WARNING: Material in this article may be triggering to some readers. If the topic of sexual assault is a sensitive subject, please continue with caution or avoid reading altogether. Also, the use of the term "victim" is meant as a legal term of art, referencing individuals who are entitled to particular rights pursuant to the Crime Victims' Rights Act, 18 U.S.C. 3771.
Harvey Weinstein. Roy Moore. Al Franken. Kevin Spacey. Bill Cosby. Matt Lauer. President Trump. When you heard the accusations against them, how did you react? Did you immediately believe some but not others? Did you base your beliefs on who was being accused, or the person accusing them? Did your political affiliation unconsciously color your acceptance of the claims against Roy Moore when you couldn’t believe the news about Al Franken?
Despite the significant increase in media coverage of sexual violence, an important question has yet to be asked: why do we believe some allegations of sexual violence, yet dismiss others? The reality is that we all hold biases about sexual violence. Whether our narrative was created by experience, education, or culture, there is a subconscious image in our minds about what “real” sexual violence is. We decide how a victim should look, and what they should do before, during, and after the violence. If the victim’s appearance or actions do not comport with this narrative, we are less likely to believe the violence occurred. And society seems completely blind to how these false narratives permeate our response, or lack thereof, to the problem of sexual violence. Police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, jurors and judges have these same narratives so we shouldn’t be surprised that very few offenders are ever held accountable via our criminal legal system.
The statistics on sexual violence starkly reinforce what we refuse to believe—sexual violence touches all cross-sections of society, and transcends race, gender, sexual orientation, political party, religion, socio-economic status, and culture. Yet, research has shown that marginalized communities are disproportionately impacted. Sexual violence happens frequently, with 1 in 5 women, and 1 in 72 men1 being raped in his or her lifetime. Rape is one of the most under-reported crimes,2 and of the few reports made, only 2-8% are false.3
The trouble to challenging these false narrative of sexual violence is that we rely on them for a false sense of security. We struggle to understand that sexual violence can be unpredictable. We do not want to accept that anyone can be a victim. Or worse, that anyone could be an offender— including those we love. These fears prevent us from being open minded and objective when survivors disclose. And in turn, the reaction that follows validates the fears that often keep survivors from coming forward—victim blaming, shaming, and disbelief.
Sexual violence is a creature that grows where there is silence. The silence imposed on the victim through coercion and threats, the silence of those who witness it, and the silence created by the lack of education on these issues. It is because of this silence that victims are reluctant to come forward until years afterwards, and why offenders can abuse for so long undetected. Both are relying on the same assumption: if the victim reports, no one will believe them.
As a society, we cannot afford to continue ignoring the impacts of rape culture. Sexual violence will only go away when it cannot hide behind false narratives. We can only start to correct those narratives when victims can come forward without judgement and assumptions. Acknowledging our individual biases that code our perceptions about victims and offenders may be the first step in shifting cultural misconceptions about sexual violence.
1 Black, M. C., Basile, K. C., Breiding, M. J., Smith, S .G., Walters, M. L., Merrick, M.T., … Stevens, M. R. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 summary report. Retrieved from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control: http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/NISVS_Report2010-a.pdf
2 National Sexual Violence Resource Center, Statistics About Sexual Violence, https://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications_nsvrc_factsheet_media-packet_statistics-about-sexual-violence_0.pdf
3 National Sexual Violence Resource Center, Statistics About Sexual Violence, https://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications_nsvrc_factsheet_media-packet_statistics-about-sexual-violence_0.pdf.