The low estimate of annual rapes in the United States is over 191,000 (USDOJ), while the high estimate is over 1,929,000 (CDC). No matter what the actual number, there is one dismal certainty: the vast majority of victims, should they attempt to come forward with their stories, will be ridiculed, shamed and harassed back into silence.
The odds are heavily stacked against rape survivors who share their testimonies. Police officers rarely believe victims who attempt to pursue legal justice after rape, especially if those victims are people of color. A recent study showed that 90 percent of rape survivors were re-victimized during their first encounter with the police through derision, disbelief or harassment. This resulted in more than 85 percent of rape survivors dropping their charges out of emotional distress (link).
College students also often refuse to believe rape survivors. One study showed that many college students believe 50 percent of rape accusations are false (link). Even at Knox, rape apologist comments abound: “I’m not victim-blaming, but they should have known better.” “I feel like she’s just mad he didn’t want to be in a relationship after they had sex.” “He made a joke about his own assault, so he’s not an actual victim.”
If you take time to parse through available literature on the subject, you will find that false rape accusations are incredibly rare. The NCAPV has stated that only two percent of all such allegations are false (link), and multiple other studies show similar data (link). In almost every study, the rate of false accusations of rape is not only extremely low (two to eight percent), but also comparable to the amount of false accusations of any other major crime (link).
For most people, however, these statistics are not enough. Thus, perhaps it is also helpful to hear about rape from the people who have either perpetrated it or wish to perpetrate it. In many studies, men who have either raped or have desired to rape admit to these crimes with startling frequency. In one study of over 10,000 men around the world, roughly one in four men admitted to having raped at least once (link). In 1,882 American men surveyed, 120 participants admitted to raping at least once, and between them had committed 483 rapes (link). In a recent small study on college students, one third of college men in the study sample stated that they would rape if they knew they could get away with it (link).
At this point, I would also like to note that I am not accusing all men of being rapists, nor am I saying that all rapists are men. Though over 90 percent of rapists are men (link, which is the reason why studies on rape so frequently target males), we need to note that people of any gender can rape and be raped. My point in mentioning the above studies is that the feminist idea of “rape culture” is not inflated; rather, it is corroborated by the testimonies of rapists and potential rapists themselves. And where are the thousands of victims those perpetrators committed their crimes against? Probably in the ever-increasing pool of survivors whose stories have been ridiculed, shamed and ignored.
One specific way that we hurt survivors is by negating their stories because we think they are acting in ways that we don’t deem “appropriate” for rape survivors. We say things like, “She slept with ten people after being raped? Rape victims aren’t promiscuous!” and “They told the story of their rape without breaking down? A truly traumatized person would be hysterical!”
Again, if we look at literature on the subject, we actually find that sexual trauma does not result in a single, defining set of post-traumatic characteristics (link). That is to say, after being raped, some people cry, while others may find themselves laughing hysterically as they recount their story due to severe dissociation. Some survivors become “promiscuous” as a reclamatory act of consent, while others refuse sexual contact indefinitely. Some feel ashamed of what has happened, while others are immediately able to recognize that it was not their fault.
Of special importance is that some survivors do not always fully remember what has happened to them until well after the fact. This is hands-down the most common reason I’ve heard people use to discount survivors: “Well, she seemed a little off for a few weeks, but then she suddenly started saying she’d been raped, and it threw me off.” “They said they could remember being raped but couldn’t even remember the color of their attacker’s shirt.” “He was a little drunk when it happened, so his memory’s too patchy to really know for sure.”
Research into the issue of memory recall after rape is conclusive: although the rape survivor’s memory of the situation may seem a bit disjointed or blurred, the memories themselves have been stored correctly. Basically, traumatic memories are stored in the amygdala (a portion of the brain) in a fragmented way due to surges of hormones in the moment of panic, but what the victim does remember is true. Thus, the popular belief that rape victims are just misremembering things is not supported by science. The reconstruction of these painful memories may be slow and disjointed, but they are not inaccurate in and of themselves (link).
So what does all of this mean? First of all, we can see a trend: in our rape culture, everyone apparently gets to decide how survivors can and should act except for the survivors themselves. This is a debilitating trend that absolutely must be stopped. If rape survivors in our society and campus are ever going to feel supported, we must stop dogging them at every turn with questions hinting that they deserved it, are misremembering things or are making up false allegations.
Combating rape myths is difficult, because when we believe rape survivors, we must also realize that the onus is on us to do something. Rape doesn’t have to be a part of our culture, believe it or not: anthropological and sociological evidence backs up the fact that it is possible to have a society without such widespread sexual violence. The first step to combating sexual violence is to trust survivors who share their stories. There’s no magical way of defeating rape culture in one blow, but what is magical is sitting back, putting your biases aside and letting survivors tell their own stories in their own way on their own time.