Myths and facts about sexual assault

By Diana Russell

According to Diana Russell's 1978 survey of 930 randomly selected adult female residents of San Francisco, approximately 44% of women are victimized by rape or attempted rape at some time in their lives. The survey found that the real rape rate has increased approximately three-fold between 1931 and 1976 for women in all age groups except the two youngest groups. Of the percentage of women surveyed who reported a rape or attempted rape experience, 50% reported more than one assault or attempted assault experience. Russel's findings show that, at most, only 30% of stranger rapes and 1% of date rapes are ever reported to the police. Some estimates indicate that every six minutes of every day someone is sexually assaulted in the U.S. Myths abound about sexual assault. Some of the most common myths, along with facts that dispel them are:

•MYTH: Sexual assault is a crime of passion and lust. FACT: Sexual assault is a crime of violence. Assailants seek to dominate, humiliate and punish their victims.

•MYTH: You cannot be assaulted against your will. FACT: Assailants overpower their victims with the threat of violence or with actual violence. Especially in cases of acquaintance rape or incest, an assailant often uses the victim's trust in him to isolate her.

•MYTH: It is impossible for a husband to sexually assault his wife. FACT: Regardless of marital or social relationship, if a woman does not consent to sexual activity, she is being sexually assaulted. In fact, 14% of women are victims of rape committed by their husband.

•MYTH: A person who has really been assaulted will be hysterical. FACT: Survivors exhibit a spectrum ofemotional responses to assault: calm, hysteria, laughter, anger, apathy, shock. Each survivor copes with the trauma of the assault in a different way.

•MYTH: Sexual assault is an impulsive act. FACT: Seventy-five percent of all assaults are planned in advance. When three or more assailants are involved, 90% are planned. If two assailants are involved, 83% are planned. With one assailant, 58% are planned.

•MYTH: Assailants are usually crazed psychopaths who do not know their victims. FACT: As many as 80% of all assaults involve acquaintances. An assailant might be someone you know intimately. He may be a co-worker, a friend or a family member.

•MYTH: Gang rape is rare. FACT: In 43% of all reported cases, more than one assailant was involved.

•MYTH: Many women claim that they have been sexually assaulted because they want revenge upon the man they accuse. FACT: Only 4-6% of sexual assault cases are based on false accusation. This percentage of unsubstantiated cases is the same as with many other reported crimes.

•MYTH: Persons who dress or act in a "sexy" way are asking to be sexually assaulted. FACT: Many convicted sexual assailants are unable to remember what their victims looked like or were wearing. Nothing a person does or does not do causes a brutal crime like sexual assault.

•MYTH: In most cases, black men attack white women. FACT: In most sexual assault cases, the assailant and his victim are of the same racial background.

•MYTH: All women secretly want to be raped. FACT: Women, like all human beings, want a life of dignity and safety. Sexual assault robs a person of dignity and a sense of personal safety. No one wants the physical and emotional pain caused by sexual assault.

•MYTH: Only young, pretty women are assaulted. FACT: Survivors range in age from infancy to old age, and their appearance is seldom a consideration. Assailants often choose victims who seem most vulnerable to attack: old persons, children physically or emotionally disabled persons, substance abusers, and street persons. Men are also attacked.

•MYTH: It is impossible to sexually assault a man. FACT: Men fall victim for the same reasons as women: they are overwhelmed by threats or acts of physical and emotional violence. Also, most sexual assaults that involve a male victim are gang assaults.

•MYTH: As long as children remember to stay away from strangers, they are in no danger of being assaulted. FACT: Sadly, children are usually assaulted by acquaintances; a family member or other caretaking adult. Children are usually coerced into sexual activity by their assailant, and are manipulated into silence by the assailants threats and/or promises, as well as their own feelings of guilt.