The myths about sexual violence are powerful in our society. Misguided beliefs in these myths keep people from understanding how sexual violence works, and who the victims and perpetrators are. Most myths focus blame for assault on the victim and relieve us of the burden of figuring out what is awry in our society. Some think that it is easier to believe the myths than to change society in ways that prevent sexual violence.
Why is it important that we talk about these myths? Social belief in this misinformation often keeps victims silent, keeps communities from identifying offenders, and erects barriers to effective prevention. Knowing about these myths can help us become careful and critical thinkers about the reality of sexual violence in our communities. Here are some examples of the most commonly believed myths:
MYTH: Most sexual assaults occur between strangers.
FACT: While these are the stories that are most likely to make the news, stranger assaults are statistically the rarest kind of sexual assault. The US Department of Justice cites that 70% of all sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. In Minnesota, 93% of the victims who used advocacy services were assaulted by someone known to them such as a friend, family member, co-worker, date, or neighbor. (Office of Justice Programs, 2001 data.) Often, "prevention" efforts aimed at children and youth focus on stranger danger. While stranger assaults do happen, it is far more likely that an assailant is not a stranger to the victim.
MYTH: A person cannot be sexually assaulted by his or her partner or spouse?
FACT: Sexual assault is a crime regardless of the relationship between the victim and offender. In Minnesota, as in most other states, an ongoing sexual relationship does not preclude a partner or spouse from committing or being charged with sexual assault. The issue is not the relationship, but whether and how force is used. However, victims of intimate partner assault are less likely to report the assault for fear that they will not be believed or because of their emotional investment in the relationship. There is no reason to believe that assault by an intimate partner is somehow easier to experience or "get over." In fact, sexual assault by an intimate partner may bring result in increased emotional impact and a heightened sense of violation and betrayal causing the victim to lose trust in others and in his or her own judgment.
MYTH: Some people ask to be sexually assaulted by their behavior or the way they dress.
FACT: This is one of the most prevalent and powerful myths. It asks us to find the cause of assault in the victim's behavior or choices. No one asks or wants to be raped or assaulted, just as no one asks to have their car stolen, even if they forget and leave the keys in the ignition, be robbed or hit by a drunk driver. Sexual assault is always the responsibility of the perpetrator and never the responsibility of the victim. While some behaviors we choose may put us at some risk, they are only risky when there are offenders who are ready to take advantage of someone who is vulnerable. How someone dresses, where they go, what they do, or who they are in a relationship with is never justification for sexual assault.
MYTH: People who are drunk or high have no one to blame but themselves when they are sexually assaulted.
FACT: The use of alcohol and other drugs is often a part of sexual assault scenarios. In some cases, victims are encouraged to use alcohol or drugs or are, unbeknownst to them, given intoxicating substances. Whether voluntarily or involuntarily intoxicated, neither the victim's nor the perpetrator's alcohol or other drug use is an acceptable defense in a sexual assault case. In some instances, a victim's intoxication can be understood to render her/him legally unable to give consent to sexual behavior.
MYTH: Victims often falsely report sexual assault.
FACT: The Federal Bureau of Investigation reports that less than 2% of all sexual assault reports are false. This is the same rate of false reporting for all other major crimes. Those rare instances of false reporting usually are connected with someone who is dealing with mental illness - not a vengeful "victim" intentionally trying to entrap another.
MYTH: Most sexual assault is spontaneous and happens when a person become so sexually aroused they are unable to stop themselves.
FACT: While sexual acts are the tools of the assault, sexual assault is less about the sexual contact and more about hurting, overpowering, or otherwise humiliating another. Most sexual assaults are not spontaneous but are, in fact, planned ahead of time. Studies of convicted assailants indicate that the vast majority of assaults are premeditated - either involving the stalking of a particular victim or targeting potential victims in a way to make them vulnerable to sexual assault. It is important to remember that sexual arousal is not the motivating factor for sexual assault. Finally, humans are able to interrupt sexual arousal. Imagine the interruptive factor of parents arriving home ahead of schedule, the house catching fire, or becoming physically ill! Sexual arousal does not need to culminate in intercourse.
MYTH: Men who sexually assault boys are gay. Therefore, gay men should not be allowed to be teachers, coaches, Boy-Scout leaders.
FACT: This myth fuels homophobia in our society. In fact, studies indicate that the majority of males who assault boys are heterosexual and have regular consenting adult sexual partners. It is important to remember that sexual assault is less about sexual contact and more about gaining control over or overpowering another.
MYTH: Only young attractive women and girls are sexually assaulted.
FACT: This myth again fuels the misconception that sexual gratification is the motivator for sexual assault. Statistics in MN show that victims can be attractive women and girls; they can also be infants, elderly women, or men. It is important to remember that anyone can be a victim of sexual assault; anyone can be an assailant.
MYTH: White women are at risk for rape by men of color.
FACT: Statistics identify that sexual assault/rape happen between members of the same race much more frequently than across races. This myth comes from social messages of racism that are alive and thriving today. In fact, the historical experiences of interracial assault more often point to women of color being systematically assaulted by white men. Consider the history of slave women in the south and women in countries overrun by conquering armies.
MYTH: Sexual assault is serious but a rare crime in the United States.
FACT: Sexual assault is a very serious crime, true, but it is unfortunately quite common. According to the National Victim Center, approximately one in four girls and one in ten boys will be sexually assaulted before the age of 18; approximately one in three women and one in seven men will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, victims of sexual assault remain quite hidden, fearing that their accounts will not be believed, that they will fall victim to these myths. Studies indicate that only 16% - 20% of victims ever come forward and report a sexual assault. In contrast, one in seven women in Minnesota report being sexually assaulted at some point.
Taken from the MNCASA website. Used by permission.