April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a time devoted to raising awareness and educating people on how to prevent sexual assault. Unfortunately, there are many myths and misconceptions about sexual assault in our society – most of which blame the victim/survivor. Myths prevent survivors from getting the help they need, and rarely hold the perpetrator accountable for his/her actions. The best way to confront these harmful myths when you hear one is honestly. And to do that, you have to know the facts.
Here’s a look at five myths and realities about sexual assault:
Myth: Sexual assault is the result of overwhelming sexual urges.
Reality: Sexual assault is an act of violence centered around asserting control over another person and taking away their power. It is not an act of impulsive, uncontrollable passion or sexual urges, and it is certainly not the result of unfulfilled sexual urges. In fact, research shows that the majority of sexual assaults are premeditated, and studies with convicted offenders reveal that “unconscious motives leading to rape appear related to issues of control, power, and dominance” — not the pursuit of sex. Attributing sexual assault to male sexual urges is offensive to the majority of men and serves only to excuse those men who rape instead of holding them accountable for their actions.
Myth: You can tell if a woman is really sexually assaulted by the way she acts.
Reality: Just like with other types of trauma, there is no one way to act and feel after a sexual assault. According to a report by the National District Attorneys Association, victims may display a variety of “different psychological (e.g., depression, anger, or anxiety) and behavioral responses (e.g., not fighting back during a rape, continuing to date an assailant, or not reporting the sexual assault until months later) … that appear ‘counterintuitive’ to the general public.” But these reactions only seem counterintuitive because of widespread misperceptions about how victims “should” act. In reality, how a woman responds after a sexual assault can be influenced by factors such as her cultural background, whether she knows her attacker or not, her support system, how she views her experience, etc. Just because a woman does not feel or act a certain way does not mean that her experience of sexual assault was not legitimate.
Myth: It wasn’t sexual assault if the victim didn’t fight back.
Reality: There is a biological reason that some sexual assault victims do not physically resist or fight back against their attacker. According to Dr. Rebecca Campbell, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University, an estimated 50 percent of victims experience a physiological phenomenon known as “tonic immobility” — often referred to as “rape-induced paralysis” — that makes it physically impossible to fight back. “It is an autonomic response, meaning that it’s uncontrollable,” Dr. Campbell explained during a 2012 seminar at the National Institute of Justice. “This is not something a victim decides to do. It is a mammalian response. It is evolutionarily wired into us to protect the survival of the organism. […] Behaviorally, it is marked by increased breathing, eye closure, but the most marked characteristic of tonic immobility is muscular paralysis. A victim in a state of tonic immobility cannot move. She cannot move her hands. She cannot move her arms. She cannot move her legs. She cannot move her torso. She cannot move her head. She is paralyzed in that state of incredible fear.” Victims who experience this phenomenon are often afraid of how it’s going to be perceived by others, said Dr. Campbell, “so they’re very reluctant to seek help. And when they do come help, it’s always there in the back of their mind. They are dreading that question ‘What did you do?'”
Myth: False reports of sexual assault are common.
Reality: False reports of sexual assault are dramatically overestimated. Research led by Dr. David Lisak, considered one of the foremost experts on college sexual assault, concluded the number of false rape reports to be less than 8 percent. This is similar to rates of false reports for other crimes.In another analysis, researchers at the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women put the figure somewhere between 2 and 8 percent. Similarly, a report by the Crown Prosecution Service in the United Kingdom estimated that the prevalence of false rape reports is under 6 percent. Furthermore, experts say the percentage of false rape reports is likely even lower than these totals, considering how underreported sexual violence is in the U.S. Despite their statistical rarity, false reports are a common trope in fiction (see Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, numerous TV shows such as Law and Order) and receive significant media attention: the UK tabloid The Daily Mail used the words ‘cries rape’ in 54 headlines in 2012.
Myth: Women can’t be sexually assaulted by their boyfriends or husbands
Reality: Marital rape has been illegal in every state and the District of Columbia since 1993, but many people still do not recognize it as a crime. In reality, sexual assault occurs anytime you engage in sexual activity without someone’s consent. Legally, just because you have been dating someone for a long time does not mean you have the right to have sex with them, or that he/she should agree to have sex with you — even within a marital relationship, each partner must give consent each time sexual relations occur.