Nov 10, 2014

Debunking The Rape Myth

Aisling Curtis questions the dangerous burden placed upon rape victims to conform to society's accepted narrative for victimhood

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Aisling Curtis | Senior Staff Writer

 If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre at 1 800 778 888 and www.drcc.ie, Samaritans Ireland at 116 123, or Trinity Counselling at (01) 8961407 and www.tcd.ie/Student_Counselling.

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Despite evidence that around 90 per cent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim knows, the contemporary myth is nevertheless this: a stranger in a dark and isolated place, brutalising a woman who wandered into an attack. This clichéd victim has become the standard against which the media, the law, and the average person evaluate claims of rape, a stereotype as outdated and deeply unhelpful as representations of the uncolonised savage or the ditsy housewife or the all-powerful white man.

These other inaccurate depictions have largely fallen into disrepute as remnants of a more bigoted time. Yet the stereotyped rape victim remains. Politicians and journalists misconstrue events time and again: former congressman Todd Akin asks whether women regularly lie about rape – those strumpets! – and Tucker Carlson of Fox News seems perplexed by the notion that men can be rape victims too. They, and many others, are operating under the mistaken assumption that only the cases that align with their myth can be considered real sexual assault, as if there’s a litmus test for it and being male or sexually active means you cannot get the right result.

The rape myth muffles traumatised victims, forces them to work through their issues alone, and lets attackers offend again. We must expand our understanding of ‘acceptable’ narratives available to victims.

I fail to understand how somebody can believe that they have the right to stand on their soapbox and tell a traumatised victim that their rape is not ‘Real Rape’. That if your partner or your ex did it, or if you happen to be promiscuous, or even if you are just a man or an older woman or somebody who identifies as LGBTQ, or you fail to align neatly with the young, female, virginal caricature – as so many of us don’t – that it’s not “the same”. This constraining criteria bestows a false sense of security: it allows a legitimisation or complete denial of sexual assault, gives the perpetrators an easy escape from responsibility and guilt, and leaves victims unsure whether or not they’ve really been hurt.

In 2009, Ireland’s conviction rate for sexual assault was a bare 7 per cent, implying a worrying mystification about what exactly ‘rape’ is. Studies further suggest that between 75-90 per cent of victims do not report following their attack; according to the US Department of Justice, 27 per cent of those who stay silent think the police won’t find their claim serious enough. Failure to conform with the traditional myth evidently leaves victims unsure whether anyone will believe them, whether anyone will help them, and whether they can seek justice in the murky waters of the Irish judicial system.

The most recent statistics from the CSO suggest that reported rape in Ireland is on the rise, with 377 cases brought to the police in 2009 and 479 in 2010 – an increase of 27 per cent. But if under-reporting statistics are extrapolated based on this data, an additional 1,437-4,311 rapes may have gone unreported in 2010 alone. Men and women are not talking about their experiences with sexual assault, and this is largely because they don’t think others will perceive a crime, even if they themselves feel that one has occurred. The rape myth muffles traumatised victims, forces them to work through their issues alone, and lets attackers offend again.

This constraining criteria bestows a false sense of security: it allows a legitimisation or complete denial of sexual assault, gives the perpetrators an easy escape from responsibility and guilt, and leaves victims unsure whether or not they’ve really been hurt.

We must stop this, and to do so we must expand our understanding of ‘acceptable’ narratives available to a victim of rape. We must acknowledge that it can happen to the promiscuous and to the reserved, to those in relationships and those not, to both men and women, to heterosexuals, homosexuals, and those who identify whichever way they choose. And that it need not be perpetrated by strangers, but also friends and family and partners and exes and anybody, no matter how nice or social or friendly they may seem.

The prevailing and antiquated narrative must be allowed to die, for this myth does us all a disservice. Sexual violence is perpetrated by those from every social, racial, ethnic, economic and age group upon those from every background, and it’s detrimental to presume otherwise. Allowing for a wider range of possibilities would encourage more people to seek justice and psychological help. It can enlighten the many men and women who don’t realise that their actions are wrong, and perhaps in the long run increase the number of perpetrators punished for their attacks.

Maybe then fewer vulnerable victims will slip through the net, traumatised, silenced, and confused.

Additionally, if any of the above has been your experience and you would like to raise understanding among students, increase coverage of this issue, or just talk to somebody, the author of this piece would be very interested to speak with you. Total anonymity is assured and no discussion of your experiences will occur, including among UT staff, without your explicit consent. You can contact the author at [email protected].


Illustration by Iseult McArdle for The University Times

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