Stigmas and Stereotypes around Sexual Assault and Reporting
Written by Cynthia A.
Sexual Assault Victim Specialist, BSW
Survivors face a number of stigmas when coping with the trauma of sexual assault. The biggest and most common stigma lies in responsibility. When speaking with survivors, the most prevalent response circulated is around who was responsible for the assault.
“Why didn’t you just fight it?”
“Why didn’t you say no”
“Why didn’t you just leave the situation?”
These victim blaming statements suggest that a victim is responsible for what happened to them. This stems from the “just world” hypothesis, that if something bad happened to you, you must have done something bad to deserve it.
Because of our victim-blaming society, survivors often fear reporting their assault to law enforcement. The initial contact a survivor has with someone following their experience can be crucial in a survivor’s journey to continue coping effectively with feelings of shame, guilt, and accountability.
Survivors may also face a stigma in relation to their economic status to experiencing sexual assault. The perception that survivors who have experienced sexual assault is related to poverty, or that the life a person may lead called for this level of abuse. This may include how a person may identify, gender expression, gender non-conformity, culture, mental health, gender, faith/religious affiliation, or race/ethnicity. This level of response stems from a defense mechanism that individuals have in the face of hearing traumatizing news in conjunction with stereotypes. Thus, leading these individuals to try to rationalize and compartmentalize the experience being related to the intersectionality of a person. This sustains the “just world” hypothesis that if someone does everything “right” they won’t ever be a victim of a sexual assault crime.
Stigmas and stereotypes can also be myths in relation to sexual assault.
Myth: You can spot a rapist by the way they look or act.
Fact: There is no surefire way to identify a rapist. Many appear completely normal, friendly, charming, and non-threatening.
Myth: People who are raped “ask for it” by the way they dress or act.
Fact: Rape is a crime of opportunity. Studies show that rapists choose victims based on their vulnerability, not on how sexy they appear or how flirtatious they are.
Myth: If you’re in a relationship, you can’t experience sexual assault.
Fact: Consent is key, right? An individual consents to being in a relationship, but does not sign over their body autonomy to their partner. This can include casual relationships, as well as more intimate romantic relationships. Giving consent once does not give the other party access in perpetuity. The myth that sexual assault occurs at night, in public, with strangers more often than the reality of a trusted individual committing a betrayal of trust. This does not exclude a stranger from possibly committing sexual assault under those circumstances, but that the prevalence in assailants being those we know, trust, and confide in.
Myth: You deserved it or it doesn’t count because were under the influence.
Fact: A survivor being under the influence of drugs or alcohol does not mean that they asked to be assaulted or abused. An individual has a right to partake in whatever they choose, it is not an invitation for people to have access to their person at whatever capacity they want. Drugs and Alcohol are mediums assailants may utilize to perpetrate, to make their victims more vulnerable. Whether that be to isolate them, gaslight them, coerce, or manipulate them. A survivor should not have to worry about being blamed because they may have been under the influence, or not being believed due to being under the influence. A survivor will tell you what they remember, and with a trauma-informed approach, a trained advocate can utilize sensory questions to possibly help prompt memories to come forth.
“Can you recall where you were?”
“What did it smell like where you were?”
“Can you recall how you were positioned? (Sitting, laying, standing)”
During a traumatic event, victims enter survival mode. Their brain and body automatically choose action – often referred to as Fight, Flight, Freeze. As soon as the amygdala senses danger and sends signals to your body to shut down other processes that are not important for survival are shut off, this including our hippocampus – the part in our brain responsible for memory storage. Thus, making it difficult for a survivor to recall the experience in its entirety, as well, as fragments, or in a linear retelling of the events.
Please refer to: Trauma and The Brain video for a more elaborate explanation.
Researchers like Lizzy Dening, Founder of Survivor Stories, have explored responses to sexual assault, many of which I just briefly explained. Among those are also a basis on evolution, stating that humans have a pack-animal mentality. In a patriarchal society where the dominant ideology is tailored towards a cis-gender male viewpoint, primarily in relation to how we think and view, sex and power. The rape culture in the patriarchal society normalizes and minimizes sexual violence and rape most commonly through media. Celebrity news, TV shows, Movies, etc. all perpetuate the gender imbalance cultivated within, leaving those intersectional individuals worse off.
If you’re asking yourself, how can I support survivors? Start with challenging statements that normalize or minimize sexual violence. Continue educating yourself on sexual violence, talk about it with trusted friends and family, and most importantly believe survivors should they choose to disclose to you. As survivors or allies, if we continue challenging the “norm,” I know we, as a collective, can achieve an empowering culture that allows survivors to freely and justly use their voice.