Despite its prevalence, sexual violence is commonly misunderstood. Too frequently, we are led to believe that sexual violence only happens to certain kinds of people in certain kinds of situations, or we are led to believe that sexual violence doesn’t happen at all. Learning to identify and correct these misunderstandings–both for ourselves and for others–is an important first step in combating sexual violence. Here are some common sexual violence myths:
Myth: Sexual Violence is extremely rare and only happens to women.
Fact: On average, 233,986 Americans over the age of 12 are sexually assaulted each year. This amounts to one sexual assault every 2 minutes. The majority of these sexual assaults are committed against women, but many are committed against men as well. In the case of rape, for example, it is estimated that 1 out of every 33 American men is a victim of attempted or completed rape in his lifetime. It is estimated that 1 out of every 6 American women is a victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.
Myth: Forced penetration must occur in order for an act to be classified as sexual assault.
Fact: Sexual assault is a broad term that includes a wide range of acts. According to both Methodist University policy and North Carolina state law, sexual assault includes any non-consensual sexual contact. This could include forced kissing, forced oral sex, or forced vaginal or anal penetration. It could also include unwanted fondling of any kind.
Myth: Sexual Assault is often falsely reported by people who want attention or regret a consensual sexual encounter.
Fact: The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that only 39% of sexual assaults are reported to the police each year. This makes sexual assault one of the most underreported crimes. Of the sexual assault reports that are filed with the police, only 2-8% turn out to be false. This rate of false reporting is consistent with the rate of false reporting for other violent crimes.
Myth: Sexual Assault always involves extreme physical force that leaves scrapes, bruises, etc.
Fact: Sexual assault does not always involve overt physical force, and therefore does not necessarily leave physical traces. Non-consensual sexual contact can include sexual contact initiated through emotional or verbal coercion, rather than (or in addition to) physical coercion. Moreover, only 8% of sexual assaults involve the use of a weapon.
Myth: Rape is most often perpetrated by someone unknown to the victim (“stranger rape”)
Fact: Nearly two-thirds of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. This includes intimate partners, relatives, friends, and acquaintances. Correspondingly, nearly 6 out of 10 sexual assault incidents occur in the home of the victim, the home of a friend, or the home of a neighbor.
Myth: Forced or coerced sex in a committed relationship is not rape.
Fact: Admittedly, the U.S. has a long history of tacitly condoning forced sexual intercourse within marriages. Indeed, it was not until the 1970s that states began legally recognizing forced intercourse within marriages as constituting rape. Now, however, all states in the U.S. have laws criminalizing marital rape. And, we now know that approximately 23% or reported rapes are carried out by an intimate partner.
Myth: It is natural for men to be sexually aggressive.
Fact: In U.S. culture, men are often socialized to exhibit aggressive behavior. This means that, from a very early age, boys learn to demonstrate dominance and reject weakness. These lessons about gender appropriate behavior may come from many sources in our culture–families, schools, religious institutions, mass media representations, sports teams–and can be so pervasive as to make gender seem natural. Ultimately, however, everyone learns to do gender in our culture and everyone can challenge what they’ve learned. Aggression in men is learned and can be unlearned, too.