Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Rape Myths part 1

Last week, a member of our staff was invited to come on CNN Headline News to discuss rape myths during their coverage of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. You can watch the video of Richelle Carey interviewing our Director of Development Amber Harris here.

Because these interviews are so short, there are always points we wish we had made once the interview is done. Also, a complicated issue like sexual assault, and the way our culture views and discusses it, is something that warrants a more thorough discussion than you can fit into a few minutes. That is why we'll be exploring the rape myths discussed in the segment in more detail. The first myth discussed was the idea that victims are sometimes to blame for some or all of their sexual assault.

We as a culture are desperate to blame rape victims for some or all of what happened to them. If she had been drinking, the rape was at least partially her fault. If she was dressed suggestively, it was her fault. If she invited a man into her home, it was her fault. If she has had sex before, especially with him, it was her fault. If she is married to him, she has given up forever her right to say no.

All of these ways of thinking are, of course, false. It is not illegal for a woman above the legal drinking age to have a drink. It is not illegal for women to wear low-cut tops or short skirts, or heels. It is not illegal for women to invite men into their homes. It is not illegal for women to have sex and also to withdraw their consent for sex at any time during or afterward. It is up to the other person to stop when that consent is withdrawn, or if it is never given. If you don't stop, that is rape, and rape is illegal.

Think of it this way. Thousands of women go to bars every weekend dressed in club-wear and no one assaults them. Thousands of women end relationships with men with whom they've had sex every week and those men do not assault them. And yet, every 2 minutes in the US, someone is sexually assaulted. Many of those women and men were not drunk, dressed suggestively, etc. The difference for them is that they were in the presence of a rapist.

So why are we so determined to blame victims for their assaults? As Amber suggested in her interview, it may be, at least partly, at least for women, a self-protection mechanism. When we hear that 1 in 6 women* in the US will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, we need to believe something that will help us deny that it will happen to us. We need to believe that women did something wrong or something stupid that compromised their safety. If we admit that women who are sexually assaulted did nothing at all to cause that assault, then we as women live in constant fear.

Even though it is an understandable self-protection mechanism, blaming the victim is not OK. Why? Because when blaming the victim, you are helping the rapist.

Let that sink in. When you blame a victim for her own assault, you are helping the rapist.

Most courtroom rape defenses rely on the exact victim blaming rhetoric that we lay out above to keep rapists from going to jail. And women who don't want to suffer through that victim blaming often don't press charges in the first place. That's why 61% of rapes are never reported to police and only 6% of rapists ever see a day in jail. When you participate in victim blaming, you are causing women who have been assaulted to relive their trauma and possibly also blame themselves. You are also helping the real criminal, the rapist, walk free.

It's also a lot easier to blame the victim than it is to blame the rapist. After all, the solutions are so much easier if we concentrate on the victim. Take a self-defense class. Don't drink. Always be aware of your surroundings. However, 1 in 20 college-age men will admit to raping someone in anonymous surveys, as long as the word "rape" isn't used in the description of the act.** It's a lot harder to change the beliefs and the power structure that feeds men the idea that it is OK to take sex from a women without her consent, as if she is not a real person and her feelings don't matter. Teaching men who don't already think so that women matter is incredibly difficult. If we believe that women aren't to blame for their assaults, and yet we do nothing about it, we are yet again helping the rapist.

Don't help the rapist; help us. When your friends, family members, or colleagues are blaming the victim, stop them and explain why victim blaming is harmful. Stop people when they make rape jokes in your presence. Volunteer for a local organization, like ours, that works to end violence against women. Then you don't have to be as afraid, you don't have to harm victims, and you are doing something to end violence against women. And you aren't helping a rapist.

*The really frightening thing about that 1 in 6 number is that it doesn't take into account that many of those women will be assaulted more than once.

**We'll explore this stat in a future post.

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