Rape Myths: why are they so harmful?

seksueel geweld

‘Only young and pretty women get raped’. ‘Rapists are creepy men who jump at you from behind the bushes’. ‘If you orgasm while being raped, you will probably have liked it’. Many tall tales surround sexual violence that, at times, can add insult to injury for victims. So, it’s time to mercilessly take down these rape myths.

What are rape myths?

The term rape myth was pioneered back in 1980 by sociologist Martha R. Burt. According to her, rape myths are false beliefs surrounding sexual violence. They are prejudices and stereotypes that we use to shift the blame for the rape from the perpetrator to the victim.

Maybe you have caught yourself thinking the same thing when you hear about a girl going home with someone after having had way too many drinks and being raped. ‘Why did she flirt with him that way?’ ‘Why did she end up going home with him?’ ‘She was kind of asking for it, right?’

Savage caveman

Myths such as these are harmful because they provide the perpetrator with an excuse and blame the victim instead. They stem from persistent stereotypes regarding gender roles and, in that regard, are damaging to both men and women.

After all, what does it say about men that they might think women are asking for it just because they’re wearing short skirts? And what does it say about their lack of self-control when they say that they would act like savage cavemen and rip off her clothes? Men are more than that. Rapists? Not so much.

Outdated ideas

Rape myths also help keep outdated ideas about sexual violence active in society, together with all their negative consequences. As long as these myths thrive, victims will find it difficult to ask for help or press charges. They will remain silent because they may feel ashamed or guilty about what happened to them, even though the victim is never to blame for the rape. There should be no misunderstandings about that.

Tip: read about the emotional impact of rape in our article about sexual violence and trauma.

Seven rape myths

There are so many myths about rape out there that we often get them confused with the truth. Here are seven of the most stubborn examples that have continue to survive to this day.

1: Sexual violence is about sex

Nope, rape cases hardly ever have to do with the sex itself. People often think of rapists as sexually frustrated types unable to control their urges. Of course, sex can be a motive, but more often than not, rape stems from a desire for control and power. Sex is a tool in those cases but not the goal in itself.

2: Rapists are creepy men who jump at you from behind the bushes

A rapist doesn’t have to be some shady character that is lurking in the bushes. And women are not always raped in a dark alley on their way home at night. In fact, this is most often not the case. Three out of four perpetrators of sexual violence are already acquainted with the victim. These perpetrators are often very ordinary and inconspicuous men who decide to use sexual violence to humiliate the victim. Doctors, teachers, police officers, or handsy neighbours? Yep, those are all possibilities.

3: You can elicit sexual violence

You were not raped because you didn’t use your common sense. Or because you went along with some slick guy’s flirtatious advances while wearing a short skirt and low-cut top. You were raped because you were unfortunate enough to run into a rapist. The responsibility of sexual violence lies with the rapist, not with you. Simple as that.

4: Only a certain type of woman gets raped

Serial rapists and murderers like Ted Bundy have given some women the idea that only young, pretty girls need to watch out for rapists. However, the truth is that every type of woman can get raped. Rapists don’t pay attention to appearance, wardrobe, or age all that much when they choose their victims. They look at vulnerability. Is the victim small and easy to dominate? Is she alone, is she intoxicated, or does she seem more gullible than other women? Those are the traits a rapist looks for. And you don’t need to be a beautiful, twenty-year-old student to possess those.

5: If you didn’t try to defend yourself, you weren’t raped

Some victims defend themselves during their rape. They punch, kick or bite in the hopes of getting away from their attacker. Other victims do nothing. Not because they are okay with being raped, but because they freeze out of fear or shock. They are so afraid that their body paralyses and they can’t even mutter the word ‘no’. An apparent submission like that doesn’t mean they are cooperating in the sexual violence. It simply means that, at that moment, they are doing what needs to be done to survive. There are no right or wrong reactions to being raped. Unfortunately, many women don’t see it like that. They are embarrassed for having let the violence happen to them. The fact that perpetrators and their defence lawyers often use this argument to play down the rape in court doesn’t help fix this problem.

6: If you orgasm, you weren’t raped

Your body responds to all sorts of stimulation, even unwanted ones. Women can get wet or even have an orgasm while being raped. There is nothing strange about that. It is simply a natural response to bodily stimulations. Of course, such an orgasm leads to confusion, shame, and feelings of guilt in many women. After all, how could you have ‘enjoyed’ being raped? Was it even rape, or did you secretly like it? Confusion like that is, of course, also being used by perpetrators to keep victims from talking about what happened.

7: You can’t be raped when you’re in a relationship

When two people have had sex before, it doesn’t mean that any sex in the future is self-evident. Not even within a relationship or marriage. ‘No’ still means ‘no’, and if your partner doesn’t respect your refusal and enters you without your permission, that is still rape. It is also still rape if you decide to stop things in the middle of sex, but your partner thinks otherwise and continues, forcing you to go along with it. You are allowed to change your mind, and your partner is definitely capable of stopping during sex. When a man rapes you, he is not swept away by some passionate primal instincts he has no control over. Rape is, and always will be, an act of violence, and we should regard it as such.

Rape myths debunked? Definitely!

In the wake of #MeToo, more and more stories are surfacing, and more and more sexual predators are being exposed. But, despite the topic being heavily featured in the media, one in three women still has to deal with sexual violence. And roughly every fifteen minutes, a woman between the ages of 15 and 49 is subjected to some form of violence by her partner.

Rape myths don’t help these figures go down. The more persistent these myths are, the more the stereotypical ideas surrounding sexual violence continue to distort reality. The consequences? Sexual violence being justified or trivialised. The victim was probably asking for it since she was dressed so provocatively and obviously flirting. Was she drunk or stoned? Then she shouldn’t complain, she has probably slept with guys while intoxicated before.

Free pass for perpetrators

Those myths don’t only make it so that victims will remain under the impression that they are to blame for being raped. They also lead to women who haven’t been raped developing a sort of misplaced sense of grandeur, which is itself quite dangerous. They dress and act appropriately so that it will never happen to them. That’s the idea, even though it is clear by now that every woman can get raped.

Liesbeth Kennes says the same in her book ‘Alleen ja telt’. The expert in the field of sexual violence emphasizes that the victim recognizes the rape as such. She points out that by believing in these myths, we provide the perpetrators with a free pass. Flirtatious women, who voluntarily go home with you? Well, apparently you can do whatever you want with them.

We may think we can keep rape in check by sticking with stereotypes, but in doing so, we are actually facilitating sexual violence.

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