Unhappy young woman, sexual assault victim covers face with hands

The Pervasive Myths of Sexual Assault

Unhappy young woman, sexual assault victim covers face with hands

The refrain is as tired as it is familiar.

“What was she wearing?”

“Was he drinking that night?”

“Why didn’t they call for help?”

In cases of sexual assault, it’s questions like these that often shoulder their way to the forefront of the conversation.

Whether aloud or implied, assumed or stated, these feed into an undercurrent of disbelief that, in time, has come to overshadow the entire conversation around sexual assault.

The stories we’ve been told

These questions expose a tacit acceptance of the myths surrounding rape and sexual assault. The myths are prejudicial attitudes and false beliefs about rape victims and rapists — beliefs which often shift the blame from the perpetrator to the victim.

Deep-seated social and cultural factors play a role in perpetuating rape myths. From cultural stereotypes to heteronormative gender roles, media portrayals often subtlely reinforce these victim-blaming attitudes.

Because of their subtlety and pervasiveness, combating rape myths requires a greater understanding of the facts.

Myths and misconceptions

The following are some of the most common myths surrounding rape and sexual assault:

Myth: “If they were intoxicated, dressed provocatively, or perceived to be flirting, they were asking for it.”

Fact: No one asks to be raped, assaulted, violated, or abused. The perpetrator is responsible for their own actions and behavior.

Myth: “If there was no struggle, it couldn’t have been rape.”

Fact: When many people hear the word “rape,” it conjures images of a masked assailant jumping a woman in a dark parking garage. In cases of heightened stress, the body’s autonomic nervous system leaps into action, triggering the fight-or-flight response. If the victim didn’t run or there were no signs of struggle, critics reason there was no real danger present.

In reality, there are myriad reasons an assaulted person may be unable to fight back. The fight-or-flight adage is incomplete; freezing is also a legitimate stress response.

“Fighting back” also presupposes that a victim immediately recognizes threat, discounting assaults made when a person is drugged, intoxicated, or unconscious.

Myth: “Men cannot be raped.”

Fact: While women and girls experience sexual violence at a high rate (roughly 1 in every 6 American women), men and boys are also affected — nearly 1 in 33 American men have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.

Myth: “There are many false rape reports.”

Fact: False rape reports aren’t filed more or less than false reports of other crimes, with estimates ranging between 2% and 10%. Authorities estimate that the majority of sexual assaults on college campuses go unreported.

Myth: “A person will always sustain serious physical injuries during an assault.”

Fact: While some victims may be injured, that is not always the case. A recent study of forensic exams performed on survivors by Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs) suggested severe injuries were rare; furthermore, the presence of injuries was not directly correlated to whether the survivor resisted.

Myth: “If it was a real assault, the person would have reported it to the authorities immediately.”

Fact: In the same study of exams performed by SANEs, researchers found that more than 40% of assault victims who came to an emergency department did so more than 12 hours after it occurred. Some waited as long as five days.

There are many reasons someone might delay reporting an assault (or never report it at all). If they’re close to their attacker (i.e., an intimate partner), opportunities to seek help may be limited logistically — especially if their abuser controls finances or means of transportation.

Shame and feelings of guilt may also play a role in a survivor’s reluctance to seek medical or police help after an assault. If they fear authorities will not believe them, they may be unwilling to undergo an exam or press charges.

Related: Domestic Violence in the United States

Changing perceptions

The fear of not being believed is historically well founded. In an article published by the Emergency Nurses Association, a clinical director of forensic nursing services at Houston’s Memorial Hermann Health System, Jamie Ferrell — MBA, BSN, RN, SANE-A, SANE-P, DF-IAFN — recounts the slowly changing attitudes toward sexual assault in the emergency department.

“The issue was riddled with so much self-blame,” Ferrell said. “I don’t know whether many victims actually reached out for care. As women, we were taught that our actions caused the rape to happen. I now have the understanding that everyone who was caring for someone who’d suffered sexual assault back then was responding based on what TV had taught us. Because at the time, TV was our only teacher about it.”

The importance of SANEs

It was nurses who first proposed a new way to care for survivors of sexual assault. Developed in the late 1970s and expanded in the 1990s by the International Association of Forensic Nurses, SANE programs train nurses to care for survivors’ unique needs, including the collection of vital evidence for adult and adolescent survivors of sexual assault.

Becoming a SANE

To work as a SANE, nurses must complete 40 hours of didactic education approved by the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN), plus an additional 16 clinical hours aiding adult and adolescent sexual assault survivors.

Elite’s 40-hour SANE course, approved by IAFN, explores trauma-informed and patient-centered care; injury identification and documentation; evidence collection and handling; and legal issues and testimony.

Start your SANE certification here.