Few realms of criminal violence are as generally misunderstood and fraught with misconceptions as sexual assault. Society’s normalization of rape and other types of sexual assault leads to widespread misinformation about the nature of sexual violence and reflects a glaring lack of social understanding about consent, gender, sexuality, oppression, and power.
Many common myths promote the falsehood that sexual assaults are at least partially the survivor’s fault, preventing victims from getting the help they need and deserve. Misleading theories also make it easy for perpetrators to escape criminal prosecution because they serve to excuse sexual violence, create hostility toward victims, reinforce criminal justice system bias, and undermine judges’ and jurors’ ability to objectively assess facts. As a result, out of every 1,000 sexual assaults reported to law enforcement, 975 perpetrators will walk free.
Myths about sexual violence also lend false perceptions of security, especially to women, because we feel safer if we can imagine the victims did something wrong to cause their attack, and we can therefore protect ourselves and loved ones from being victimized by avoiding certain situations and behaviors. In reality, no one is immune from being harmed by sexual violence. Sexual abuse is never caused by a victim’s choices, behavior, personality, or responses; it is caused entirely by the abuser.
Separating myths from facts is critical to stopping sexual violence and finding ways to best support victims/survivors of sexual assault and abuse. When we break apart the “puzzle” of damaging myths about sexual violence by educating ourselves and others about the facts, and challenge misconceptions, we can rebuild a society that is more just and beautiful.
MYTH: Women often “cry rape” or lie about being sexually assaulted.
REALITY: False reports are dramatically overestimated and sensationalized in the media. Evidence-based research estimates the percentage of false reports to be about 2-8%. This is the same rate for false reports for other crimes. Misconceptions about false reporting rates contribute to why many victims don’t report sexual assaults. When it comes to lies and sexual assault, the one that women are most likely to tell is the one they tell themselves: They did something wrong and deserved to be violated.
MYTH: A “real” sexual assault survivor always reports immediately.
REALITY: Rape is the most underreported crime; 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police. Only 12% of child sexual abuse is reported to the authorities. Reasons for lack of reporting include fear of retaliation, shame, self-blame, confusion, and inaccurate information about legal rights. Other victims don’t want to get the perpetrator in trouble or fear there is not enough evidence to prove what happened. Many do not come forward because they fear they will not be believed, or worse, will be blamed for their assault.
MYTH: Most rapes are committed by strangers in dark, isolated locations.
REALITY: Most sexual assaults happen during the day, at home, and by someone known to the victim. Studies show only 19.5% of assaults are committed by a stranger; eight out of 10 victims know their assailant—be that a friend, partner, service provider, family member, employer, or acquaintance.
MYTH: Women cannot be raped by a boyfriend, partner, or spouse.
REALITY: Sexual assault can and does happen in long-term relationships. According to Montana law, a current or previous dating, social, or sexual relationship does not “determine or prove consent.” It is important to remember consent needs to be explicit and must happen every time, regardless of relationship status. Just because someone has given consent in the past does not mean it is ongoing or implied in the future.
MYTH: If the victim is high or drunk, they put themselves in a position to be sexually assaulted.
REALITY: Due to the predatory nature of sexual violence, assaults often occur when victims are intoxicated. Alcohol is the number one tool used by perpetrators in drug-facilitated sexual assault because it quickly and effectively increases the vulnerability of their victims. Being mentally or physically incapacitated, whether due to alcohol, drugs, or another vulnerable condition prevents a person from being able to legally consent to sexual acts. It is a crime to have sex with someone who is highly intoxicated, and that applies to perpetrators as well. Being drunk or high is never an excuse to commit sexual crimes or harm someone else.
MYTH: Women who wear revealing clothes are “asking for it.”
REALITY: No one ever asks or deserves to be sexually assaulted. Montana law clearly states the way a victim is dressed does not establish consent. Women have the right to dress however they choose without fear of being raped. If we blame the victim for being sexually assaulted because of the way they were dressed, we excuse the behavior of the perpetrator and imply they are not responsible for their actions.
MYTH: Sexual violence is a “women’s issue.”
REALITY: Sexual violence does not discriminate; anyone can be a victim. One out of six men experience sexual violence in their lives. Most male sexual assaults happen under the age of 18 and most perpetrators are men. These predators choose to assault both gay and straight men because rape is an act of aggression and domination, not of sexual desire. Most male victims never report their sexual assault, even to people they know and trust. They fear being disbelieved, ridiculed, shamed, accused of weakness, ignored or, in the case of heterosexual men, being perceived as gay.
MYTH: If someone didn’t really want it, they would fight back.
REALITY: Despite what you might see on TV, most people do not scream or fight during a sexual assault because they freeze. It is a common and automatic response for victims to become immobilized with fear during a sexual attack, unable to move, speak, or fight back. For that reason, Montana law states, “Resistance by the victim is not required to show lack of consent. Force, fear, or threat is sufficient to show lack of consent.” Attackers will sometimes use weapons or threats of violence to prevent a physical struggle or take advantage of someone who is not able to consent, because they are intoxicated, incapacitated, or asleep. Just because someone does not have visible injuries, did not say the word “no,” or did not fight back, does not mean they were not sexually assaulted.
MYTH: Men sexually assault others because they are sexually frustrated or cannot control their impulses.
REALITY: It is a disservice to men to assume they are incapable of controlling their own bodies. The media bombards us with harmful stereotypical messages of what it means to “be a man,” and normalizes dominant, violent sexual behavior. The truth is, regardless of gender, we are all sexual beings. A lack of control over sexual impulses and actions has nothing to do with the nature of sexual violence. Perpetrators of rape are often serial criminals who are motivated by power, aggression, and control; they strategically plan their attacks and intentionally choose vulnerable victims.