According to the Department of Justice’s 2016 Criminal Victimization survey, more than 26,000 people have been sexually assaulted this month.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates one in three women will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime, and one in six men, according to a 2010-2012 report.
That’s more than 77.5 million people.
But statistics like these can only take the conversation so far, and the general population still holds onto large misconceptions about sexual assault, say representatives from sexual assault centers in King and Pierce counties.
It is for this reason that Sexual Assault Awareness Month is necessary.
The annual campaign, which was started by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and is marking its 17th year this month, provides area certified sexual assault centers an opportunity to educate local residents about sexual violence, how prevalent it is in American culture, and the myths that warp the way that individuals, families and communities perceive and talk about sexual assault.
The myth of the stranger
When asked about the most prevalent rape myths currently in circulation, both Stephanie Sacks, clinical therapy director at the Pierce County Sexual Assault Center, and Mary Ellen Stone, executive director at the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, mentioned the misperception that most sexual assaults and rapes are committed by strangers.
According to a 2008 Florida Institute of Technology study, “Myths and Facts about Sexual Offenders: Implications for Treatment and Public Policy,” the general public believes half of sexual assaults are committed by people unknown to the victim.
In fact, the vast majority of sexual assault victims know their assailant, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), which found that seven out of 10 rape victims know their rapist. The organization estimates that 25 percent of rapes are committed by a current or former partner and 45 percent by an acquaintance.
And in the case of child sex abuse cases reported to police, 93 percent of young victims knew the offender, according to RAINN.
“So right off the bat, when a person is sexually assaulted and it is not typically a stranger, the whole situation, the whole dynamic of how people deal with it is very, very different,” Sacks said.
There are many reasons people buy into this rape myth, Stone said, but one of the most easily explained is ego.
“‘I only know good people. I’m a good judge of people. I would recognize if this person was a sex offender,’” Stone said. “Of course, none of this makes sense. We all know sex offenders. We just don’t know that about them.”
Another explanation is the “just-world fallacy” — the belief that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people, or at least people could have somehow prevented the bad thing from happening, but didn’t.
“It’s human nature for us to think, ‘How can I prevent something like that happening to me?’ And I think there’s an assumption that if it was somebody the victim knew, then either she caused this, or she could have anticipated this. So you’re back into that line of thinking that somehow, it’s the victims fault,” Stone said. “You get into this whole line of thinking where you minimize the impact and you blame the victims for what happened. And those are a couple of the more insidious things that come out of that line of thinking.”
Victim blaming and underreporting
The idea that a victim or survivor of sexual assault — either committed by a stranger, acquaintance or family member — could be complicit in the assault is another rape myth, Sacks and Stone said.
“Following a sexual assault, people will look to the victim’s behavior to see what caused it,” Sacks said, adding that questions surrounding what the survivor was wearing or doing at the time of the assault are common.
But while public perception may be that a woman who is out drinking or flirting is more likely to be assaulted, 55 percent of sexual assaults happen in the home, according to RAINN.
“Statistics show that the most likely thing someone is wearing when they’re sexually assaulted or abused are sweats and pajamas, and the most common location is their own home, and it’s almost always someone that they know,” Sacks said. “Statistically speaking, you might say you’re safer provocatively dressed, out in the street with strangers than you are with someone you know and love, comfortably dressed in your own home.”
But it’s not just bystanders who blame the victim, Stone said.
“We find victims themselves asking these same questions. ‘I should have known better. I should have thought about it. Why didn’t I say something?’” Stone said, adding that this kind of self-blaming is especially prevalent if the assaulter is someone the victim knows.
Sacks said these victim-blaming attitudes — both from bystanders and survivors — are one reason why so few assaults are reported.
According to RAINN, out of every 1,000 rapes, only 310 are reported to the police. Of those, only 57 cases lead to an arrest, 11 cases are referred to a prosecutor, seven will lead to a felony conviction, and only six will be jailed.
Another reason most assaults go unreported is because of social pressures, Stone and Sacks said.
“It’s hard to appreciate the difficulty these victims have in coming forward, especially when the offender is known to them, because we’re asking them to upend their whole life, or at least certain parts of their life,” Stone said. “If it was a coworker, then you’d be dealing with this in the workplace — you could lose your job, you could lose your colleagues. The price we expect victims to pay is high.”
“So we have victims saying, ‘Why should I bother saying anything? Nothing is going to happen, legally. Nothing is going to happen to him, for example, if it’s a coworker. It’s all going to be focused on me, and none of it’s good,’” she continued. “‘Why should I say anything? Let me just get on with things and try to avoid it.’ It’s a very understandable response.”
Combating rape myths
Both the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center and the Pierce County Sexual Assault Center have a vast array of services and resources for sexual assault survivors, their friends and family, including trauma-focused therapy that helps survivors and their support circle confront these rape myths.
“Part of therapy is helping somebody really approach and confront the reality of what happened. But before that is normalizing the survivor’s experience, because the culture doesn’t. The culture, quite often, says you contributed to this. There’s something you should have been able to do to stop it, you didn’t react the way you should have, and you’re still not,” Sacks said. “Trauma-based therapy is looking at it through a trauma lens, with the reality of sexual assault as it actually occurs. All those choices make sense. They’re not strange or pathological, which is how society sees them. It actually makes a lot of sense, if you look at it through a lens that sees the reality of trauma.”
In some ways, Stone said, coming to terms with rape myths may be harder for a survivor’s community, especially if the offender is someone in the same community. As an example, she points to former Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who was accused of sexually abusing children by numerous alleged victims last year. The accusations led to Murray’s resignation, though he maintains his innocence.
“This was a person that we know and trust and respect and elected, and this is what he’s being accused of. How do we square those two?” Stone said. “Being able to handle the fact that there are those two aspects of somebody is very difficult to do, in any circumstance. Look at people who are great people, being accused of horrific crimes…. How do we square that?”
“Nobody wants to believe they know a sex offender,” Sacks said. “Nobody wants to acknowledge that there is a sex offender in their family, in their school, in their community. So everybody is all gung-ho about going and holding accountable Joe Sex Offender down the street, but when it comes to somebody I know, somebody I care about… it gets complicated.”
One way to combat rape myths is to confront the offender, Sacks said, but not necessarily through the legal system — families and communities need to be willing to not only believe the survivor, but also be willing to show the assaulter that their choices and actions are unacceptable.
“If somebody I know sexually assaulted someone else I know, it’s not just a private matter between these two people. It affects me as well. It’s a betrayal of my trust,” Sacks said. “A lot of people think, ‘If this person really did something bad, I wouldn’t like them, so they must not have done anything bad.’ But how much you like this person, how great they are, how many positive interactions you’ve had with them in the past don’t actually say anything about whether or not they sexually assaulted another person. And offenders need to be held accountable if there’s any chance of that behavior stopping.”
But this is a reactionary solution, Stone and Sacks said. To really change sexual violence in our culture, there needs to be a cultural shift in how people think about sex, consent and assault.
“How do we raise young boys in the culture to have a sense of delayed gratification, to have empathy for other people, to be able to manage their feelings effectively, to not feel entitled to take what they want. How do we do that?” Sacks said. “We’re living in a culture that says girls can’t have their shoulders exposed because it will distract the boys in the class, so you need to cover up, instead of saying we need to teach boys, ‘Sorry, you need to focus on math.’ If you have teachers and boys that are that distracted, that’s what you really have to focus on, is what is going on there, to help them manage what is going on there and not just cover up girls around them.”
But until we figure out how to effectively end sexual violence, the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center and Pierce County Sexual Assault Center are there to help, the women said.
“We have a really good system of sexual assault services here,” Stone said. “We get calls from people all the time saying, ‘What do I say to my friend, my partner, my spouse, to my coworker that I found out this happened?’ There’s no one right thing to say. What we encourage people to do is to say you believe them, say they you’re glad that they told you, recognize in your own line — depending how close you are to this person — this could really have an impact on you… Reach out to organizations like us or Pierce County for some support for yourself, if a loved one has been assaulted.”