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The Facts Behind 8 Rape and Sexual Assault Myths

Here’s how campus police and administrators should respond to eight common myths and misconceptions about college rape and sexual assault.

The Facts Behind 8 Rape and Sexual Assault Myths

Departments within the UT System partnered up to create the Blueprint for University Police: Responding to Campus Sexual Assault

Campus police officers are on the front line in the fight against college sexual assault and rape. Their interactions with victims can shape the student population’s perceptions about how effective colleges are at responding to sexual assault reports.

With this in mind, the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work’s Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault partnered with the UT System Police to create a science-based, victim centered “blueprint” for law enforcement.

The resulting document, titled The Blueprint for Campus Police: Responding to Sexual Assault, offers a wealth of information for people interested in improving their understanding of and sensitivity toward sexual assault victims.

The following information was taken from the blueprint to address sexual assault and rape myths and explore the facts behind them.

Only through education can college officials take a more informed approach to sexual assault and rape response.

Myth 1: Sexual assault and rape victims are always hysterical, emotional or crying following an attack.

The Facts: Sexual assault and rape victims may go through a wide range of emotions and responses following an attack, and just because a victim does not outwardly appear emotional does not mean she or he is not emotional.

How Police Should Respond: Train officers to hold off on making judgments on the victim’s credibility based on their response and teach them about the wide range of possible responses to a sexual assault and rape.

Officers should avoid “framing” questions and record the victim’s reactions to trauma such as nausea, flashbacks, trembling, muscle rigidity, terror, memory gaps, etc.

Myth 2: Contradictory, partial or inaccurate statements mean the victim is lying.

The Facts: Stress, the consumption of drugs or alcohol (knowingly or unknowingly), discomfort and trauma may cause a victim to have difficulty clearly recounting the series of events surrounding their attack. Studies have shown that traumatic memories encode in our brains differently, mainly as unconnected, sensory, emotional fragments, which can lead to memory gaps and loss.

How Police Should Respond: Allow trauma victims to sleep or let time go by to improve their recall.

Studies have shown victims’ brains can recall sensory information better than specific details. Ask questions about what victims remember hearing, tasting, touching, seeing and smelling instead of “who, what, and where” questions.

Myth 3: Avoiding eye contact, shifting in a chair or showing discomfort means a sexual assault victim is lying.

The Facts: Sexual assault and rape victims may be uncomfortable because they cannot recall everything clearly or answer every question, causing them to stammer when speaking, fidget in their chair or avoid eye contact as they strain to recall or feel shame.

How Police Should Respond: Let victims recount the attack at their own pace and try not to interrupt them, especially with yes or no questions.

Myth 4: If the victim didn’t fight back or resist the assailant, she or he consented or the sexual activity was mutual and not forced.

The Facts: Sexual assault is a trauma that can cause the body to activate defensive strategies, such as freezing or appeasing the attacker. The freeze response is called “tonic-immobility” and is triggered by a flood of hormones that activate in response to a threat. There are many reasons why victims may not physically resist.

How Police Should Respond: Understand that lack of resistance does not mean consent and explain that tonic immobility is a normal reaction to fear and trauma.

Document appeasement strategies that may have been used, like reasoning or bargaining, and establish any elements of force the attacker may have used, whether physical or otherwise.

Myth 5: Police officers should quickly obtain a comprehensive written statement to “nail down the facts of the case.”

The Facts: Taking a written statement too early can lead to inconsistencies later on. Deciding to postpone a victim interview depends on many factors, including the victim’s stress response and whether or not they may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

How Police Should Respond: It is not very common for a sexual assault or rape victim to immediately make a report, but when they do, a preliminary interview should be conducted in which the primary focus is on gathering enough information to determine whether a crime occurred. Follow up interviews can occur later on.

Myth 6: If victims recant, that means they made false accusations and if they are uncooperative, the case should be dropped.

The Facts: There are many reasons why a victim may become uncooperative. Some common ones are listed below.

  • Fear of retaliation, trauma or revictimization
  • Frustration with the law enforcement or investigatory process
  • Fear of lack of credibility due to drug use, immigration status, occupation or mental health issues
  • Real or perceived loss of privacy
  • Doubts about chance of successful prosecution
  • Discouragement due to a lack of supportive resources
  • Fear of being blamed
  • Desire to forget the attack

How Police Should Respond: Educate victims on intimidation behaviors and document any incidents. Address any fears they have and point them toward support services in the area.

If a victim does recant, follow up with a formal investigation to ensure the absence of coercion, but always respect the victim’s decision. Keep in mind that the victim may change her or his mind at a later date and the case could be reopened.

Myth 7: All sexual assault victims are female, all perpetrators are male and sexual assaults only occur in the heterosexual population.

Other myths, such as the beliefs that the consequences of sexual assault are lesser for men than woman, and that women are non-violent, further act as barriers to an effective response.

The Facts: Sexual violence, including assault and rape, occurs in the LGBTQ community at similar rates to the straight community, and data from the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey suggests around 1.7 percent of men are sexually assaulted in their lifetime.

Men and members of the LGBTQ community may be less likely to report sexual assault for the following reasons:

  • Distrust of law enforcement
  • The perceived impact on their masculinity
  • Fear of being “outed” and homophobia
  • Real or perceived belief that support structures are not geared toward them

How Police Should Respond: Ask the victim what gender pronouns they prefer if you are unsure. Don’t make gendered assumptions about victims or perpetrators.

Also take cases of male sexual assault victims seriously without judgment or blame.

Myth 8: “Real rape” only happens if the perpetrator is a stranger, and past consent makes future consent unnecessary. If a victim has a casual sex partner, he or she is at fault.

The Facts: Nationally, about three in four victims of sexual assault knew their attacker, and research shows that non-strangers commit 78 percent of rapes or sexual assaults against college females aged 18-24.

“Hook up culture” is also prevalent on college campuses, with one study showing 70 percent of college students reported having “hooked up” with a sexual partner an average of ten times over their college careers.

How Police Should Respond: Understand the culture on college campuses and educate the community on the risk that acquaintances can pose. Also provide information on risk reduction.

Don’t deter victims from using the criminal justice system because they knew the attacker. Instead, use the perpetrator’s relationship with the victim as evidence of victim selection and availability in your investigation.

The full citation for the Blueprint for University Police: Responding to Campus Sexual Assault is below:

Busch-Armendariz, N.B., Sulley, C., & Hill, K. (2016). The Blueprint for campus police: Responding to sexual assault. Austin, TX: Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault, The University of Texas at Austin

About the Author

Contact:

Zach Winn is a journalist living in the Boston area. He was previously a reporter for Wicked Local and graduated from Keene State College in 2014, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism and minoring in political science.

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One response to “The Facts Behind 8 Rape and Sexual Assault Myths”

  1. Police should simply focus on capturing as much detail as possible and ensuring they meet their Clery Act reporting responsibilities and then let a trained counselor take the next steps.

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