As the Lead Independent Sexual Violence Advisor (ISVA) for IDAS, I have been supporting people who have been subjected to sexual violence for over eleven years.
During this time, there has been some positive changes to legislation and some crucial conversations that have shifted society’s understanding of the prevalence and impact of sexual violence, such as the #MeToo movement. Awareness about the nature of misogyny (the hatred of, or contempt of, women) has grown, and there is widespread indignation about the low conviction rates for sexual offences.
Despite these positive changes and growing awareness, as an ISVA, I still support people who are living with the harmful impacts of the myths and stereotypes that persist around rape and sexual violence.
Often these myths and stereotypes can be the reason survivors choose not to seek support, or to report or even disclose what has happened to them. I wanted to write about some of these harmful myths, to give an insight into the reality for many people subjected to violence and abuse.
What are myths about sexual violence?
Myths about sexual violence and abuse are falsehoods based on the unconscious biases, beliefs, and attitudes that people hold about sexual violence. They are pervasive throughout our society and the continual re-telling of them reinforces them in the minds of survivors, perpetrators, and society.
The impact is that they make the perpetrators of sexual violence less likely to be held accountable for their behaviour and victims less likely to come forward for support.
Myths and stereotypes can act as a form of social control over women and girls. They can also provide a (false) mechanism to help us feel safer. They allow us to believe that if we follow the rules, it won’t happen to us. The thought of sexual assault is so terrifying that it is easier to think it only happens to those who don’t stick to the rules. It is easier to blame the victim by challenging: what they were wearing, where they were, their sexual history, social presentation, the job they did or their age, rather than looking at the actual problem, the perpetrator. If you can control what happens by amending your behaviour, then maybe the unthinkable won’t happen to you. This is a myth.
Most of us have been brought up to fear strangers, scared that “the bad man will get you”. In the 1970s and 80s the Home Office commissioned films for children that focused on ‘stranger danger’, and the Police visited schools and reinforced this message. However, this meant we were not prepared for the fact that it is most often someone we know, like, work with or who is supposed to love us who will assault us.
The message that it is only strangers who will attack us is now such a part of the social psyche that it is hard to unpick.
Additionally, although we were warned that strange and bad men were the danger, we were never told that if they did attack us, it wasn’t our fault.
Rather than telling people that sexual assault is wrong and holding the perpetrators to account, we spend a lot of time warning girls not to wear certain clothes, not to go out late, not to walk alone, to watch their drinks and behave ‘appropriately’. The underlying message is, if you do get hurt, it will be your own fault. This also serves as a means of social control of women and girls.
In fact, only one person is at fault and that is the man who chooses to be sexually violent.
There are a huge number of myths that circulate around sexual violence, here are a few:
Myths v reality
Myth: You are in the most danger if you are out on the streets, walking on your own after dark.
Reality: Most people who have been subjected to sexual violence were assaulted in their own homes, by a friend, family member or partner.
Myth: What you wear can provoke someone to sexually assault you.
Reality: Sexual assault doesn’t happen because of the clothes you wear. People have been assaulted wearing tracksuits, uniforms, school clothes, short skirts, trousers, long skirts etc. Women and girls of all ages – from babies to the elderly - are sexually assaulted. Sexual assaults happen because a perpetrator chooses to assault someone.
Myth: You can spot a perpetrator. Only people from certain backgrounds are perpetrators.
Reality: Perpetrators come from different backgrounds and from every ethnicity. The most shared characteristic of perpetrators is that they are male – men make up 98% of those who rape or abuse.
Myth: People who swap, sell or exchange sex or sexual activities can’t be raped.
Reality: Sex workers can be raped both when they are working and in other circumstances. At any time, consent can be withdrawn, even if someone has paid for sex. Those who swap, sell or exchange sex should have the same rights as anyone else.
Myth: If you are drunk it’s your own fault if you’re assaulted.
Reality: Consent must be freely and willingly given. No-one can consent to sex if they are too drunk or high to do so.
Myth: Rape is violent – she didn’t fight back and so it wasn’t rape.
Reality: Sexual assault is not always physically violent. It is normal for victims to freeze in fear and many people do not fight back or resist in a physical way. Often perpetrators will use coercion, threats, and fear to prevent someone from resisting. Consent should always be enthusiastic, and the person must be able to consent freely.
Myth: Rape is a ‘crime of passion’ and happens because of a loss of control.
Reality: Rape is not a romantic moment. It is a deliberate assault and normally relates to one person exerting control over the other. Men do not lose control and need to rape or assault someone; this is insulting to men.
Myth: Men cannot stop once they are aroused.
Reality: Men and women can stop if they are asked to, irrespective of whether consent has previously been given or whether they would like to continue or not. Sexual activity should be something both parties want to engage in enthusiastically. It is offensive to most men to suggest that they are unable to control themselves or consider other people’s wishes and feelings.
Consent can be withdrawn at any point. Carrying on without consent is rape or sexual assault.
Myth: If you didn’t actively say no, it isn’t rape.
Reality: Consent should be enthusiastic and anyone engaging in sexual activity with another person should be looking for signs that they want it and that everyone involved is enjoying it, it’s important not to assume anything. Victims can be so scared that they can be paralysed, unable to fight back or say no. It is not the victim’s responsibility to stop the perpetrator, it is the responsibility of the rapist not to rape.
Myth: Women and girls make allegations of rape out of spite or they ‘cry rape’ when they regret having sex with someone.
Reality: Research shows that less than 4% of sexual assault and rape crimes reported to the police are later recorded as false. This is a similar rate for other crime types. We know that only 5% of reports of rape end in a prosecution.
These myths can shame victims into silence, they can be used by defence lawyers to discredit victims and can be damaging to survivors, by increasing their feelings of shame and blame.
So, next time you hear a myth being reported as fact, please challenge this because being raped or sexually assaulted is NEVER the fault of the victim, the only person at fault is the perpetrator.