Sexual assault myths: a powerful campaign of misinformation

It can be difficult to talk about sex and sexual assault. However, it is a valuable conversation that must be had in order to reduce the rate of the crime and the impact it has on both the victims and society. In order to have an effective discussion about sexual assault, we must first address the numerous myths surrounding the topic.

Myth #1: If a victim refuses to cooperate with investigators, then they were lying.

Fact: A victim of sexual assault may stop cooperating in a sexual assault investigation for any number of reasons: attempting to minimize re-traumatization, avoiding the stigma of being labeled as a victim, buckling under social pressure (harassment, losing friends, not being believed, and repercussions in the workplace), etc. Ultimately the choice to cooperate with a sexual assault investigation is made by the victim. We understand it can be a very difficult decision, one that has many consequences.

Myth #2: If the sexual assault isn’t prosecuted, it was a false accusation.

Fact: Unfortunately, most sexual assault cases will never see a court room. The judicial system relies on hard facts and evidence. Sexual assault crimes often have no eye witnesses and leave no physical evidence. Without either of these, it is difficult to meet this standard for prosecution. The reason there are often no eye witnesses is because perpetrators isolate their victims when committing this crime. It is important that victims of sexual assault come forward as soon as they are able to after the assault, because there is a limited timeline to collect DNA evidence (generally up to 120 hours after the crime).

Myth #3: Rape is caused by the need for sexual gratification.

Fact: Rape is a crime of power and control, it is not about sex. In fact, perpetrators typically have access to consensual sex. In sexual assaults, sex is simply the weapon the perpetrator uses to commit their crime. Unfortunately, it is a very emotionally damaging weapon, as sexual assault attacks the very core of a person’s identity: causing the victims to question who they can trust, how they can feel safe, and how others view them. A significant part of the healing process for victims of sexual assault is the use of counseling or social support networks to regain trust in others and in themselves.

Myth #4: Men can’t be sexually assaulted (or: Only young, “loose” women are sexually assaulted).

Fact: Sexual assault is the one crime where there is no bias. It could happen to men or women at all ages, regardless of religion, economic status, race, sexual orientation, level of education, etc. Sexual assault could happen between spouses or significant others, among family members, and close friends. It doesn’t matter what you wear, what you look like, if you were drunk or sober, if you were at a friend’s house or at a night club: Sexual assault could happen anywhere to anyone. Risk reduction is important but there is no way a potential victim can 100 percent prevent a sexual assault from occurring. The only person who can prevent a rape is the rapist.

Although sexual assault is perpetrated against both men and women, men have a lower rate of reporting. There are additional barriers to reporting for men than even for women. Particularly damaging are society’s messages that “men are always in the mood for sex,” that men are expected to always be able to defend themselves, and that men can never be victims of sexual assault or abuse.

Myth #5: Perpetrators are strange looking men who hide in alleyways or creepy vans.

Fact: Eighty-seven percent of sexual assaults are committed by a person the victim knows. Perpetrators are not easy to pick out, come from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, can be men or women, and typically have access to consensual sex. They are people who are good at manipulating others and getting the victim to make him or herself vulnerable.

Sexual assaults are not accidents, are not caused by circumstances and are not caused by miscommunication. The perpetrator looks for vulnerabilities or opportunities and takes them, regardless of the victim’s wishes. This type of perpetrator often uses coercion, alcohol (or other substances) and isolation to increase the victims’ vulnerability.

Myth #6: If a person is sexually assaulted, they will immediately report it to the police.

Fact: Sexual assault is the most underreported crime in the United States: over 70 percent of sexual assaults go unreported. There are many reasons why it can be difficult for victims to come forward with an allegation of sexual assault. First is denial: The victim often does not want to identify what happened to him or her as a sexual assault — especially if the perpetrator was their friend, family member or significant other. Second is fear: Many times, the victim fears the repercussions of reporting and just wants his or her life to go back to “normal.” Fear is even more pronounced in domestic violence or abuse situations, where the victim faces a very real danger to their life if they report the assault. Third is support: Does the victim feel that they will be supported or ridiculed if they come forward. If the victim’s report is taken seriously they can get the help they need. If the report is laughed at or brushed off, the victim may feel like no one cares and they will be unlikely to ever come forward again.

The Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office provides victim advocacy, assistance, referrals to helping agencies, and a safe and confidential place to make decisions that are best for the victims’ healing process. The office ensures that the victim has a voice and never has to go through the process alone.


Editor’s Note: 1st Lt. Paskell is the deputy Sexual Assault Response Coordinator at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.