What are the myths about rape? Can we explain the existence of these myths?A few people have given us definitions of rape myths. Here’s a good one: “generalized and false beliefs about sexual assault that trivialize a sexual assault or suggest that a sexual assault did not occur.”
The British Journal of Sociology said in 1963 that a myth “does not mean an untrue or impossible tale, but a tale which is told to justify some aspect of social order or of human experience.” Excellent!
Four major rape myths have existed for hundreds, or thousands, of years.
Myth # 1: Rape Is Not Serious / Forced Sex Is Not Always Rape
Thousands of years ago, the powers-that-be decided that forcible rape is not really a crime. Under ancient Hebrew law, the punishment for a man who raped an unmarried virgin was to marry her and give 50 shekels to her father. How much have we progressed since then? Less than you might think.
In the 1980s, the Rhode Island Rape Crisis Center surveyed 1700 middle-school students. About 60% of them thought it was all right for a man to force sex on his girlfriend if they had been dating at least six months.
In a telephone survey of Oklahoma women from 2001 to 2003, nearly one-fourth agreed that rape is not really a violent crime.
However, it is now widely accepted that a man can rape his wife. Only 3% of 5000 Australians surveyed in 1992 thought that rape cannot take place in a marriage.
Myth # 2: The Victim Was Responsible
Since ancient times, some societies have punished the victim as well as the rapist. The penalty could be extra harsh if the rape victim was married.
The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi stated that when a man raped a married woman, both of them must be bound and thrown into a river (the victim’s husband could save her, or let her drown). Ancient Hebrew law showed no mercy; a married rape victim was stoned to death.
We have advanced since then. In a 2008 poll in Ireland, the vast majority placed the blame for rape squarely on the rapist, but a disturbingly high 5% to 10% placed ALL the blame on the victim in the following situations:
(5%) she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing;
(5%) she went home with a man;
(8%) she was drunk or had taken illegal drugs;
(9%) she was walking home through a dangerous or deserted area;
(10%) she flirted extensively with the man;
(10%) she has had many sexual partners.
Myth # 3: Women Often Lie About Rape
Women do occasionally lie about sexual assaults, but long ago many people insisted that it was commonplace.
The British newspaper, “The Times,” in the 19th century stated that it was a common crime for Irish women to lie about rape to blackmail men into marriage.
In 1831, the “Manual of Medical Jurisprudence” urged physicians not to be concerned about vaginal infections of young girls, because girls could easily be persuaded to accuse innocent men of rape.
In the late 1800s, two medical journals stated that women injured their children’s genitals to support false abuse allegations.
In 1928, the Bronx Hospital medical-board president wrote that women who claimed to have been raped were probably old-maid virgins, or worn out from a promiscuous lifestyle.
The 1928 book, “America’s Sex and Marriage Problems. Based on Thirty Years Practice and Study,” said that 99% of rape accusations were lies, and counseled us to beware of women’s cunning and malice. We were further reminded in 1967 in the book, “Cry Rape: Anatomy of the Rapist,” which warned us of the “devious and capricious foibles of the female mind ….”
Do people really believe that most rape accusations are lies? In a 1992 survey of Australians, 6% of the men and 6% of the women believed it was true.
Myth # 4: Forcible Sexual Intercourse Is Almost Impossible
Forcible rape is now so commonly reported that few people would claim that a woman can easily prevent rape simply by fighting back. But many years ago, the situation was quite different.
Prominent physicians and jurists from the 1830s to the 1920s repeatedly stated, in writing, that it was almost impossible to rape a resisting woman. Some of the reasons: (a) a woman can prevent penetration simply by crossing her knees, (b) the female body was designed to defy assault, (c) a man must struggle desperately to penetrate a vigorous, virtue-protecting girl.
Let’s fast-forward a few decades. Had we become a little more enlightened? Not quite. The book “Cry Rape: Anatomy of the Rapist” (1967) stated that at least three men were required to rape a woman, because rapists are repelled by violence.
Another book, “Crimes of Violence” (1973), stated that many medical writers insist that a woman’s interposing hands, limbs, and pelvic muscles “are practically insurmountable regardless of the usual relative disproportionate strength between men and women.”
The News & Courier (Charleston, S. Carolina, Apr. 28, 1974) said that the majority of rapes “result from spur-of-the-moment urges, although ‘rape artists’ who plan their assaults ahead of time and attack on a regular basis, do exist.” They do exist, indeed.
How did these myths arise?
In an interview that was published in 2007, the Co-Director of Communities Against Rape and Abuse (Seattle, Washington) said that rape myths help to ensure systems of oppression. Powerful people benefit by using the media to exploit women of color, homosexuals, and disabled people. These myths are used for power and control. She says that in our “rape culture,” all relationships are “predicated on a power-and-control model.”
This seems a little extreme. But an unrelated article lends some credence to her theory. Researchers looked at rape myths in newspaper headlines; specifically, those concerning the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case a few years ago.
Of the headlines that used “victim,” “alleged victim,” or “accuser,” 91% called the victim the “accuser.” Identifying the rape victim as the “accuser,” rather than “alleged victim,” typically makes the readers shift responsibility from the rapist to the victim.
Nearly 10% of the headlines contained rape myths, the most common being “she’s lying” and “she wanted it.” Previous research on rape myths found on TV and in newspaper articles also concluded that these two myths were the most common.
But the article is more important than the headline, right? Wrong. When you read a newspaper you almost always read more headlines than articles.
And although pretrial publicity typically biases jurors against the defendant, sex crimes are the exception; jurors become biased against the victim.
Are journalists to blame for perpetuating these myths? It is not likely that they are acting with malice. But research has shown that they are much more likely to doubt the victim’s story than question the defendant’s story.
Why do people embrace these myths?
(1) When we attribute bad things to bad people (e.g., the woman was responsible), this helps us believe in a just world.
(2) A woman who believes rape myths can believe she has control over her own destiny, i.e., she won’t get raped if she doesn’t misbehave.
(3) Men who believe rape myths can believe that they could never commit such an act, i.e., a woman who doesn’t want to have sex can easily prevent it.
Do these beliefs have real-world consequences? Yes. In mock trials, jurors who believed rape myths were less likely to convict accused rapists.
The word “rape” first appeared in English print in 1481. Nearly 500 years later, we were told of “rape artists,” now called serial rapists. Throughout history, forcible sex acts were often regarding as not forcible or not criminal. Far too many people still believe this today.
Bourke, J 2007, Rape: Sex, Violence, History.
Easteal, PW 1992, “Beliefs About Rape: A National Survey” (Australia).
Franiuk, R, Seefelt, J & Vandello, J 2008, “Prevalence of Rape Myths in Headlines and Their Effects on Attitudes Toward Rape,” Sex Roles (Vol. 58, Numbers 11-12).
Irish Examiner 2008 (Mar. 26).
Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2009, “Rape (law).”
Oklahoma State Department of Health 2006, “Oklahoma Women and Sexual Violence-Beliefs, Opinions, and Victimization: Results from a Random Telephone Survey,” Injury Update (Dec. 15).
Oxford English Dictionary 1989 (2nd edition).
Research & Advocacy Digest 2007, Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs (Vol. 9, Issue 3).
State of Maine 2005 (Jan.), “Report of the Committee to Prevent Sexual Abuse.”
WCSAP Research & Advocacy Digest 2007 (May), “Rape Myths.”