Whenever a major story breaks that involves rape, the inevitable question is, "Why don't more women report rape and sexual assault?" One reason may be the prevalence of rape myths.
We know rape is an underreported crime. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) 60% of rapes/sexual assaults are not reported to the police, and "factoring in unreported rapes, only about 6% of rapists ever serve a day in jail."
No matter how blameless a woman is, if she reports a rape or sexual assault she's stigmatized in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Though no one will ever say it to her face, some may question her actions, what she was wearing, where she was and whether or not she was consuming alcohol in an attempt to justify the most common of rape myths, "Well, she was asking for it."
These rape myths are not tied to any single culture or society; neither are they less common in countries where women have voting rights and social freedoms. Such myths exist everywhere and they are pervasive, damaging, rarely discussed but always at the back of our minds when we hear a woman's been raped or sexually assaulted. In many ways, what we see around us conditions us to believe these myths subconsciously.
Rape myths surfaced in the recent sexual assault of CBS correspondent Laura Logan. Writing for the Women's Media Center, Sheela Raja, a clinical psychologist specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder says:
I've been horrified by some of the comments I've read--declarations about Lara Logan's looks, her previous sexual history, her choice of profession. The irrelevant information seems to have no bounds....
While the circumstances surrounding the attack on Lara Logan are unique, the rape myths lurking all over the internet are familiar to anyone who has worked on sexual assault issues. It's time to acknowledge and challenge these false beliefs so that we can begin to better support victims of sexual violence.
Rape myths turn up frequently in pop culture and are the basis of many songs, movies, television and books. In Australia, the recent release of the song Just the Way You Are (Drunk at the Bar) by singer-songwriter Brian McFadden has split listeners into two camps. The lyrics essentially sanction a man having his way with a woman who's too inebriated to know what's going on:
I like you just the way you are, drunk and dancing at the bar, I can't wait to take you home so I can do some damage
I like you just the way you are, drunk and dancing at the bar, I can't wait to take you home so I can take advantage
While local radio personalities have called it "a fun sort of song," at the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) website women's issues expert Melinda Tankard Reist is disgusted not only by the song but also by the attitude of the label that released it. She notes that Universal Music regards it as an "infectious" tune that will "rattle around in your head for hours":
Doing some damage, taking advantage of a woman under the influence of alcohol... is this the soundtrack we want going round and round in the heads of males?
Just one more message reinforcing the rape myths circulating in our culture: that inebriated girls are asking for it, and that you're not really to blame. One more message encouraging boys to help themselves. I love you just the way you are, drunk, because it's easier to get what I want that way.
A recent UK study found that 48 per cent of males aged 18-25 did not consider rape to have taken place if the woman was too drunk to know what was happening. There's a kind of party atmosphere around these criminal assaults, with many men boasting about their conquests. An online genre known as 'Passed Out P*ssy' encourages men to share photos online of women and girls they have taken advantage of while drunk. 'She's drunk? Don't call a taxi and make sure she gets home safely! Call your friends, have some fun and share the pictures!' men are exhorted.
Love you just the way you are (drunk at the bar) helps legitimise this behaviour.
One might argue that McFadden, a judge on Australia's Got Talent and a father of daughters, doesn't really believe in this sort of thing but wrote the song realizing it would be controversial, widely sought out and discussed, and become a hit. After all, he's simply reflecting what's already out there in pop culture...and most of us can separate the fact from the fiction of rape myths, right?
Not so if you consider another controversial story involving rape myths, this one from Canada, where a Manitoba judge refused to sentence a convicted rapist to jail time. Although Queen's Bench Justice Robert Dewar rejected defendant Kenneth Rhodes' argument that sex was consensual, the judge said that the victim and her girlfriend were dressed suggestively, acted invitingly, and "made their intentions publicly known that they wanted to party."
Dewar justified the 2-year conditional sentence -- which includes at-home curfew and inclusion on the national sex offender registry -- by stating, "There is a different quality to this case than many sexual assaults," and added, "Not all guilty people are morally culpable to the same level."
Fancy words which foster the rape myth, "she was asking for it." If a man is less "morally culpable" because, as the judge noted, the victim was wearing a tube top with no bra, high heels and plenty of makeup, what does that say about the rights of women? We can say we don't believe rape myths, but if a judge's thinking is obviously influenced by them, what can we do to counter their impact on women's lives?
Related article: What are Rape Myths?