Sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes in the U.S. While the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey estimates an average of 293,066 victims of rape and sexual assault each year, the actual number of unreported cases is expected to be much higher. The anti-sexual assault organization RAINN estimates that approximately 68% of sexual assaults are never reported to the police.
This means that the vast majority of people experiencing sexualized violence will remain silent over what has happened to them.
Which factors contribute to this situation and why do the majority of rape survivors not speak out regarding what has happened to them? Why do most of the survivors of rape feel that they have to face their troubles overcoming their traumatic experiences alone and without taking legal actions?
I argue that this situation is caused by the fact that sexualized violence is dealt with as a trivial offense, which is rationalized, excused, or justified by the public at large. This does not mean that the individuals necessarily condone rape culture or think that sexualized violence is a good thing, but it means that many people tend to normalize rape and make excuses for it. Rape survivors are blamed for their victimization – and consequently are responsible for dealing and living with the consequences of their experiences on their own.
To put it into more scientific language: as an outcome of rape culture, sexualized violence is normalized due to internalized societal myths about what defines a “real rape”, exonerating the perpetrators of a sexual offence and diverting the guilt to the survivors. In this connection, Bohner states that “rape myths may contribute to the prevalence of rape” as they serve as cognitive neutralizers, allowing perpetrators to avoid social prohibitions. As well as having a neutralizing function serving to defend the rapist’s actions, myths also have an impact on the perception of victims of sexualized violence, thus leading to victim blame and sexist attitudes.
Here is a list of some of the most common myths entangling sexual violence.
The “real victim” stereotype: “women ‘ask for it’ by their dress or actions”
If survivors of sexualized violence want to be taken seriously, they need to be considered “respectable” – according to heteronormative standards. This stereotype raises the question of who is entitled to feel hurt in the first place, questioning victims who do not conform certain unstated standards. It includes utterances such as:
“Only young, white women without disabilities get raped” or “sexualized violence cannot be directed towards men*, trans- or inter-persons”.
Survivors of sexualized violence are often confronted with questions about their general sexual behavior, their drinking habits, and are quickly judged by their style of clothing and so on. The line of argument behind this myth is something like the following:
“If the person assaulted had a promiscuous lifestyle, has been drinking, doing drugs and wore a short skirt, they must have been asking for it. If they are violated, it is their fault for having been sexual or acting irresponsibly by drinking or dressing the way they did in the first place.”
The thought behind this argument is that a sexually active person does not deserve to be in charge of their own sexuality and their body.
The “real rape stereotype”: blaming survivors for their own violation and exonerating perpetrators
Du Mont, Miller, and Myhr found out that if victims do not match the stereotype of a “morally upright white woman who is physically injured while resisting”, and who were raped in a “violent and forceful [act] committed by a stranger during a blitz attack in a public place”, were less likely to report to the police. The argument behind this stereotype is:
“If they didn’t fight back or didn’t scream, if it happened in their own home and/or if they perpetrator was not a stranger, it was their own fault for being violated“.
In reality, 82% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by a non-stranger in their home. Most of the offenders were described as a friend or an acquaintance (47%), a partner (25%) or a relative (5%). Again, by telling victims that the assault was caused by their own behavior, not by that of the perpetrator, this stereotype places the blame for the assault on the survivor, instead of blaming the perpetrator who violated them.
Myths of the “ideal victim” prevailing in the criminal justice system
Another reason why a majority of rape cases remain unreported, or many perpetrators remain without conviction, is the existence of rape-supportive stereotypes among members of the criminal justice system. This thesis is underlined by the fact that a high number of reports to the police are dropped or are not investigated further after the first interview with the victim: Of 164 rape cases reviewed in a case study by Jordan (2004), only 34 (21 %) were considered as “clearly legitimate” (ibid.) by the police, 55 cases (33 %) were viewed as “clearly false” (ibid.) and 62 reports (38 %) were considered as “possibly true or false” (ibid.), indicating that the police were unsure if the victim was genuine. The study underlines the extent to which the police rely on stereotypes that involve subjective evaluations and shows how the evaluation of rape cases is negatively influenced by the acceptance of rape myths in the criminal justice system. For this reason, even when an act of sexualized violence is reported to the police, it is unlikely to lead to an arrest and prosecution. Factoring in unreported rapes, only about 2% of rapists will ever serve a day in prison.
Bohner, G. “Rape Myths as Neutralizing Cognitions: Evidence For a Causal Impact of Anti-Victim Attitudes on Men’s Self-Reported Likelihood of Raping”. In: European Journal of Social Psychology 28 (1998): 257 – 268.
Du Mont, J., Miller, K., and Myhr, T. “The Role of ‘Real Rape’ and ‘Real Victim’ Stereotypes in the Police Reporting Practices of Sexually Assaulted Women”. In: Violence Against Women 9 (2003): 466 – 486.
Eyssel, F., and Bohner, G. “Schema Effects or Rape Myth Acceptance on Judgments of Guilt and Blame in Rape Cases: The Role of Perceived Entitlement to Judge”. In: Journal of Interpersonal Violence 26 (2011): 1579 – 1605.
Jordan, J. “Beyond Belief? Police, Rape and Women’s Credibility”. In: Criminology and Criminal Justice 4 (2004): 29 – 59.
Justice Department, National Crime Victimization Survey: 2008 – 2012.
RAINN – Rape Abuse & Incest National Network. “Get Info”. Web. https:// rainn.org / get-information.
Most photos in this article are from project-unbreakable.org – a photography project aiming to give a voice to survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse.