We all live in a society where rape is defined and sometimes rationalized according to underlying cultural norms, attitudes, and practices. As a result, when victims are choosing a path to recovery from rape, their fear of a non-supportive response by those around them may be a reality.
When we consider societal views and the common misconceptions surrounding rape, we can better understand the challenges survivors of sexual violence face.
Myth: When someone is raped, they get over it pretty quickly.
Reality: Studies show that recovering from rape can take several years for some. In one study, 26% of survivors had not recovered four to six years after being raped (Koss, 1993).
Myth: There is something wrong with survivors who are still having symptoms and reactions to a rape moths or years later.
Reality: Since so many victims have never discussed the violence with anyone, they frequently continue to have symptoms because they have never had an opportunity to get help. Compounding this, their sense of shame and guilt may increase their symptoms. Sexual violence is profoundly traumatic, and it is completely appropriate for victims’ symptoms and reactions to occur in a dramatic scope parallel to the severity of this trauma. A victim who is experiencing post traumatic symptoms and reactions needs and deserves proper therapeutic intervention.
Myth: Sexual violence survivors usually have immediate medical needs.
Reality: Between half and two-thirds of victims sustain NO physical trauma. Of those who are injured, about half receive formal medical care. Half of all victims who are seen by providers after the rape have some degree of vaginal or perineal trauma. Sexually transmitted diseases occur in approximately 3 to 30% of survivors. Although these medical problems are the immediate results of the violence, many survivors have symptoms and illnesses that affect their lives many years after the violence.
Myth: Most people who are vicitms of sexual violence tell someone about it.
Reality: Studies find that over 90% of women have never told anyone about the sexual assault (Friedman, Samet et al., 1992).
Myth: Many women who “cry rape” are making it up.
Reality: Rigorous research shows that only between two and eight percent of all reported sexual assaults are false reports, which means the overwhelming majority of reports are true (Lonsway, Archambault, & Lisak, 2009).
Myth: A person who is assaulted by someone she/he knows has less to fear than someone raped by a stranger.
Reality: Individuals who are violated by someone they know may have more fears than those who were violated by a stranger. These may focus on concerns about retaliation, betrayal of trust, the perpetrator threatening to harm family members, as well as his having continued access to the victim. Rape by an acquaintance is no less traumatic or real than rape by a stranger.
Myth: Once a rape is over a survivor can again feel safe.
Reality: Most survivors are scarred by the assault. One of the most profound effects of victimization is the loss of safety and autonomy. Following an assault, victims commonly feel vulnerable, betrayed, and insecure about their abilities to be safe from violation again. The rape can effect many parts of life, for instance, the ability to perform at work, the ability to trust others and to form intimate relationships, and the ability to feel a sense of safety.
Myth: Perpetrators need to threaten their victims with a gun or a knife in order for it to really be rape.
Reality: Some rapists use a weapon, but often force is accomplished in other ways. Getting a potential victim drunk or putting drugs in their drink can precede sexual violence. Merely threatening harm is often enough. Even when a weapon was NOT involved, half of all victims state that they feared serious injury or death during the assault (Koss, 1992). By their actions, perpetrators show victims that they have no regard for the victim’s boundaries or body, so it makes sense that victims would fear for their safety and well being in the hands of the perpetrator.
Myth: If someone is drunk and/or uses drugs then they deserve what they get.
Reality: This is actually an old belief that serves to blame the victim rather than understand that a person has been violated. This belief views individuals as either good or bad and excuses the rape. No one wants or deserves to be raped and we should all be safe from violation regardless of our physical or mental condition.
Myth: If someone doesn’t want to be raped, it can’t happen.
Reality: This is based on the idea that we are not supposed to be sexually aggressive so victims “let” themselves get raped as a way of being sexual. People can be forced or coerced into acts they did not consent to, and may be too scared, overwhelmed or confused to fight. They may also assess that fighting off an attacker would increase their danger and decide they are safer to acquiesce.
Myth: People who feel guilty after having sex turn around and say that they were raped.
Reality: Few people (between two and eight percent) falsely cry “rape” (Lonsway, Archambault, & Lisak, 2009). Sometimes we find it hard to believe that a person we admire, socialize with or work with would rape someone. This difficulty often results in blaming the victim or denying that the rape could have happened. The huge pressure victims can feel after telling may make them want to recant the story in order to make all of the problems go away.
Myth: A rapist is a man who cannot control his sexual desires.
Reality: Rape is most often a premeditated crime. It is an act of aggression and sexual violence, not an expression of sexual desire and can be perpetrated by either a man or a woman. The majority of convicted rapists do not rape out of sexual frustration, but for the emotional gratification they received from the act of sexual violence.
Myth: People who blame themselves for the rape happening do so because they did something to provoke the rape.
Reality: One way not to feel like a victim is to feel in control of what happened even if it means blaming yourself. So, after the violence victims often say things such as “I should not have parked there,” or “I should not have gone out with him.” It is a way of believing that if you change certain behaviors you won’t be violated again. This is the same reason many other people blame victims: They want to believe everyone is in total control of their own lives and therefore will not be victimized so long as they make the correct choices.
Myth: There is something very wrong with a woman who would let her husband
Reality: This is a variation on the “Why does she stay with him?” question that people ask about a physically battered woman. Relationships are complex, and we now know that when a woman leaves her abuser she is at an increased risk for being hurt by him. Women do not want to be raped, and creating a safe plan for leaving can take time and resources. What she needs is to be asked about the abuse and to be supported and assisted as she works on becoming safer.
Myth: Rape usually involves a black assailant and a white victim.
Reality: Victims and assailants are most frequently of the same race.
Myth: A male cannot be raped.
Reality: The rape of males is believed to be even more underreported than that of females. Males who are raped are typically assaulted by heterosexual men. Male children are more likely to be assaulted by heterosexual men than by women or homosexual men. Very young males are most likely to be assaulted by family members or caretakers. Young teenagers are typically assaulted by authority figures, and young adult males by peers or older adults.