Researchers have found that debunking rape myths through social norms can reduce men’s rape proclivity. Research shows that a low rape myth acceptance (perceived or actual) by a community strongly reduces men’s tendencies of sexual assault.
The research is telling us that cultural opposition to rape myths makes men less likely to commit rape. The flip side is also true: rape myth acceptance increases the likelihood of rape. Bottom line: when men live in a community that accepts rape myths, they themselves internalize these fallacies and become more likely to commit rape because they perceive it as an acceptable social norm.
Thus, it follows that challenging rape myths can lead to fewer instances of sexual assault. So I’m going to debunk the crap out of some of the most common rape myths in North America.
Myth #1: Rapists are strangers
Within popular discourse, there is an image of a man lurking behind the bushes, waiting to jump out and assault women. Movies cast unnerving ‘social outcasts’ as rapists and television shows portray rapists as psychotic. This does not reflect reality. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) has reported that 4/5 sexual assaults in North America are committed by someone the victim knows. Rape can be, and often is, committed by a friend, contemporary, partner or family member. This intimacy is often what makes sexual assault so painful; the perpetrator has abused the victim’s trust to commit the crime.
Myth #2: Men can’t control themselves
Saying that ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘man have urges they need to fulfill’ is total bull crap. First, this implies that rape is a natural consequence of men having the freedom to do what they want; that rape is a spontaneous result of hormones gone awry. Rape is in fact a conscious decision made by the rapist. People always have the choice to not rape.
Second, the notion that men cannot control themselves (an idea perpetuated by the patriarchy) does more than give men an excuse for rape. It also gives them very little credit to act as conscious, informed humans with the capacity for self control . It suggests that men are not smart enough or composed enough to control themselves, reducing them to feral creatures with animalistic urges who cannot stop themselves from hurting others.
Myth #3: Men cannot be raped.
There is a common misconception about the involvement and vulnerability of men surrounding sexual assault. Although the vast majority of all rape victims are women (research showing they comprise 95-99% of all victims), to suggest that men cannot be raped is factually inaccurate and plays into harmful gender constructions. The majority of advertising, media coverage and outreach materials focus on the risk of sexual assault for women, and fail to acknowledge that any gender, namely men, can be sexually assaulted. This paints an untrue portrait of sexual assault. While certain genders may be more vulnerable to sexual assault (trans women are disproportionately targeted and harmed), all genders need to give consent and all genders can be sexually assaulted.
Myth #4: Rapists are victims, too.
This myth most often makes its way into media reports on sexual assault cases. Many news outlets have highlighted an perpetrator’s corporate position, athletic achievements, or congenial disposition to suggest it would be a shame to hold them accountable for their crime. Headlines that read: ‘Promising Young Football Star Accused of Rape,’ romanticize a criminal’s athletic ability and fail to hold them responsible for their actions. These news stories place sympathy upon the perpetrator rather than the sexual assault survivor. When a perpetrator is convicted for sexual assault, that person is not a victim. That individual does not deserve pity because they had a bright future ahead of themselves. That person is a criminal who deserves to be sentenced accordingly.
Myth #5: The best way for a woman to protect herself from sexual assault is to avoid being alone at night in dark.
This goes hand in hand with #2. Since many people assume that rapists are creepy social outcasts lurking behind the bushes, it follows that as long as women are cognizant of their surroundings in public spaces they are less likely to be attacked. While of course this is one way to protect oneself, and it definitely doesn’t hurt to be cautious, it is certainly not the best way to avoid being raped. In reality, most sexual assaults occur in a private home (60%) and most of these occur in the victim’s home (38%). In fact, in over 80% of sexual assaults the perpetrator is someone known to the victim. So while it is good to be street smart, unfortunately most horrors happen in the home.
Myth #6: Women secretly want to be raped.
This goes to the belief that some women like to play out ‘rape fantasies’ as seen in TV, movies or porn. While some women certainly share this preference, being raped is NOT a fantasy. One cannot use BDSM as an excuse for raping someone. BDSM, or simulating a rape, is NOT rape. These sexual preferences are recreating scenarios while maintaining an equal power dynamic, with safe words and limits outlined before anything begins.
There is a big difference between fantasizing about aggressive sex and wanting to be raped. The key difference is control and consent. A woman is in control of her fantasies and consents to a simulation. On the other hand, women are not in control when they are being sexually assaulted. Rape is a violent and terrorizing experience that has an inherent component of an oppressor and an oppressed party that no person ‘asks for’ or wants to endure. In a nutshell: no woman wants to be raped because no woman wants to be out of control and dangerously subjected to the will of another.
Myth #7: If someone agrees to a sexual act once, they’ve agreed to it any time.
Just because someone consented once to a sexual act does not mean they have forever consented to that act. In perhaps more relatable terms: you may have lent your car to your friend last week, but that doesn’t mean they can take your car whenever they want.
Once upon a time there was no such thing as ‘marital rape.’ In other words, someone could rape their partner and it could not be considered sexual assault because they were married. That was based on the notion of implied/assumed consent. It was assumed that because you married someone you want to have sex whenever and wherever with them for the rest of your life. This is ridiculous and the courts have agreed. One occurrence of consent does not equate to eternal consent.
Myth #8: If someone agrees to one sexual act, they’ve agreed to all acts.
This is one of the most common rape myths. People often say, “I didn’t rape them, they said they wanted to ‘fool around’ or ‘hook up!’ That’s not how consent works; you need explicit consent for every act. As ruled by Canadian courts, there can be no ‘implied consent.’ Just because a person consents to coming to your house, it does not mean they want to be intimate. Or just because a person may want to cuddle, doesn’t necessarily mean they want to kiss. A person may be comfortable performing oral sex but uncomfortable having intercourse. Bottom line: If someone agrees to one thing, it does not mean they agree to another. Just because someone orders a burger, it doesn’t automatically mean they want fries too. (That’s why servers always ask: “Would you like fries with that?”)
Myth #9: If someone agrees to intercourse at the beginning of a sexual encounter then changes their mind it is not an assault.
OK, let’s use another example to get this point across. Let’s say you agree to go on a road trip with a friend. But once this road trip begins, you feel uncomfortable and/or unsafe. Your friend drives way too quickly and isn’t letting you stop for washroom breaks. Just because you agreed to go on the trip at the start of the day, doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind. Furthermore, if you asked to go back home and your friend doesn’t let you leave or forcibly holds you down in the car, that’s no longer a road trip, that’s kidnapping.
The same logic applies to sexual assault. Legally, a person has the right to change their mind about having sex at any point of sexual contact. If and when a person tells their sexual partner to stop, and that person does not, the act instantly changes from ‘sex’ to sexual assault.