Busting The Myths Of Sexual Assault

Guest Author: E.J. Smith, M.S., NCC, LPC-Intern and Military Spouse


The US Military, historically, has been a petri dish of sorts for many radical shifts in American culture-from racial integration, to women entering the workforce, and even more recently with the repeal of DADT and DOMA for LGBT identified service members. The current hot topic, notably, is sexual assault. 

As a counselor and advocate, a majority of my professional life focuses on working with survivors of sexual abuse.  Through this work, I’ve found that for mainstream American culture (of which the military is a part), one of the major barriers to justice for survivors is the prevalence of myths surrounding rape/sexual assault.  Today, I’ve outlined several of the currently accepted statistics, as well as four of the myths I encounter most frequently.  This piece is far from exhaustive, as the scope of the issue is so vast.  That said, I hope you will receive it as the starting point to a greater conversation that needs to occur.

Before I get to the myths, let’s start with some facts:

Since 2006, the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) estimates that someone is sexually assaulted every 2 minutes in the United States.

When presented by gender and age classifications:

—  1 in 6 in women (civilian)[i] and 1 in 3 women (military)[ii]

—  1 in 4  women (college)

—  1 in 10 males, although newer studies suggest 1 in 8 may be more accurate

—  15% are children under the age of 12.

Between 2010-2012, military sexual assault increased by 34%.

—  Estimated 19,300 sexual assaults in 2010 à 26,000 sexual assaults in 2012.

—  Of the 26,000 estimated, only 3,374 were reported.3 

—  In 2013, of the 5,061 reported, 484 went to trial, 376 were convicted.[iii] 



Myth – Rape is about sex.

            Despite the obvious association between sex and rape, the predominate theory among sexual assault prevention/advocacy experts is that rape is about power and control rather than sex.  To put it another way, sexual assault is sexualized violence, not violent sex. Some of the strongest evidence for this argument is the study from the Center for Disease Control that showed a significant relationship between the bullying behaviors in childhood, and sexualized aggression, dating violence and even domestic violence later in the lifespan. Finally, as evidenced by the widely documented issues of prison rape, perpetrators may venture out side their claimed sexual identity (i.e. a perpetrator who identifies as straight and generally attracted to women may still rape a male who is his subordinate) [iv].


Myth – Rapists are usually unknown to their victim.

            When I give presentations to college students and professionals regarding sexual assault, I typically ask the audience to build a mental image of the “typical” perpetrator.  More often than not, the caricature is creepy or otherwise off-putting stranger– of low socioeconomic status and lurking in the shadows.  This viewpoint isn’t just inaccurate; it’s dangerous.  The truth is that an overwhelming percentage of assaults (78%[v]) occur with a known assailant.

According to Drs. Jim Tanner and Stephen Brake, experts in the psychology of sexual predators, most ‘successful’ perpetrators, put great effort into building a personae people like to be around.  The thought being: if you’re good looking, smooth talking, and someone people like to be around, then you don’t have to go looking for victims– they willingly come to you. Working on a project together may lead to coffee, and perhaps a date that may provide access a victim’s home, car or other private space (2013).  Furthermore, the more people like you, the greater the barriers victims will face should they ever try outcry.  According to Tanner & Brake, the most dangerous sexual predators do not lurk in shadows, but rather they operate with the forethought to groom both their intended victims and their environments.

Myth – Sexual History is a Good Measure for Evaluating Likelihood of Victimization 

  This discussion couldn’t possibly be any more timely or important. In June of this year, President Obama signed a Pentagon supported Executive Order (EO) that materially diluted the protections afforded to survivors of sexual assault in the military – specifically regarding their sexual histories admitted as evidence in a court martial.  Military Rule of Evidence (MRE) 412 is essentially the military’s take on a set of rules commonly referred to as “Rape Sheild” laws.  And the President’s Executive Order is problematic because it expands the circumstances in which a survivor’s sexual history can be brought into evidence.    While a thorough discussion of these laws are entirely beyond the scope of this article, it’s worth noting that the current EO goes against the grain of what many civilian courts are ruling with respect to Rape Shield. 

So what does this move from the White House and Pentagon teach us?  First, it illustrates certain myths regarding the identities of sexual assault survivors in our society. Single people, married people, people in committed relationships, people in non-committed relationships and everyone in between can be exploited. Prior consensual behaviors with one partner a thousand times, or one thousand partners one time each, do not provide insight as to whether or not free, and enthusiastic consent was given during a specific incident.   

Consent is something that should be given freely and enthusiastically.  “YES!!!” (Think of the old Herbal Essence shampoo commercials).  And more importantly, consent must be given for each sexual encounter and even each stage of a sexual encounter.  Allow me to provide you an illustration: 

When I’m speaking to large groups-again, often of young adults-I tell them that consent isn’t like someone giving you one, all-access ticket to an amusement park. It’s more like a carnival, where each person needs to hand over their ticket at each individual ride-and more importantly, you need to ride those rides with the other person.  The other person is not the ride.  Consent involves togetherness-whether it’s a minute of togetherness or a lifetime.  My carnival example may dance along the line of crude, but it’s a price I’m willing to say in order to engage folks in a conversation that so desperately needs to happen.  And let’s face it-consensual sex can be fun! 

Myth- False reporting is very common. 

Lastly, I had to tackle the myth of false reporting.  The truth is that our best estimations have anywhere between 40-60% of sexual assault is never reported[vi].  And the best estimation of false reporting by the National Center for the Prosecution of Crimes Against Women (NCPCAW), is somewhere between 2-8%.  Often I’ve found that people expect the rate of false reporting to be higher-even close to or over 50%. The NCPCAW’s paper touches on this disconnect noting that as a culture, we have expectations and stereotypes of what counts as “real rape”.  And often we rely on the criminal justice system to determine whether or not an assault truly occurred, rather simply seeing it as an avenue toward justice, and one doorway towards healing. 

A true false report occurs when a person formally reports a fabricated assault.   An acquittal, a DA refusing to take a case to trial, and even a survivor changing his/her mind about wanting to report the assault do not count as false reports.


Further Consideration

This conversation is far from over… We’ve barely scraped the surface here.  What are the myths and misconceptions that you hear most often?  I’m interested to hear what you have to say.  Furthermore, if anyone needs assistance finding counseling or other resources- know that RAINN hosts national hotline that can connect you with a Rape Crisis Center in your area.  Help is available 24/7 by calling 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

[i] Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). (2009). https://www.rainn.org/statistics

[ii] American Journal of Industrialized Medicine (2003).

[iii] DOD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Report for FY13 http://sapr.mil/index.php/annual-reports

[iv] National Prison Rape Elimination Act Resource Center http://www.prearesourcecenter.org/

[v] Bureau of Justice Statistics (2013). National Crime Victimization Survey. Female Victims of Sexual Violence, 1994-2010. From a period of 2005-2010, 78% of perpetrators were known to their victim.  http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/press/fvsv9410pr.cfm


[vi] Bureau of Justice Statistics (2013). National Crime Victimization Survey. Female Victims of Sexual Violence, 1994-2010. In 2010, only 35% of victims of sexual violence reported the crime to police, down from 56% in 2003.   http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/press/fvsv9410pr.cfm


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