurs at night, we propagate the notion that a woman is safer when she stays at home. And this puts the blame for rapes that do occur outdoors and in the dark squarely on the victim. It implies that by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, victims were setting themselves up. In reality, all the blame should fall to the perpetrator.
Myth 3: Rape occurs on an impulse, for sexual gratification.Fact: Rape is about aggression, and sexual assault is used to inflict violence on a victim. According to a study in the Journal of American College Health in 1991, the majority of acquaintance rapes are planned in advance. Other studies suggest that between 75 and 90 percent of all rapes involve some degree of premeditation. Rape isn't about sexual gratification, it's about having control over another person.
Myth 4: Rape is not a big issue.Fact: Rape is the most underreported crime, and it is growing quickly. According to the FBI, one in three women and one in five men will be sexually victimized in their lifetime. Think about it: Chances are that several people you know have been or will become victims of sexual violence.
Myth 5: Rape happens to those who are "asking for it."Fact: Rape is a crime. In most crimes, we put the blame on the criminal. In cases of rape, blame is often placed on the victim. Society rewards women for being sexually attractive, and then blames them for being too attractive when they are raped. This double-standard is another important component of victim-blaming.
Myth 6: Victims of rape can only be women.Fact: Statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice state that 9 percent of people whose rape accusations result in a conviction are male, but the belief that men can't be raped makes it much more difficult for male victims to receive the help they need. This also makes it more unlikely for male victims to seek out help or report the crime. By the same token, perpetrators of rape can also be women. Not believing that women can be perpetrators makes it less likely that those rapes will be reported - and that female perpetrators will be punished for their crimes.
Myth 7: Women lie about being raped.Fact: The rate of false reporting for rape or sexual abuse is about the same as for any other crime - 2 percent. That's a pretty small group of liars, but when we choose to believe that most reports are likely to be lies, we fail to take real victims seriously when they reach out for help. This encourages more victims to keep their experiences private.
Myth 8: Only attractive, young women are raped.Fact: Victims of rape range from infants to the elderly. Perpetrators choose their victims based on vulnerability, not appearance.
Myth 9: Rape always involves physical harm.Fact: It's easy to assume that rape is always something physically violent, leaving behind bruises, broken bones and other injuries. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, about 75 percent of victims seek medical care following an assault. The problem is that when victims sustain no or only minor injuries, they are faulted for "not fighting back." What we forget is that the main priority of the victim is to survive the attack and prevent harm. Only the victim knows what was required of them to maximize their potential for survival. When we criticize a rape victim for not putting up a fight, it suggests that his or her sexual integrity is worth more than their life.
Myth 10: Good people do not get raped, only bad people do.Fact: Rape can - and does - happen to people of all ages, backgrounds and walks of life. Just check out these statistics on the demographics of sexual assault victims. Believing in this myth allows for us to feel safe, and makes it easier to look down on rape victims.
When it comes to rape, it's important for everyone to question their beliefs. After all, they may include the myths that allow rape to continue, and make recovering from sexual assault that much more painful for victims.