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Why We Still Blame Victims of Rape

Recent research reminds us that no matter how far we've come in our understanding of the crime of rape, the old sexist beliefs die hard.
 
 
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Earlier this year, Christina Keegan -- also known as Miss Nevada -- announced that the issue she chose to champion as her platform for the 2010 Miss America competition would be rape education and recovery.  Keegan, a 24-year-old medical student, explained that she picked the topic because a few years ago she was slipped the drug GHB and raped by an acquaintance.

In many ways, Keegan's choice of platform reflects the fact that the treatment of rape is different today than it was 20 or30 ago. Back then, the concept of date rape was a new one and rape victims could expect to be scrutinized just as harshly, if not more so, than their assailant. 

To be sure, times have changed. Americans currently live in an era that has many protections for rape survivors. Starting in the late '80s, rape shield laws began to be enacted. These laws prevent the publication of a victim's name and prohibit questioning a victim about her (or his) sexual history during a rape trial. By 1993, all 50 states had criminalized marital rape, and 1994 saw the passage of the Federal Violence Against Women Act. Today, many hospitals make rape kits available to victims and DNA testing is used more and more often in the prosecution of this crime. Additionally, the FBI reports that in the U.S., the rate of reported rapes is now at its lowest point in years.  

Yet, our understanding of the crime of rape remains flawed (including those involved in the legal system).  For many people, a stranger in a dark alley remains the symbol of rape. Yet as Jen Wilson, director of the Rape Abuse Incest National Network's national hotline explains, “Here in the U.S., around 73 percent of victims know their attacker.” This message hasn't completely resonated, and as a result, if a woman's rape doesn't fit into the expected model, her story might be questioned. And if her own choices or character are questionable? Wellshe might really be raked over the coals.  

It was only six years ago that the woman who accused basketball player Kobe Bryant of rape had her photo and phone number plastered across the Internet, received death threats, and saw her sex life dragged through court as proof that she wasn't a credible witness. "She is not worthy of your belief," one of Bryant's attorneys told the judge.

While this situation was unique in that it involved an accusation against a celebrity, a few recent surveys confirm that victim blaming in general is still alive and well. One survey, conducted with 1,000 (pdf) people in the UK, found that while both women and men tend to blame female rape victims for sexual assaults, women are actually “less forgiving” than men. Among other things, the survey indicated that 71 percent of women and 57 percent of men believed a woman should accept responsibility for unwanted sex after getting into bed with someone. Another 31 percent of women and 23 percent of men thought women were to blame for rape if they had dressed provocatively. Of all respondents, over half thought there were some circumstances where a victim should accept responsibility for a rape. A different study, conducted by researchers out of the University of Central Lancashire, found that men are more likely than women to blame male victims of rape for not fighting off their attacker. 

Blaming the victim isn't unique to rape. Indeed, the actions of people who are sick, poor or unemployed are often questioned as well. But the ways in which we blame rape victims, the majority of whom are women, are different. Sometimes this blame is subtle. Other times, not so much. Take leaflets handed out to random women by members of a Christian group in Virginia last month. Titled "Women & Girls," they read, “Scripture tells us that when a man looks on a woman to lust for her he has already committed adultery in his heart. If you are dressed in a way that tempts men to do this secret (or not so secret) sin, you are a participant in the sin. By the way, some rape victims would not have been raped if they had dressed properly. So can we really say they were innocent victims?"   

Clearly, this is a fringe group. But street-corner proselytizers aren’t alone in believing myths about rape. A lot of people scrutinize everything about a rape victim: how she dressed, how she acted, how much she drank, her previous sexual partners, where she was and why she was there. And it isn’t only the actions of a victim that are questioned; some of the most common rape myths are actually about rapists. As Jen Wilson of RAINN says, “One of them, again, is that you'll be attacked by a stranger, and that the likelihood of that is greater than [being attacked by] someone you know.”

There are many reasons people blame victims and believe rape myths. A 2010 analysis of rape myth beliefs published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence confirmed what a lot of people probably suspected: men who are sexually aggressive and hostile toward women are more likely to believe rape myths. Researchers Eliana Suarez and Tahany M. Gadalla explain: “Higher RMA [rape myth acceptance] appeared to be related with playboy behavior, sociosexuality, and use of degrading images.” Interestingly, they also concluded that rape myth belief was higher in those whose tolerance of racial and religious difference was lower.

Another study done by researchers in Israel found that people blame rape victims in order to maintain a sense of control over their own lives. As they write,

In general, the results show that subjects attribute blame to the rape victim. Attribution of blame helps to reinforce the casual observer’s belief that the world is a safe, protected place, and that occurrences such as rape can be controlled...Blame reflects the way in which people organize data regarding events and behaviors that have actual or potential adverse consequences. It is possible that, given the perception that women are vulnerable, exposed, and more aware of their vulnerability, they are expected to act with extra caution to avoid rape, and are therefore judged more harshly when actually victimized.

These results can explain victim blaming more as a self-defense mechanism than a callous act of judgment or misogyny. When you believe that victims are to blame for their assaults, you can ensure you won't make the same mistakes. The need to feel in control also explains why men seem to be more likely to blame other men for their rapes, and women other women.  

Sadder still is that many victims are the last to let themselves off the hook. As Miss Nevada, Christina Keegan told me, "Everyone sees themselves as the person to blame. I had blamed myself for what happened to me. I asked myself, why did I do that? Why did I wear that? Why did I go there?”

That a person like Keegan feels comfortable speaking publicly about her rape, and that she has an understanding platform from which to do so, shows how our attitudes about the crime have evolved. But old beliefs die hard. I wonder how Keegan's rape story would have been viewed had she been a dancer working late, a drunk party girl at a club, or the longtime wife of the perpetrator, instead of a wholesome, all-American beauty pageant contestant? It's pretty clear that although we've come a long way--with increased legal protections for rape victims, and an expanding understanding of the crime--I know the answer to that question is that we've also got a long way to go.   

Ellen Friedrichs is a sex educator based in New York City, where she teaches high school and college classes.
 
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