Sexual violence is a topic that many people tend to avoid speaking about; it is uncomfortable and scary, and oftentimes we feel as though if we don’t talk about it, it is 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 of the realities of sexual violence. 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.
As engaged citizens, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves and correct misinformation we may hear from others in relation to sexual violence. Having a better understanding of the reality of sexual violence can also allow us to successfully assist loved ones who may come to us for help, inform others about how they can help, and shut down 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.
Sexual Assault Myths
Myth: Rape is caused by the perpetrator’s uncontrollable sexual urge.
- 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 on sex and urges rather than intentional violence. This belief leads the way for perpetrators’ claims that they were simply desiring sex and took it too far or didn’t notice that the victim wasn’t consenting.
Myth: People who commit sexual assault are mentally ill and just don’t know that it is wrong.
- 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 fact, 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 a form of consent.
- Why this myth is harmful: Thinking that 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 never an excuse for an offender to take advantage of someone in a vulnerable situation. 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.
Myth: Most sexual assaults are committed by strangers.
- Fact: Most sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. According to the National Institute of Justice, about 85-90 percent 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.
Myth: If the victim didn’t want it to happen, they would have fought back.
- 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 a large number of 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.
Myth: Sexual assault only happens to women.
- Fact: Sexual assault does not occur exclusively to one gender. It effects 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. While one out of every six American women have been the victim of attempted or completed rape, one out of every 33 men (3%) have experienced an attempted or completed rape. Transgender students are at a high risk for sexual violence, with 21% of transgender, genderqueer, or nonconforming college students have been sexually assaulted.
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 consent. Having sexual contact with someone once is not a form of blanket consent for future contact. Consent must be given each time sexual activity occurs.
- Why this myth is harmful: It is vital to get consent every time a sexual act occurs. Sexual contact without consent is sexual assault, no matter what relationship you have with the perpetrator.
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.
- Why this myth is harmful: 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.
Myth: As long as someone doesn’t say “no,” you can engage in sexual activity with them.
- Fact: The absence of “no” does not mean “yes.” Clearly communicated consent with understood boundaries is needed before any sexual activity.
- Why this myth is harmful: Sexual activity without consent is sexual assault. Positive consent can include: explicitly agreeing to certain activities by saying “yes” or another affirmative statement, using physical cues to let the other person know you’re comfortable taking things to the next level, or communicating when you change the type or degree of sexual activity with phrases like “Is this OK?”
Myth: Once you give consent, you cannot take it back.
- Fact: Consent can be withdrawn at any time. Making sure you and your partner are on the same page at all times is key.
- Why this myth is harmful: You should never feel uncomfortable or like you cannot change your mind. You are free to withdraw consent at any time, for any reason.