Whether mentioned in an offhanded joke or the subject of a news headline, the word “rape” is familiar to most. According to the US Department of Justice, roughly 207,754 people are victims of rape, also known as sexual assault, every year—that equates to a rape occurring nearly every 2 minutes—in the United States alone. Considering its frequency, it may seem ironic to be asking, “what is rape?” However, due to shame, secrecy, victim blaming and sexism the truth about rape tends to be clouded by myths and stereotypes. It takes courage to ask this question, especially when discovering the answer may mean acknowledging that oneself or a loved one has survived sexual assault. Let’s take an honest look at sexual assault towards shattering myths and empowering ourselves.
Rape is a sexualized form of oppression and dominance; rape is an abuse of power. To accurately understand the definition of rape, it is essential to understand the meaning of consent. Consent is not the absence of “no,” but a clear and freely given “yes.” Rape is sexual activity that occurs between two or more people without the consent of one or more person(s) involved, therefore violating the victim’s right to physical and psychological safety. The victim is robbed of personal power. Rape often refers to a particular incidence of sexual assault, whereas sexual abuse describes multiple incidents of sexual assault perpetrated against a person over a period of time. A sexual predator might violate his/her victim by way of physical force, intimidation, threat of harm (including financial, social and bodily), coercion (for example, exploiting someone’s dependency) or taking advantage of a person(s) mental and/or physical inability to give consent (for instance in drug facilitated rape or the sexual abuse of children).
The definition of rape discussed is not limited to any particular gender, race, sexual orientation, age, financial status or situation. It happens in our homes, faith communities, schools and public places. However, there are many myths about rape accepted in our society that serve to distance people from the epidemic problem personally, as well as from those directly affected. A few of these myths, and corresponding truths, are:
- Myth—the victim did something to cause the rape, such as wearing revealing clothing, behaving in a provocative manner, spending time alone with the perpetrator(s) or becoming intoxicated. Truth—only perpetrators of sexual assault are responsible for sexual assault.
- Myth—most women secretly desire to be overpowered and like men who behave aggressively; women don’t really mean it when they say “no” to sexual advances. Truth—“no” means no. The consent of those involved in sexual activity is essential for safe, healthy sex.
- Myth—rape is motivated by uncontrollable desire; men are not capable of controlling themselves sexually; men rape for sexual gratification. Truth—rape is a crime of power and control, motivated by the need to dominate or humiliate the victim. Most rapists have access to consensual sex. The idea that men are not capable of sexual constraint is a sexist stereotype that insults men.
- Myth—only women can be sexually assaulted. Truth—according to the US Department of Justice Bureau, approximately 10% of rape victims are male. It is estimated that 1 in 8 boys are sexually abused. It is likely that these rates are much higher because sexism discourages men from acknowledging and talking about their own victimization.
- Myth—rape is a physically violent assault, perpetrated by a stranger who uses a weapon in an isolated location after dark. Truth—although violent stranger rapes certainly occur, most assaults are committed by someone the victim knows, usually without the aid of a weapon, indoors. Many assaults occur between the hours of 6 AM and 6 PM.
These myths perpetuate denial, victim blaming and shame. They maintain a culture that tolerates sexual assault and frustrates the healing of victims. Raising our awareness of the truth may require us to confront realities that frighten us or cause discomfort, but these are small costs considering the power of truth to release survivors from shame, unite us for a cause, remedy the effects of rape and prevent sexual assault.
There are several common types of rape. Non-stranger rape describes any assault in which the victim and assailant know one another. The relationship between them may range from casual (as in attending a college class together) to intimate (such as a marriage). Non-stranger rape includes date rape—when the rape occurs during a dating relationship—and brief encounter—the victim and assailant have known each other for less than 24 hours. These assaults are frequently carried out via psychological force, or coercion. Examples include lying, intimidation, pressuring and persistently violating personal boundaries. Another form of sexual assault is known as stranger rape—when the attacker and victim have never met. Gang rape refers to incidents in which the victim has been attacked by more than one assailant. These assaults occur frequently on college campuses, especially in settings in which drugs and alcohol are being used. Drug-facilitated sexual assault involves the use of drugs to subdue and then sexually exploit the victim. Commonly used drugs include alcohol, Rohypnol (referred to as the date rape drug) and Gamma Hydroxybutyrate (otherwise known as Liquid Ecstasy or Easy Lay). These particular types of assault are not intended to represent the only situations in which a person can be raped.
No one is immune to sexual assault. In this way if one person is affected, we are all affected. If you or someone you know has been harmed by sexualized violence, there is help available. Acknowledging the truth is the first step. Getting connected with someone who will hear, believe and support you or your loved one may be the next. Each step is a journey towards wholeness and reclaiming your personal power.
Information adapted from Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault of Kansas City, Missouri