Drinking puts you at risk of rape. Wearing revealing clothing makes you a target for harassment. Men always want sex and will do whatever they have to in order to get it. You can avoid rape if you don’t walk alone at night and don’t accept drinks from strangers.
Sound familiar? The tropes and supposed truisms about sexual assault are decades old, but that doesn’t make them accurate. Sexual assault on college campuses is in the news more and more as an increasing number of students come forward to tell their stories, and as the Obama administration and the Department of Education pay more attention to the issue. Yet despite the more personalized coverage and more nuanced federal laws and recommendations, misconceptions persist and are pushed by media commentators, students, and sometimes schools themselves. That doesn’t just mean students and parents get bad information — it means assault survivors sometimes don’t get the support they need and assailants are able to walk free or remain on campus, because they rely on these misconceptions to get away with their crimes.
Cosmopolitan.com talked to the experts, read the research, and looked at 17 of the biggest myths about sexual assault on college campuses.
1. Sexual assault is usually a misunderstanding.
One familiar story of campus sexual assault goes like this: A young woman and a young man are at a party. They both have too much to drink and wind up going home together. They have sex — maybe she said no, or maybe not, but in any case, she regrets it the next day and feels like she was assaulted. But he didn’t mean it; it was all just a terrible miscommunication, and now the case is simply he said-she said.
The problem? Even though that’s a common narrative — and a common defense — it’s rarely the reality.
In fact, research shows that 90 percent of campus rapists are repeat offenders, averaging nearly six victims apiece, and they often go undetected. Men and women both understand social cues, including nonverbal indications that someone doesn’t want to have sex. Acquaintance rapists — the kind who are likely to be targeting fellow students on campus — have a very specific MO. Those predatory men intentionally target women they perceive as vulnerable, and they often ply them with alcohol, sometimes until their victims pass out, and then they sexually assault them. They rely on the misconception that sexual assault is a miscommunication, a misunderstanding, a drunken mistake. And they rely on the fallacy that drunk girls are kinda-sorta asking for it. Because so many people believe these misconceptions, rapists get away with their crimes and seek out other victims. It’s the exact opposite of a misunderstanding — it’s a series of calculated decisions.
2. It’s usually strangers who commit sexual assault.
The typical image of a stranger rapist jumping out of the bushes is far from universal. Yes, there are stranger rapists, but far more often, sexual assailants attack people they know. Two-thirds of rape survivors know their attacker; more than a third of rapists are a family member or friend of the victim. The statistics are even more extreme on college campuses, where 80 to 90 percent of sexual assaults involve students who know each other.
3. It’s only rape if you’re violently, physically forced into penetrative sex.
Colleges and even state penal codes define rape and sexual assault differently, but it’s generally understood as non-consensual sexual activity, which can be anything from penetrative sex to unwanted sexual touching or groping. And rape doesn’t require a penis — objects or fingers can be used to rape or assault. The definition of “consent” also differs — some schools use an “affirmative consent” model, where a person has to give an actual, genuine, and non-coerced “yes” for consent to be obtained, whereas others have more outdated, regressive definitions that in practice require non-consenting parties to give a verbal “no.” Most, though, do recognize that drugs and alcohol can impair one’s ability to give meaningful consent. And women’s rights advocates more or less agree that affirmative consent is the standard.
Many rape victims are assaulted while they’re unconscious or semi-conscious. Others are lucid, but frozen in terror. Others are unable to consent to sex because they’re mentally incapacitated. Still others are threatened or coerced. But it can still be rape even if a victim didn’t fight back or yell out, and even if there wasn’t physical violence in addition to the assault itself.
4. Rape is about sexual desire.
Rapists don’t rape because they’re uncontrollably horny. They rape because they want to control and harm their victim. The majority of rapes are planned in advance— rape isn’t the end result of overactive hormones perhaps fueled by alcohol.
5. Women put themselves at risk if they’re promiscuous, if they dress provocatively, or if they flirt.
One of the oldest rape myths out there is that women invite assault, or make themselves more vulnerable to it, by dressing or acting “provocatively” (provoking, apparently, a male lust so insatiable that men commit violent crimes). But across the country, the overwhelming majority of men manage to see women in short skirts and have entire, sometimes flirtatious, conversations with women to whom they are physically attracted without raping them. The difference between a night out in a short skirt that ends in rape and one that doesn’t isn’t the clothing or the woman’s behavior — it’s the presence of a rapist. And despite decades of “she was asking for it in that skirt” commentary, no one has ever been able to show a correlation between how a victim dresses and her chances of sexual assault.
“There is no social science research that has ever backed this up,” Jaclyn Friedman, sexual assault educator and author of What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety, told Cosmopolitan.com via email. “There is evidence that rapists choose victims based on how vulnerable they’re perceived to be. Will they go along? Will they make a fuss? There is literally zero evidence that rapists choose victims based on how sexy or sexual they’re perceived to be. None. Not one study. If that old toxic myth were true, someone would have been able to prove it by now.”
There’s also no correlation between number of sexual partners and victimization. A woman’s sexual history used to be trotted out in court as evidence that she wasn’t really raped, the assumption being that if she consented to sex before, she probably consented again. That’s not bolstered by any actual data, and it’s nonsensical: Why does the fact that a woman enjoys sex, perhaps with more than one person throughout the course of her life, have any bearing on whether she was assaulted? Why would a “promiscuous” woman who apparently consented to sex with several partners have any incentive to suddenly turn around and claim she was raped?
6. Once you’ve said yes, you can’t say no.
Sex isn’t an unbreakable contract; it’s a pleasurable, often recreational act entered into by two people. Think about it like any other recreational activity, an idea that writer Thomas MacAuley Millar calls a “performance model” of sexual consent: Just because you agree to play a musical duet with someone doesn’t mean you have to keep playing when you want to stop. If you played with someone once, you have no obligation to play with them again. And it would be bizarre for someone to physically forced you to play the saxophone when you didn’t want to and then suggest that you led them on by walking into their room when you knew there was an instrument there.
You can always withdraw consent (courts and even your school may not always recognize that right, but that is your right as a human being with sexual autonomy). You can say no to sex with someone even if you’ve had sex with that person before. You can say no to sex even if the person you’re saying no to is your husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend or partner. You can even withdraw consent if you’re having sex and you want to stop.
7. Women lie about being raped.
False rape reports to the police account for between 2 and 8 percent of all reports — about the same as for other crimes (some felonies, like car thefts, have higher false reporting rates). Yes, some women lie about rape, just like some people lie about being victims of nearly every other crime. But far more women never report at all — 60 percent of sexual assaults are never reported to the police.
8. Rape fantasies mean you want to be raped.
“No more than enjoyment of horror movies means that you want to be horribly murdered,” Friedman says. “Fantasies can be a healthy way to express and explore our fears. If we’re watching or imagining or even consensually role-playing a rape fantasy, we can encounter the power of that fear while knowing, deep down, that we’re actually safe. That meta-control — the experience of encountering this fear on your own terms exactly when and how and for how long you want to — can, for some people, be a powerful and even healing experience.”
9. Rape doesn’t happen very often on college campuses.
One in five college-age women are sexually assaulted. But fewer than 1 in 20 assaults is ever reported to police.
10. Campus rapists are always expelled.
There aren’t great statistics on campus disciplinary outcomes because many colleges are secretive about their numbers, but one survey suggests that only 10 to 25 percent of men found responsible for sexual assault are expelled. And that’s only looking at men found responsible — many more never face charges or are let off the hook.
11. Most rapists go to jail.
Most rapists never see the inside of a courtroom, let alone a jail cell — only 3 percent of rapists are ever incarcerated.
12. Only women are rape victims.
Men are less likely to be victimized than women, but men are raped too: 1 in 33 American men will experience rape or attempted rape in his lifetime. Men also experience other forms of sexual assault and sexual violence, sometimes at the hands of other men, sometimes at the hands of women.
13. Roofies are the most common date rape drug.
There aren’t great statistics on how common roofies (also known as Rohypnol or Flunitrazepam) are — they’re often out of a victim’s system by the time she reaches the hospital, making their use difficult to track — but the experts agree that alcohol is a much more common “date rape drug” than roofies. According to one study, 72 percent of female rape victims on college campuses were intoxicated to the point where they couldn’t consent to sex. Unfortunately, much of the media and cultural takeaway there is “drunk girls get themselves raped.” In reality, sexual predators target women they perceive as vulnerable, often underclassmen who don’t have much experience drinking and don’t yet have strong social support networks at school — 84 percent of women sexually assaulted in college said their assaults happened in their freshman or sophomore years.
14. Rape victims act like victims.
Many people assume that if someone has been through a trauma, she’ll act in a particular way: emotional and perhaps angry. Many assume she’ll be clear about what happened and that she’ll call the cops as soon as she has the chance. But in real life, most assault survivors aren’t like the actresses on Law & Order: SVU. It’s incredibly common for survivors to feel numb and come across as cold or unemotional, or even to make what feel like inappropriate jokes. It’s common for a victim to downplay what happened or be confused about it; it’s common to not want to go to the police. It’s even common for rape survivors to have sex again soon after the event, sometimes with the same person they later say raped them — it can be a way of reasserting control after control over their own bodies was just taken from them. The only universal truth about how rape victims act is that they rarely act 100 percent like characters on a TV drama.
15. If an alleged victim is inconsistent about what happened, she’s lying.
“There’s an enormous body of research on not just the psychological but the neurobiological impact of trauma,” says David Lisak, a clinical psychologist and researcher whose work focuses on non-stranger sexual violence.
What researchers now know, Lisak says, is that while the brain’s hippocampus is responsible for what we think of as “normal memory” — where we remember details like the sequence of events (“I woke up Tuesday morning, and I put on my black pants and a blue shirt, and I walked across the quad to my politics lecture where I sat next to Taylor”) — when someone undergoes a trauma, high concentrations of certain neurotransmitters interfere with the normal functioning of the hippocampus, so the part of the brain that typically codes experiences into memories is not functioning well. But the amygdala, responsible for our fear responses, is super-charged, encoding memories in intense, sensory fragments. That means, Lisak says, “somebody’s experience of trauma will have extremely vivid memories of disconnected fragments of the experience, but at the same time will have real difficulty putting that all together into any kind of coherent format.”
That’s a problem when we expect trauma victims to be able to give a linear account of their experience.
“In the criminal justice system, there’s an expectation that the person who has had this traumatic experience will provide an account and no matter how many times you ask them to provide an account, you always get the same answer,” Lisak says. “There’s no way that someone who has been traumatized will be able to do that. The language center of the brain, the left hemisphere, is also degraded in function during a trauma. So when you’re questioning a person who has gone through that, what you’ll get are halting responses that can seem confused or uncertain. It’s extraordinarily unlikely that they will be able to provide absolutely consistent statements one after another. Their memory of what happened has been encoded in a way that makes language and verbal response very challenging. That’s a major issue in law enforcement and in these judicial cases on college campuses.”
16. If your friend is raped, you should make her go to the police.
“Rape victims don’t choose to be raped, and therefore they have no obligation to anyone but themselves and their own healing,” Friedman explained. “One of the reasons rape can be such a traumatic experience is that it represents a profound and violent loss of control over one’s own body and agency. It’s for that reason that the best thing you can do for a friend who is a victim of rape is put her (or him!) in charge.”
There are lots of options for justice, depending on where you live, including suing her rapist in civil court, where she may have a better shot at a win. But the key is to help your friend understand her options and decide what she wants to do instead of pushing her in one direction or another.
“The important point is that you stress at every point along the way that your friend the survivor is the one who knows what’s best for them,” Friedman said.
17. Women can prevent rape by drinking less, using the buddy system, and avoiding parties.
For many students, it makes sense to think about which risk reduction strategies will work best (and to recognize that not everything works for everyone). “Risk reduction” basically means evaluating the common things assailants look for and deciding to alter your behavior. So, for example, campus predators tend to target young women who are new to campus, and they often use alcohol as a tool for incapacitation. You can’t will yourself into being a junior if you’re a freshman, and it’s hard to know what “don’t drink too much” means if you’ve only had a few drinks in your life (and it can be hard to know even if you’ve had lots of drinks in your life), but you can try to moderate your drinking and agree to stick together with a friend, use Circle of 6 to stay in touch with folks who will help you out if you fear you’re being targeted, and take a self-defense class so that you train your fight-or-flight instinct to work in your favor. That may lower your personal risk of being assaulted on that particular evening. But no human being is perfect, and sometimes actions that are statistically not particularly risky at all (going to a party with your friends, going to a male classmate’s dorm room) end up looking risky only in hindsight, after something goes wrong and outsiders feel entitled to judge. “Risk reduction” doesn’t mean “risk elimination.” And there are plenty of times when calculated risks just seem worth taking. That’s not shameful; it’s human.
Here is the truth: There is nothing you can do to decrease your risk of assault down to zero. The usual tips — don’t go out alone at night, drink moderately, always have cab fare, call the police when you get in trouble — aren’t a guarantee when you’re much more likely to be assaulted by someone you know than by a stranger on the street, assaults happen to plenty of teetotalers, and cab drivers and cops can be predators as well.
Whether risk reduction can prevent rape, Lisak says, depends on how you define “prevent” — whether you mean “prevent rape generally” or “make it (maybe) less likely that I personally will be raped.” The best thing you can do, as a college student, is to push your school to have both comprehensive prevention education on campus and thoughtful disciplinary policies to get sexual predators off campus.
“An individual who decides, ‘I’m going to get all the info I possible can to help me stay clear of this, to help me not be one of the people who’s targeted,’ that’s fine,'” Lisak says. “But when you have a sexually predatory individual, he’ll look for the most vulnerable person in a given environment, whether that’s a frat party or a get-together in a dorm room. And there will always be people who are not taking those protective risk-reduction measures. There’s nothing wrong with risk reduction, but it’s not prevention. It’s not going to lower the overall rate of sexual assault. It simply alters who gets targeted.”