Debunking the many myths of sexual assault

Monitor staff
Published: 4/15/2017 11:27:17 PM

She didn’t physically fight back, so she must have wanted it.

She was wearing a mini skirt, so she asked for it.

She didn’t go to police right away, so why does she expect anyone to believe her now.

There is growing recognition that rape myths like these permeate American culture and help normalize sexual violence, especially against women. Experts say these myths spread inaccurate beliefs about how and why sexual assault happens, and discount the prevalence of the crime. They also have a significant affect on the investigative process which depends on a victim’s readiness to report and willingness to pursue legal action.

Those who work with victims of sexual violence say that through increased community education and awareness, there has been progress in debunking some of these myths but many still persist. As a result, victims are blamed, in part, if not completely, for the harm that befell them.

Historically, one of the most prominent misconceptions is that rape is the violent attack of a woman by an armed stranger who preys under the darkness of night. While stranger rape does happen, it’s far more likely that a person will be sexually assaulted by a friend, relative or partner.

“People buy into the boogeyman myth of rape and think that’s the norm and that’s what it looks like. When, up to 90 percent of the time, it’s someone you know and trust in a place that you’re comfortable – but that’s not convenient and no one wants to believe that that’s the case,” said Jessica Eskeland, public policy specialist at the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

The coalition’s Executive Director Lyn Schollett echoed that point: “If we acknowledge that most sexual assault is committed by people known to us and close to us, we have to acknowledge that we’re all vulnerable.”

For decades, women have been told to follow “the checklist” to stay safe, said Paula Kelley-Wall, director of the Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire in Concord. This checklist isn’t something that is physically written down; rather, it refers to the unwritten guidelines women have been taught to follow to stay safe, such as travel in pairs, have a code word in case of an emergency, and be in control of your drink at all times.

The list, though, is not fullproof, and places undue blame on female victims, Kelley-Wall said.

What’s commonly referred to as victim blaming is, in part, an unconscious process, and it happens when we try to find an answer for why people do what they do, said Scott Hampton, who has worked with perpetrators, survivors of sexual violence and child witnesses for decades. In an effort to understand the actions of others, people look to their own life experiences and, as such, view through a biased lens, he said.

To illustrate, Hampton pulled from a scenario he might use to educate jurors while testifying as an expert witness in interpersonal violence: Imagine two men, both of whom are running late, leave home one morning without making their beds. Although both men experienced identical circumstances, it’s likely one of them will assume the other didn’t make his bed because he’s lazy.

“I’m more likely to attribute to you some type of character flaw,” Hampton said. “Similarly, I’m more likely to assume the alleged victim of sexual assault did what she did because of a flaw. I want to distance myself from her victimization because I will feel safer if I think she is responsible for what happened to her.”

Victim blaming is multifaceted and also occurs when people try to understand why someone responded a certain way during and after an assault. Few people would question a victim’s decision to fight back and/or try to run away, but the majority of victims do neither. Most freeze.

Hampton explained that when a person is scared, the parts of the brain responsible for thinking, planning and daily operations, are largely deactivated. As a result, the brain goes into survival mode, causing a person’s most primitive instincts to kick in, he said.

“We spend a lot of time examining whether a victim’s response is reasonable and that seems really unfair,” Hampton said. “How should a victim respond? Whatever she does that leads to her survival, that was a good choice.”

As advocates work with survivors to publicize their stories and, in turn, discount the myths, they say they’re hopeful the community conversation will also shift. Survivors’ responses are repeatedly scrutinized, but the most fundamental question, they say, is why does rape happen in the first place.

Schollett said the myth that rape is somehow a misunderstanding is extremely concerning and problematic for society. A perpetrators’ behavior is planned and purposeful, she said.

Hampton agreed, noting the goals of a violent sexual offender are near identical to those of an offender who may not intend to harm but simply doesn’t understand sexual boundaries. Perpetrators’ actions and decisions differ, but they’re all after the same result: all offenders identify a victim, determine how best to gain access to him or her, choose a type of sexual violence, and, finally, take steps to avoid accountability, he said.

Sexual offenders thrive on secrecy and a carefully planned strategy, Hampton said. The idea that they’re acting on impulse is one of the many myths, he said.

“The dividing line is sexual consent versus sexual abuse: Was it something both parties freely engaged in or was it against one person’s will? ... From the victim’s perspective it’s so simple, all you have to do is make sure everything is okay between the two of you. Perpetrators don’t want that line to be drawn, because any gray area gives them plausible deniability.”

While rehabilitation programs are important, they reach only a small sector of the sex offender population, Hampton said. That’s because many are never held accountable, in large part because sexual assault is the most underreported crime.

“Our progress will come when we dismantle the rape culture,” he said. “Until then, offenders will continue to find cracks in the system.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)

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