Sexual violence is a topic about which many people avoid talking. Talking about it can feel uncomfortable and scary. Many times, we feel if we avoid the topic, it will be less real. While this is an understandable reaction, reluctance to acknowledge sexual violence, how it happens and how we should approach it leads to widespread misunderstanding. This lack of knowledge can have detrimental effects, such as making victims feel as though the assault was their fault, discouraging survivors from coming forward and pressing charges and perpetuating beliefs that contribute to the occurrence of sexual violence.
By educating ourselves, we can correct misinformation we may hear from others in relation to sexual violence. Having a better understanding of the reality of sexual violence also enables us to better assist loved ones who may come to us for help, inform others about how they can help and counter hateful or victim-blaming speech. It is the hope that encouraging truthful dialogue on sexual violence will spark long-term, societal changes that create an environment in which survivors feel supported and are not afraid that they will be blamed for the incident. Below, find a list of common myths surrounding different types of sexual violence and the reality behind them.
- Fact: Rape is an act of power and control, not an act of sexual desire. Cultural aspects of our society often draw a link between sex and violence, making it easy for us to believe that rape is about sex; however, sexual assault is not a crime of passion where the perpetrator was unable to control their desire. Sexual assault is a violent crime committed for the sense of power and control over another person.
- Why this myth is harmful: This belief incorrectly aligns rape with sex and urges rather than intentional violence. This erroneous belief supports perpetrators' claims that they were simply desiring sex and took it too far or didn't notice that the victim wasn't consenting – removing accountability.
- Fact: Very few perpetrators are mentally incompetent. Perpetrators may seek out victims and plan their attacks. This myth also connects to the false belief that sex offenders are commonly sexually and/or physically abused as children. In a representative study of convicted rapists, 91% denied experiencing childhood sexual abuse, 66% denied experiencing childhood physical abuse and 50% admitted to having non-violent childhoods (Scully, 1990).
- Why this myth is harmful: Believing that the perpetrator "just doesn't know better" lets them off the hook. Perpetrators, like all of us, are responsible for their actions.
Myth: If a person goes into someone's room or house and a sexual assault happens, they cannot claim that they were assaulted because they should have known better.
- Fact: Going into someone's house or room is not sexual consent.
- Why this myth is harmful: Thinking the victim should have known better or is in any way at fault for their assault shifts the blame for the offender's actions onto the victim. Victims of sexual assault are never to blame for their offender's actions.
Myth: If the victim chose to drink alcohol or take drugs leading up to their assault, it is not considered true sexual assault.
- Fact: A person being under the influence is not an invitation for sexual activity. A victim's choices regarding alcohol and/or drugs are not sexual consent. Sexual activity without consent is sexual assault, and consent cannot be given if someone is intoxicated.
- Why this myth is harmful: This myth attempts to justify sexual assault and place blame on the victim. Sexual assault is never justifiable, and an assault is the fault of the offender, not the victim.
- Fact: Most sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. According to the National Institute of Justice, about 85-90% of sexual assaults reported by college-aged individuals are perpetrated by someone known to the victim.
- Why this myth is harmful: Victims may fail to identify an incident as sexual assault if it was perpetrated by someone they know. Failure to recognize their assault will negatively impact the victim's ability to seek justice and heal.
- Fact: During an act of sexual assault, it is common for the victim to freeze up and become immobile or feel emotionally detached from their own body. Often referred to as "tonic immobility," this feeling of inability to move is a defense mechanism experienced by many survivors during their assault.
- Why is this myth harmful: Inability to recognize tonic immobility as a common and involuntary defense mechanism can lead to self-blame by the victim and is sometimes used in court as a defense by the perpetrator. No one should have to "fight back" to avoid unwanted sexual contact. Clear consent is required in all sexual activity. This myth also puts undeserved blame on the victim.
- Fact: Sexual assault does not occur exclusively to one gender. It affects people of all gender identities.
- Why this myth is harmful: This myth overlooks the experiences of male and transgender victims, which can greatly harm their search for justice and their healing process. According to RAINN, one out of every 10 rape victims are male. Transgender students are at a high risk for sexual violence; according to RAINN, 21% of transgender, genderqueer or nonconforming college students are survivors of sexual assault.
Myth: If you are currently or have previously been in a relationship or had sexual contact with the offender before, it is not sexual assault.
- Fact: Having any kind of relationship, past or present, with someone is not a form of sexual consent. Having sexual contact with someone previously is not sexual consent for future contact. Consent must be given each time sexual activity occurs.
- Why this myth is harmful: Consent is required every time a sexual act occurs. This myth can create confusion for survivors when unwelcome sexual contact happens with someone with whom they have a sexual past. That confusion may delay the survivor from seeking support or justice.
Myth: If someone says "no" to any form of sexual activity, you should keep asking or try to convince them to say yes.
- Fact: True consent can only be given if there is no pressure or coercion. If you pressure someone into sexual activity, you do not have consent. Without consent, the sexual activity is assault. Pressuring someone into sex is never okay. If the person says no, they mean no. The absence of "no" does not mean "yes." A "yes" given after pressure or coercion is not proper consent, and any sexual activity that occurs without consent is sexual assault.
- Why this myth is harmful: This myth may allow a perpetrator to wrongly excuse their responsibility for sexual assault when they use their power to pressure or coerce someone to say “yes.” It may harm the survivor by generating self-blame for saying “yes” after numerous attempts to refuse sexual contact. This self-blame may delay the survivor from seeking support or justice.
- Fact: The absence of "no" does not mean "yes." Clearly communicated consent with understood boundaries is needed before any sexual activity. Sexual activity without consent is sexual assault.
- Why this myth is harmful: This myth misplaces responsibility for the assault onto the survivor for not doing something instead of on the perpetrator who committed sexual assault. This myth may also generate self-blame for the survivor who may delay getting support or justice.
- Fact: Consent can be withdrawn at any time. You should never feel uncomfortable or like you cannot change your mind. You are free to withdraw consent at any time, for any reason.
- Why this myth is harmful: This myth may cause a survivor to believe they must accept unwelcomed sexual activity. The survivor may erroneously believe they are responsible for the assault and delay them from seeking support or justice.