Most assaults are perpetrated not by some lurking stranger, but by someone the victim already knows
Content warning: sexual assault and rape
Her name is Jacinta*. She is a first-year student, not so different from the ones you know: adjusting to her new major, working part-time, hanging out with friends on the weekends. Last month she met a boy off one of the dating apps — you know them. They went out. It went very well. They went back to his place and he was a perfect gentleman, following all her cues. She went home.
“The most annoying part is that he made me feel safe after that first date. He made me feel comfortable.”
That Saturday night, she went out dancing with some friends. He asked if he could pick her up afterwards, and she agreed.
“I was sure I would not have sex with him that night: I was in the process of being treated for chlamydia and I didn’t want to pass it on.”
They went back to his place.
“He brought out more booze for us to drink and when I said ‘No, I’m already gone’, he looked so disappointed. I told him that I wanted to lie down and talk. He took me to his room, and I laid down. Then he asked me if I wanted a change of clothes. What I was wearing was heavy, so I thought it was from a place of concern. I’ve had guys ask this — it’s a normal question, especially after coming from the club. I took the shirt he offered and laid back down. I was gone. He cuddled me, which I had no problem with. Then he started to grope me. I told him to stop. I was intoxicated, tired, telling him, ‘can you stop?’ He started to beg me. I told him no, but he went ahead. He didn’t stop.”
Afterward, she called a taxi and went home. She felt violated and demeaned. She did not call the police. In fact, she told no one for a few days. She eventually told her friends, the story coming out piece by piece in the following weeks.
After reading this, perhaps you’re thinking, ‘why did she go to his place if she didn’t want to have sex? Or why did she take off her clothes and put just a shirt on? Or even how did she get chlamydia? Does she have casual sex often?‘
Or perhaps these assessments are uncharitable, and all you are thinking is: it’s awful that this happened. Why didn’t she go to the police?
Before we address these questions, let me ask one of my own: what is a rape myth? According to feminist researcher Martha Burt, rape myths are “prejudicial, stereotyped, or false beliefs about rape, rape victims, and rapists.”
At the centre of most rape myths is the hypothetical image of the perfect rape victim: she is a woman, non-intoxicated, who is suddenly attacked by a stranger in a deserted area. Despite her fierce resistance, she is violently raped and left with obvious physical and emotional trauma. She immediately reports this crime to the police, providing clear evidence.
This image is divorced from reality. The statistical truth of the matter is that most sexual assaults are closer to Jacinta’s case. Firstly, most assaults are perpetrated not by some lurking stranger, but by someone the victim already knows. Studies by American researchers have shown that “acquaintance rapes…make up 80-90 per cent of reported sexual assaults against college women.”
This is reflected on the macro scale: according to a a 2021 report by the World Health Organization, intimate partner violence by someone already familiar with the victim “is by far the most prevalent form of violence against women globally.”
The image held by rape mythology of a monster crouching in the darkness contradicts the reality that assault perpetrators walk amongst us in the daylight. They brush our shoulders on campus, sit across from us during lectures. They can be our friends. Years of American research shows that the number of young men who self-report to having committed acts of sexual aggression remains alarmingly high over the decades, spanning from 25 to 57 per cent of research samples.
However, make no mistake — not just anyone can be a perpetrator. Two studies, in 2011 and 2015, sampled hundreds of young, non-incarcerated men who admitted to assault in confidential surveys; the word “rape” was not explicitly used, but its meaning was implied.
The first study found that, as compared to the non-perpetrators in their samples, perpetrators scored higher on measures of negative attitudes towards women, feelings of entitlement and selfishness, nonclinical levels of psychopathy, and alcohol use.
Both studies found that most perpetrators strategized their assaults, “mak[ing] choices about whom they target and under what circumstances.” Studies in 2002 and 2009 found that most of the assaults were premeditated by repeat offenders.
Just like in Jacinta’s case, these perpetrators knew the woman beforehand and had previously engaged in some consensual activities. Just like in Jacinta’s case, they contrived to isolate her when she was vulnerable, and saw consent for one activity as automatic consent for another.
Unlike the “monster in the alleyway,” assault perpetrators rarely use overt physical violence. A review of research spanning decades found that verbal coercion and taking advantage of the victim’s intoxication were the most common tactics used by perpetrators.
As the image of the mythological perpetrator crumples under examination, let us turn to the mythological victim, a woman who was ambushed, who ran, battered and bruised, to the police station. This was not Jacinta. After her assault, her feeling of violation was mixed with a deep sense of confusion.
“After I gave up trying to stop him, I started to like it,” she says. “I came.”
A victim like Jacinta upsets the sensibilities of those still holding on to rape mythology. Rather than the ever-resisting victim, whose respectability is snatched from her even as she did everything to avoid trouble, Jacinta is a woman who puts herself out there. She participates in the nightlife, has casual sex and is unashamed of it. She enjoys sex and actively seeks out the fruition of her desires. But a woman like this can still be violated.
In fact, according to recent research, the typical victims of sexual assault are women just like Jacinta, with positive attitudes towards casual sex and a propensity to consume alcohol with their peers.
It makes sense: the statistical probability of coming into contact with the men who plan to perpetrate assault is increased in certain environments. But this does not mean that these women brought their assaults upon themselves. And whether or not they enjoy it is irrelevant — a purely biological response to sexual stimuli does not equate consent.
“Some people believe that a woman’s conduct should be governed by certain rules and regulations,” said Dr. Christabelle Sethna, a professor of feminism and gender studies at the University of Ottawa, in an interview. “If a woman follows these rules, nothing bad will happen to her.
”Women like Jacinta deviate from these rules.
“If a woman likes sex and has casual sex, this means that she is promiscuous. And if she is promiscuous, it means that she is bad. If she is bad, it means she is a liar. If this woman says she was raped, she is lying about it because she is ashamed, embarrassed to say that she sought out the sexual encounter and perhaps even liked it. She is not to be believed or pitied,” said Sethna.
Are your beliefs identical to the above statement? Perhaps. But what is most likely is that you hold only a fraction of the harshest rape myth rhetoric. Perhaps you do pity Jacinta, but would warn her to stop going to the apartments of strange men. Perhaps you’re okay with the apartments, if only she would tell someone where she was going. Perhaps you don’t think any of this was her fault, but you think, what kind of person would like it?
The essence of rape myths is to invalidate assault cases that do not fit their image, and the essence of this invalidation is to shift the blame from the perpetrator to the victim. Why was she there? Why did she do that?
Cautioning women to safeguard themselves is hardly villainous, nor is a healthy skepticism to the way assault accusations can be weaponized, as was done historically to Black men in America. But before voicing an opinion, critically think about its source — is it from a place of concern or a place of judgement? Before voicing an opinion, think of who might be listening in.
Perpetrators are not monsters; they are human beings who do terrible things. And just like other humans, despite doing terrible things, they do not want to think of themselves as terrible people. Both studies on self-reported perpetrators mentioned above noted that although the young men admitted to having sex with a woman “when you knew she was unwilling”, they did not categorize themselves as rapists. Rapists were the monster — the other. What happened in their case was just sex that they strategically obtained — she had led them on, she had gotten them aroused, she had enjoyed it once it got started.
“I think these myths underlie the close encounters that young men and women are negotiating,” said Sethna. And more than that, they underlie the greater fabric of society. It is common knowledge that sexual assault is the least reported violent crime globally. The WHO acknowledges that its statistics of intimate partner violence are probably a fraction of actual cases, “Given the high levels of stigma and under-reporting of sexual abuse, the true figure is likely to be significantly higher.”
After an assault, a victim is in a state of emotional vulnerability. Like Jacinta, she wants people to hear her story. But she is also afraid. Afraid of judgement, afraid of dismissal. And in a world where rape myths persist, where the people she might confide in or trust to bring her justice — friends, parents, police officers — might deny her story, question her, judge her, she is more likely to stay silent. And if she does report the assault, the unspoken biases of the judges and juries within the criminal justice system may ensure that her perpetrator walks free. The court of public opinion may vilify her for ruining her perpetrator’s life.
‘Why didn’t she go to the police?,’ you may have asked. Jacinta says nothing, shakes her head.
*The surname Jacinta is used to protect the victim’s identity.