Overcoming the Stigma of Sexual Assault: Know the Facts

A woman stands alone on a frozen lake.Sexual assault refers to a variety of crimes that use sex as a weapon. Sexual assault could include rape, incest, child molestation, groping strangers on the street, and other illegal acts.

People who survive sexual assault can experience mental health difficulties that last for years. Stigma can compound the pain of sexual assault, as a fear of stigma may deter survivors from seeking help or reaching out to others.

Myths about sexual assault hurt survivors. They can promote a social climate that makes sexual assault seem acceptable and defensible.

These 12 myths are among the most prevalent.

Myth #1: Rape, molestation, and sexual assault are rare, or they only happen to a certain type of person.

Fact: Sexual assault is very common and can happen to anyone.

All forms of sexual assault are more prevalent among women, girls, and transgender or nonbinary people. But men and boys are frequently assaulted too. Sexual assault is a widespread problem. Consider the following:

  • A 2014 study by Stop Street Harassment found 65% of women and 25% of men have experienced street harassment. Forty-one percent of women and 16% of men have experienced physically aggressive street harassment.
  • According to 2015 data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men experience some form of sexual violence during their lives.
  • The CDC reported in 2015 that 23 million women and 1.7 million men have been raped.
  • Incest is common but stigmatized. At least a third of child sexual abuse is committed by family members.
  • According to data synthesized by the Rape, Assault, and Incest National Network (RAINN):
    • 321,500 Americans over the age of 12 are sexually assaulted each year.
    • 80,600 inmates are sexually assaulted each year.
    • 18,900 military members are sexually assaulted each year.
    • 60,000 children are victims of sexual abuse each year.

Myth #2: If a person didn’t verbally say no, it doesn’t count as rape.

Fact: Consent is not the absence of a ‘no.’ It is the presence of an informed and freely given ‘yes.’

An analogy to other crimes may help explain why the absence of “no” is not enough. Consider a carjacker who steals another person’s car at gunpoint. The theft victim doesn’t feel safe saying no, so they may “willingly” give up the car. Likewise, a thief who breaks into a house and takes a family’s possessions couldn’t reasonably argue the family consented to the theft because they didn’t verbally decline.

Rape and other forms of sexual assault are no different. This is why many advocacy organizations now talk about “affirmative consent” and “yes means yes.” Sex is not a presumptive right that can only be taken away with a “no.” It’s something a person must ask and receive permission for.

Multiple factors can make it difficult for a person to say no. These include:

  • Power disparities. A soldier pressured into sex by a commanding officer may fear retaliation or career setbacks if they decline.
  • Age differences. Common sense dictates that a young child does not have the capacity to understand sex. Even children who do understand sex can be coerced into it by adults. This is why states have enacted age of consent laws. Though laws vary from state to state, they generally deem sex between a child under 18 and an adult as statutory rape. Some states have Romeo and Juliet laws, which make exceptions if a young adult and teen are very close in age. For instance, sex between a 19-year-old high schooler and their 17-year-old partner would not be prosecuted in Texas.
  • Intimidation. A person with a gun to their head may say yes because they have no other option. People facing a coercive partner may fear retaliation, physical assault, or even death if they say no.
  • Incapacitation. Some people can’t consent to sex because they don’t have the cognitive ability to do so. A person in a coma can’t consent. Nor can someone with end-stage dementia or severe brain damage that limits their ability to make decisions.

Myth #3: Only vaginal penetration counts as sexual assault.

Fact: Any forced or coerced sexual activity can be sexual assault.

Sexual assault refers to a broad group of crimes. Rape is just one type of sexual assault. Other forms of sexual assault include:

  • Groping, fondling, or touching a person’s body without their consent
  • Making sexually suggestive threats
  • Medical sexual assault. This is when a doctor touches a person against their will in an attempt at sexual gratification.

Rape does not require vaginal penetration. Most sexual assault advocates urge victims and survivors of rape to weigh their own experiences rather than relying on a single definition. This is because state laws, federal definitions, and medical definitions vary.

Generally, penetration or attempted penetration of any orifice counts as rape. Rape might involve forced anal or oral penetration. Rape could also include forcing a person to penetrate another person. Forced or coerced sexual contact with a person’s genitals is also rape.

Myth #4: A person can prevent sexual assault with certain behavior, such as avoiding strangers or never walking home alone.

Fact: People are more likely to be assaulted by people they know. The only way to prevent sexual assault is for perpetrators to stop assaulting people.

No data has found a link between any specific behavior and a reduced risk of rape or sexual assault. RAINN estimates that seven in 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. Among child sexual abuse victims, abuse often occurs at the hands of a parent or family member.

The University of Kansas recently held an art exhibition called “What were you wearing?” The exhibit displayed the clothes people were wearing when they were raped. It aimed to dispel the myth that clothing—particularly “sexy” clothing—can trigger rape. A Teen Vogue photo spread also features clothing worn during a sexual assault.

Myth #5: It’s not sexual assault or rape if the assailant and victim are already in a relationship.

Fact: No one has a right to sex. Romantic status and prior consent do not erase the need for current consent.

A person who borrowed money from a friend would not expect to have unfettered access to that friend’s bank account. Nor would a person in a relationship believe that they have a right to everything their partner owns. The right to sex is no different. Consent must be freely given, and it can be taken away at any time—even if a person has previously consented to sex.

Consent must be freely given, and it can be taken away at any time. Someone may also remove consent during a sexual act. Everyone has a right to control their bodies and to avoid unwanted touch or penetration. If the other person doesn’t stop, it’s rape. (When the assailant and victim have a prior romantic relationship, it is called date rape.)

Legal definitions of rape vary. The law changes as social norms shift. Legal standards are not the final word on what is or is not rape. Nor do they determine how someone should feel about an abusive sexual act.

Nevertheless, marital rape has been banned in all 50 states since 1993. Married partners can be prosecuted for forced or coerced sex. Likewise, no state gives a person the right to have sex with someone they’ve had sex with before or with whom they are currently in a relationship.

Myth #6: Boys and men can’t be raped, and women can’t be perpetrators.

Fact: Boys and men can be raped, and women can be rapists.

Women and girls are more likely to experience rape and other forms of sexual assault than men and boys. Indeed, many analysts argue the threat of sexual assault is a way of controlling women. Yet sexual assault is also common among men and boys.

The CDC reports 1 in 6 men experience sexual violence during their lives. 1.7 million men have been raped. Certain groups of men are more likely to experience sexual violence. Those include:

  • Children. Children are more vulnerable to sexual predators, including family members.
  • People incarcerated in jails and prisons. Rape and sexual assault may be used to enforce prison hierarchies or penalize people for not conforming to gender role expectations. Some guards use sexual assault to abuse and control inmates.
  • People in armed conflict. Rape is sometimes a tool of war, and said tool may be used against men.
  • Men who do not conform to gender or sexual norms. Men perceived as “gay” or “effeminate” may experience rape or sexual assault as a form of homophobic abuse.

Most research suggests male survivors are typically victimized by other men. Yet a 2017 data analysis suggests 28% of male survivors are raped by women alone—not women acting with other men.

A person does not have to penetrate another person for it to be rape. Women can overpower men and force them to have sex. They can use coercive methods, power imbalances, and weapons to extract sex. Women may also use so-called date rape drugs, including alcohol.

Data on male rape survivors is mixed and often contradictory. This is due in part to the stigma associated with being a man who has been raped. Some men worry that being raped makes them gay, weak, or less of a man. Stigma can prevent male survivors from seeking necessary help.

Myth #8: False rape and sexual assault reports are common.

Fact: Fear of negative attention and stigma causes people to under-report sexual assault.

Most data suggest false reports of sexual assault are rare. The rate of false reporting for sexual assault is similar to, or lower than, false reports of other crimes.

Further complicating matters is the fact that rape stigma may cause a report to be labeled false when it is merely unsubstantiated. If the assailant and victim’s testimonies clash, and there is no other evidence available, a police officer may assume any sexual activity was consensual and mark the report as false. Due to a backlog of rape kits across the nation, producing physical evidence can be difficult.

People who are raped or sexually assaulted may feel embarrassment or shame. These feelings can make a person reluctant to report the crime. Thus, many sexual assaults go unreported. According to RAINN, out of every 1,000 rapes:

  • 310 are reported to police.
  • 57 lead to an arrest.
  • 11 are referred for prosecution.
  • 7 result in a felony conviction.
  • 6 lead to the rapist’s incarceration.

In other words, less than 6% of rapes result in an arrest. Only 0.006% of rape survivors see their rapist incarcerated.

Myth #9: People claim they were sexually assaulted for attention, money, or other personal gain.

Fact: Most people who report a sexual assault face a wide range of personal consequences.

There’s little social status to be gained from reporting a sexual assault, especially one that didn’t happen. At every level of reporting, a survivor often encounters skepticism, victim-blaming, and rape myths. A survivor who sees their rapist prosecuted may have to answer intrusive questions about their sexual history or deal with badgering from a defense attorney. They may also have to cope with public fallout and scrutiny.

People who tell only friends and family about a sexual assault can also experience a lot of fallout. This may include:

  • Judgment and derision.
  • Loved ones taking the side of the assailant, particularly if they know that person.
  • Estrangement from friends and family, especially in cases of incest.
  • Humiliation and a sense of exposure.
  • Lack of sympathy; being told to “just get over it.”

These reactions can damage a person’s self-esteem and isolate them from a community. Without social support, a person’s trauma may take longer to heal.

Myth #10: It is impossible to get pregnant from rape.

Fact: A woman is just as likely to get pregnant from rape as she is from consensual intercourse.

Data on rape-related pregnancy rates are limited. This is because many women do not report their rapes. Some may feel that a non-consensual sexual experience “doesn’t count” as rape.

As with consensual intercourse, the odds of getting pregnant depend on many factors, including:

  • Menstrual cycle: How close a woman is to ovulation when she is raped.
  • Birth control: Whether the victim is using hormonal contraceptives or the assailant used a condom.
  • Fertility: The fertility levels of the woman and the rapist. For example, an older assailant may be less fertile than an attacker in their twenties.

A 1996 study of American women estimated 32,101 pregnancies result from rape each year. For Americans, the overall pregnancy rate among rape victims was 5%. Meanwhile, a 1998 study of Ethiopian teens who were raped found a pregnancy rate of 17%.

Myth #10: If a rape really happened, the victim would report it immediately.

Fact: Victims delay reporting for many reasons.

It can take many years for a victim to come to terms with their experience. Some do not want to accept that they were raped by a family member or loved one. Others fear personal or professional repercussions. In some cases, the rape or sexual assault occurred when the person was a child who was unable to safely report the abuse.

Sometimes a high-profile story or social movement encourages a survivor to report. For instance, women began coming forward about alleged assaults by Bill Cosby when other women shared similar stories. Standing alone, these women were often disregarded or ignored. When more than 60 women accused Cosby of assault and rape, it became more difficult to ignore them. A similar situation occurred regarding producer Harvey Weinstein.

The #metoo movement may have also encouraged some survivors to share their stories. When one person shares a story, it offers evidence that another survivor does not have to stand alone.

Myth #11: Rape has to be very violent or involve a weapon to ‘count.’

Fact: Rape can be coercive or occur under the influence of alcohol and drugs.

State laws vary, but no state requires the use of a weapon for an attack to qualify as rape. An assailant may overpower or threaten a victim. The victim could decide that fighting back is too dangerous.

Simply because a rape “could have been worse” does not mean that a rape doesn’t count. The victim may also feel so frightened that they are unable to fight back. Intense moments of stress cause some people to freeze rather than fight or flee. So victims may appear to be passive when they are really so frightened they are unable to think or move.

Some victims feel their rape was comparably less “bad” than other rapes. Simply because a rape “could have been worse” does not mean it doesn’t count. A rape without a weapon can still warrant treatment or prosecution. All forms of sexual assault can be traumatic and have consequences that may last for many decades.

Myth #12: Rape is just bad sex.

Fact: Bad sex can be disappointing, frustrating, and unpleasant. It is not traumatic. Rape is not just a variation of normal sex.

The effects of rape can be catastrophic. Victims may experience depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress (PTSD). Their relationships may suffer, particularly if loved ones do not believe or support them. They may feel humiliated and ashamed.

Some rape survivors live in fear of being raped again. This anxiety can be compounded by public scrutiny and harassment. Rape can affect a person’s career, relationships, and overall well-being.

Some victims experience physical injuries and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Others might become pregnant. Managing these aftereffects can further compound the trauma of surviving a rape.

Therapy can support survivors recovering from sexual assault. A therapist can help someone cope with overwhelming emotions and talk to loved ones about their experiences. A therapist may also treat any mental health concerns that arose from the trauma. Therapy can be a safe place to receive support from someone who understands.


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