13 Reasons Why: Myths about Sexual Assault

13 Reasons Why is a popular Netflix drama based on a teenage girl and the reasons she committed suicide, including sexual assault. We break down some of the myths surrounding sexual assault

 

What do you call sex between a black man and a white woman?

This joke is one that some of my old male friends found so funny that it was recited again and again throughout one summer day 4 years ago. The punchline: rape.

This joke never has and never will be funny to me. And the “friends” who liked to tell this joke were the same ones that told me their (white) friend who raped me “isn’t a rapist.”

There are a lot of racist and sexist assumptions in this loaded question, including: 1) white women would never agree to have sex with a black man; 2) black men are rapists; 3) white men can’t be rapists. In fact, the notion that rape only occurs between black men and white women dates back to Civil War times, and was made up to justify racist violence.

With that said though, I’m not trying to villainize these guys (not to be an apologist for them either). We are the result of our environment and conditioning, and you can’t help the way you were raised and the judgements made in your environment. However, as an adult, you can educate yourself and learn to do better. These negative judgements towards others only perpetuate incorrect stereotypes that bring everyone down.

So, rather than continue this rant, let’s dispel some of the myths surrounding sexual assault:

1) Most people are raped by someone from a race/ culture/ethnicity other than their own

Starting with the “joke” mentioned earlier, this myth is one that has long been used to justify lynchings, deportations, and other forms of violence against men of color, particularly black and latino men. The reality is this: nationally, 80-90% of all sexual assault occurs between people of the same race. Attacks by men of color, especially against white women receive more publicity, and because they satisfy racist belief systems, they are used to further persecute marginalized communities. And DNA evidence from exoneration studies indicate “black men accused of raping white women face a greater risk of false conviction than other rape defendants.” (NY Times, 7/23/07; Columbia Law Review, Jan. 2008)

Since 57% of rapists are white, one can assume a large percentage of inter-race rapes are perpetrated by white men against women of color. Native American women, in particular, experience rape by non-native men in 86% of cases.

2) Rape is caused by uncontrollable sex drives.

If we really control our lives, the way society teaches us, why would sex drive be any different? Blaming rape on uncontrollable sex drives is a weak excuse for the actual motivators: power and anger. Rapists force sex as an act of violence, to dominate, humiliate, control, degrade, terrify, and/or violate another person. Sometimes a rapist’s motivations start with desire or arousal, but rejection by their partner causes them to start acting out of hurt and anger.

3) Women who are raped ask for it, want it, or deserve it.

Rape is a crime, just like theft or murder. Rapists and rape apologists often use the excuse “she was asking for it by the way she was dressed,” (or how much she flirted or how much she drank, etc). But just like other crimes, a victim’s appearance or actions never justify the act of rape. No one asks, wants, or deserves to be raped.

4) Most rapists don’t know their victims.

There’s a notion that rapists are strangers in trenchcoats hiding in alleyways waiting to pounce. However, the reality is quite the opposite. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey (2005), 73-75% of all victims knew their assailants. In fact, 38% of rapes are perpetrated by friends or acquaintances. 28% are perpetrated by intimate partners and the remaining are family members. So really, maybe ¼ of all rapes are committed by a stranger, and I don’t think that many people really wear trenchcoats.

5) Most survivors report their assault to police

Of all violent crimes, rape is reported to police the least. According to the 2015 National Criminal Victimization Survey, only 32.5% of all rapes/sexual assaults are reported to police. (For reference, simple assault was the second underreported at 41.7% while aggravated assault and robbery are both reported at the highest rate of 61.9%.) Many survivors never tell anyone at all, and with the way our legal system handles sexual assault, it’s not surprising that most survivors don’t get police involved.

6) Men don’t have to worry about rape, because it doesn’t happen to them

The San Francisco Rape Treatment Center reports that men, both straight and gay, comprise more than 10% of the rape victims they see each year. Men can be raped in a gay male relationship, in prison, in a gay bashing incident, or even by women, although that is rare.

Rape culture affects men in cases when they don’t want to have sex. Men will often say yes to sex even because they have been socialized that it’s not masculine to refuse sex. While that doesn’t constitute rape, it’s still an unhealthy dynamic.

Even men who have never experienced sexual assault themselves have wives, friends, mothers and daughters who may have and will need support. And since men listen to their male peers, it’s important to have male allies speaking up against rape culture and stopping rape.

7) It is okay for a husband or romantic partner to rape his wife.

It is never okay to force sex upon anyone, regardless of the relationship. Consent is always required, and persisting after one partner says “no” is rape. However, this myth probably carries on, because it wasn’t until 1993 that intermarital rape was determined illegal by all 50 states. Oregon passed the first marital rape law in 1978, with North Carolina being the last in 1993.

8) Since sex workers perform sex for money, they cannot be raped.

Again, it is never okay to force sex upon anyone, regardless of the relationship or their profession. Sex workers (like prostitutes or female pornographers) still deserve autonomy over their body.

9) People always know if they have been raped.

Generally speaking, there is a lack of education in our communities on rape and consent. Many people don’t understand the legal definition of consent. (Which, in case you’re confused too, you can learn more about consent here.)

Further complicating this, due to many of these myths listed here, a lot of survivors don’t identify their experience with rape or themselves as survivors. This is especially true of survivors raped by an acquaintance, because they often blame themselves (myself included for a while). This is the result of a rape culture that blurs the line between violence and healthy sexual relationships.

10) Women often say “no” to sex when they mean “yes.”

Another result of a toxic rape culture. Women often hear things like “You know you want it.” or “You’re just playing hard to get.” when they say no to sex. If a woman says no, her partner should believe her, always. If she didn’t really mean “no,” then she can always let her partner know. Or she should be asked to be more clear if she’s sending mixed signals.

Unfortunately, we live in a society where women are pressured to be coy and not open about their sexual desires, while men do the opposite. This leads to unhealthy communication patterns between men and women and the assumption that “no” is the same as shy “yes.” To combat this myth, it is important for all of us to say what we mean, whether that’s a “yes” or “no.”

11) Anyone who agrees to sex and then tells a partner to stop is partially responsible if the partner does not stop and commits rape.

We all have the right to stop something or change our minds at any time. If you had a friend over and offered them a glass of water, and they accepted, you can’t forcefully pour the remaining water down their throat if they don’t want anymore. Same goes for sex. Again, sex drives are controllable, so the rapist, not the victim, is at fault.

12) People in same sex relationships do not have to worry about battery or rape in their dating relationships.

While most cases of rape are between men and women, that doesn’t mean they all are. Men can rape other men and women can rape other women.

13) A person who is beaten or abused must like it or need it; otherwise, that person would leave the relationship.

Abusive relationships are complicated. No one likes to be beaten (even those into BDSM have limits), and often a number of other factors are used to justify staying with abusive partners. These factors could be fear, shame, financial dependence, children, cultural/religious pressures, a family history of abuse, lack of support from friends and family, or a lack of knowledge of available resources. Rather than judge someone for staying in an abusive relationship, try to understand their position and find ways to offer support.

 

All of these myths contribute to the notion that sexual assault is uncommon, the victim’s fault, and not anyone’s problem. The reality is that sexual assault affects all of us in some way, either as survivors or their loved ones.

It’s on all of us to stop sexual assault. Take one step to prevent sexual violence. Share the knowledge.

 

Many of these myths come from Project Survive, a sexual violence prevention program affiliated with City College of San Francisco. Think of something we missed? Let us know in the comments below.

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