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Rape Myths Persist—Reactions to the Assault on Lara Logan

| February 17, 2011

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CBS News Correspondent Lara Logan in Tahrir Square (photo: CBS

Even after decades of public discourse about the nature of sexual assault, rape is still misunderstood. Here, clinical psychologist Sheela Raja writes that it's past time to put the myths to rest.

By now, most of us have heard about the brutal sexual assault of  CBS news correspondent Lara Logan.  And by now, most of us have read the inevitable blogs and comment threads reacting to the assault.  As a clinical psychologist who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder, I’ve been horrified by some of the comments I’ve read—declarations about Lara Logan’s looks, her previous sexual history, her choice of profession.  The irrelevant information seems to have no bounds.

More than 30 years ago, Psychologist Martha Burt coined the term “rape myths” to describe “prejudicial, stereotyped, or false beliefs about rape, rape victims, and rapists.”  Rape myths are widely believed and can help justify aggression and sexual violence.  On a psychological level rape myths also help us distance ourselves from the victim.  For example, This could never happen to me because: 1) I would never have worn a short skirt, 2) I never walk alone at night, 3) I would not have been a journalist in Egypt!  Clearly the list of justifications goes on an on.

So let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of this situation.  While the circumstances surrounding the attack on Lara Logan are unique, the rape myths lurking all over the internet are familiar to anyone who has worked on sexual assault issues. It's time to acknowledge and challenge these false beliefs so that we can begin to better support victims of sexual violence.

Correcting Misinformation

  • Anyone can be sexually assaulted.  Sadly, there is data that men, women, old people, children, virgins and sex workers can all be raped.  Studies of the general population suggest that approximately 22 percent of women and 4 percent of men are sexually assaulted as adults.  As many as 25 percent of girls and 8 percent of boys are victims of childhood sexual abuse. Most people, regardless of their gender or ethnicity react to sexual assault in a similar way—with depression, anxiety and shock.  What does seem to make a difference is whether victims have help—people around to love and support them.
  • Sexual assault is about violence and power.  There is absolutely no data indicating that good looking or attractive women are assaulted at higher rates.
  • Sexual assault is a violent crime.  We need to start treating sexual assault like any other violent crime—a mugging, a stabbing, a homicide.  Victims are not more responsible just because forcible sex is involved.
  • Most sexual assault involves people we know, and not strangers. So as much as we try to protect ourselves in public, we need to be aware of the very high rates of dating and domestic violence—which provide the context for the majority of sexual assault in the United States.

Providing Support Immediately After an Assault

  • If someone you know is sexually assaulted, make sure you listen.  It can be the hardest thing to do—but we know that support plays a key role in helping people heal.
  • Don’t jump in with your own trauma story.  It’s human nature to want to let a survivor know you understand them—and to perhaps give details of a traumatic event you’ve experienced or heard about. Resist this urge because a survivor doesn’t need to deal with another traumatic event while their own memories are still fresh.
  • Let the survivor set the pace of disclosure.  It can be tempting to want to find out all the information you can about the assault, but remember that you are probably not in law-enforcement. This is not the time.  The survivor may not be ready.
  • Second guess your questions.  Again, what we say and do can help people heal—but they can also make a survivor’s mental health worse!  Because of the stigma of sexual assault, many survivors are already ashamed, guilty, and confused.  So ask yourself, “Can I wait to ask that question about the assault?”  For example, right after an assault is definitely not the time to ask about what your friend was wearing, or why he or she was in a certain place or with the perpetrator.
  • Finally, be yourself. If you don’t know what to say, just admit that. Give the survivor a chance to tell you what they need.

If we work together, we can help Lara Logan and countless others heal from the wounds of assault.  We've known about “rape myths” for decades.  It’s high time we change in the way we treat victims of sexual crimes.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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