The familiar rhetoric that a stranger in the alley is the person most likely to sexually assault you is not reflective of the reality that victims face. Around 85 percent of sexual assault perpetrators are actually someone who is known to the victim. This could include, but is not limited to, the following: a friend, family member, co-worker, boss, or acquaintance. A primary reason that victims do not report is because of the familiarity of their attacker and the potential repercussions that could occur for both the victim and the perpetrator if the victim is to report. When the attacker is known to the victim and the victim does report, victim blaming and disbelief are common reactions to the victim’s disclosure of their assault. Because if someone known to the victim can sexually assault them, then it could happen to anyone-not just those who walk home alone late at night.
This is not to say that the stranger in the alley is not a reality for some victims-unfortunately, some victims are raped by people they do not know. But speaking from personal experience, I have always been victimized by people I knew. And it all began within my family. I was sexually abused by my brother when I was about 9 years old, and it continues to affect my life to this day. It has affected my personal relationships, my relationship with my family, how I feel about myself, and even my future career. While I will not discredit the feelings that those who are raped by strangers feel, being abused by someone you know, especially a family member, presents its own set of challenges that the familiar “stranger in the alley” stereotype does not address. It seeps into your very identity, and you question everyone you ever know in your future.
For me, this questioning still happens today, and not just because of what my brother did to me. I have been repeatedly victimized, in one way or another, by many men throughout my life. All of these men were people that I knew-to a point where I almost expect it to happen from new men that I meet and become close to.
All of my instances of victimization have been difficult-and they did not get any easier as I experienced them and continue to process what I’ve been through. To be honest, however, the most difficult experience for me to deal with is the first betrayal of trust I ever experienced. When my brother decided to do what he did, I became part of the 85 percent. I became the opposite of the “stranger in the dark” narrative.
What people fail to understand if they think this narrative is the norm is that those who are known to the victim are capable of this type of behavior. Regardless of whether or not someone is assaulted by someone they know, it should not make it any less believable or any more the victim’s fault. However, these are not the reactions I experienced when I first disclosed what happened to me. I felt like what happened to me was downplayed, that my mom did not really believe me, and that I should just be “over it” by now. I struggle to visit home, particularly at holidays, because I feel this paradox of loving holidays and my family traditions but hating the fact that I have to go home and pretend like I am okay with the fact that one act of betrayal has had such an incredible impact on my life. I have to hide this fact so much that it is the reason that I have had to remain anonymous with this article. Because I am friends with my mom and my brother on Facebook. If either of them were to read this article, I would be ostracized from my family more so than I already feel. That I fear so much so about the consequences of being outspoken about what has happened to me, that I cannot be open about something I want so desperately to be open with the world about.
But really, why does any of this matter? I did not mean to make this article really about me or what I have been through-I have shared my story numerous times in a multitude of contexts, so it is not about me sharing my story for the first time. The point of all of this was to explain that the firm belief that you can only be assaulted by those who are strangers is dangerous to rape victims and is a belief that fuels rape culture. This narrative also fails to address the realities of being assaulted by someone you know: while being raped by a stranger may make you fear for your safety in the outside world (which is a challenge I will never understand, and not something I wish to downplay), being raped by someone you know makes you fear every one you will ever know in the future. This is how I have had to live the rest of my life: in a subconscious fear that every new man I meet will be there to victimize me. This may sound paranoid to you, but it is a reality most rape victims face because, as I mentioned, most victims are assaulted by someone that they know. And until we admit that as a society, rape culture, victim-blaming, and disbelief will continue to reverberate throughout our society.