Feminism Friday: Popularity of long-debunked rape myths: talk about disheartening

Originally posted at Hoyden About Town

The top link offered to me on Stumble-Upon for Women’s Issues is this: Through a Rapists Eyes, a page on a rape-prevention site. Unfortunately, they are propagating misinformation, pure and simple.

Some of you may recognise the opening paragraphs as one of those emails that gets forwarded around the place. This one has been on the go since 2000, forwarded eagerly on and on by those concerned about how to appear less vulnerable/appealing to stranger rapists. However, it is dangerously misleading (not least in never mentioning that fewer than 1in 5 rapes are actually committed by strangers – by far the majority of rapes of women are committed by men they know who rape opportunistically when they are alone together and later claim that the sex was consensual).

Below are some excerpts from the quoted email (the most egregiously wrong), and a summary from me below each point of the actual facts as laid out by the meticulous Barbara Mikkelson of Snopes’ Urban Legend Reference Pages.

A group of rapists in prison were interviewed on what they look for in a potential victim, and here are some interesting facts:

1. The first thing men look for in a potential victim is hairstyle. They are most likely to go after a woman with a ponytail, bun, braid, or other hairstyle that can easily be grabbed. They are also likely to go after a woman with long hair. Women with short hair are not common targets.

[fact: this claim is totally unsupported by any studies known to law enforcement – women with all hair lengths, including short hair, and all ages and body types, are raped in seemingly equal proportions]

2. The second thing men look for is clothing. They will look for women whose clothing is easy to remove quickly. Many of them carry scissors to cut clothing.

[fact: rapists are often/usually more interested in terrorising and harming women than they are in obtaining sex quickly, so clothing is not a major factor in victim choice]
4. The time of day men are most likely to attack and rape a woman is in the early morning, between 5 and 8:30 a.m.

[fact: the USDOJ and all other statistical sources agree that most attacks (2/3 or more) take place at night – between 6pm and 6am]

5. The number one place women are attacked and abducted is grocery store parking lots. Number two is office parking lots/garages. Number three is public restrooms.

[fact: another claim totally unsupported by any studies known to law enforcement – there is nothing inherently dangerous about parking lots or public restrooms, what matters is how isolated a place is]

7. Only 2% said they carried weapons because rape carries a 3-5 year sentence, but rape with a weapon is 15-20 years.

[fact: dangerously wrong – the proper statistic is well over 30% of reported rapists carry weapons, which makes the risk that they will retaliate to resistance with a weapon much, much higher]

8. If you put up any kind of a fight at all, they get discouraged because it only takes a minute or two for them to realize that going after you isn’t worth it because it will be time-consuming.

[fact: this implies that there is only one sort of rapist and that all of them will be discouraged by physical resistance – this is dangerously wrong if the rapist is the wrong type who will respond to resistance with an escalation of violence – see Barbara’s article for more detail ]

Women who believe the misinformation in this email are going to be hypervigilant when they could be more confidently relaxed, and complacent when they should be vigilant. Apart from the factoids above, the email also describes self-defence techniques to employ, which again is a dangerous way to encourage complacency, as Barbara explains:

The question of to fight back or not is an age-old one, and there’s no one right answer. Granted, one particular rapist might be sent running bloody-nosed by a swift right hook, but try that on another one and a horrific experience could be transformed into a fatal one. Resistance advice of the type being circulated in the e-mail in question creates the false impression that escaping unscathed from the clutches of a rapist is only a matter of knowing which self-defence tricks to employ. Reality, however, is far different. Not all rapists can be overcome.

[…]physical skills are only as good as recent training — someone who hasn’t practiced a move in the three months since she took a course is only a tad better prepared to fend off an attacker than someone who never had any training at all. Worst of all, such training can lead those who have aced their courses to develop a dangerous complacency about their own safety, inducing them into a state of overconfidence wherein awareness of their surroundings becomes a lost art, buried under the certainty that now bad things can’t happen to them.

Complacency kills.

For those of us interested in urban legend propagation, it’s interesting to see how the original form of the email (advice from a self-defence instructor (karate black-belt) who trained with Hollywood! stars! and interviewed rapists in prison) has managed to lose this instructor to just report nebulous interviews of “a group of rapists in prison”, but still offers the self-defence information at the end.

The enhancement of the “authority” of the information is typical of longstanding e-lore, but in this case the propagators have done away with the authority from the self-defence instructor for the alleged effectiveness of these techniques, perhaps in an attempt to present the results from these alleged interviews as more reliable than just some keen volunteers with no expertise interviewing convicted rapists. The original email also mentioned that date rapists were interviewed, but as the advice is all about stranger rape that part seems to have been cut by someone somewhere along the chain.

However, despite its fascination as an example of evolving urban folklore, the major point remains: this set of rape myths is dangerous misinformation, begun by

“a fear merchant vending false information to those who want to feel safe”.

Sites aimed at rape prevention should do a better job of checking their facts if they really want to help women and other potential rape victims: parroting long-debunked factoids does more harm than good.

About tigtog

writer, singer, webwrangler, blogger, comedy tragic | about.me/vivsmythe

23 comments on “Feminism Friday: Popularity of long-debunked rape myths: talk about disheartening

  1. The number one place women are attacked and abducted is grocery store parking lots.

    You know, I think the number one place is their own houses. By far.

    Women who believe the misinformation in this email are going to be hypervigilant when they could be more confidently relaxed, and complacent when they should be vigilant.

    But women shouldn’t be anything. It’s not a responsibility they should bear, and they can’t do anything about it anyway.

  2. OK, I can speak from experience. I was attacked just this past Monday, at 2 a.m., in a hotel in the Bay Area. The guy followed me into my room as I was carrying my luggage in, then closed the door behind himself, pinned me down on the bed, and tried to keep me from screaming by putting his hand over my mouth and nose.

    I chose to fight back, even if he weighed almost twice as much as I did, and he could easily have grabbed a pillow from the bed to smother me. I didn’t stop screaming or squirming to position my legs so that I could have kicked him in the groin, and I bit the perv in his hand. After a minute or so, he let go, looked at me, and ran out of the room, across the parking lot, where other people who had heard me scream saw him escape.

    Fighting back is a choice, and, as the police officer and the detective told me, often it’s a good one. It certainly saved my life a few days ago.

  3. Noir,

    You’re right to pick me up on that “should”. I think it’s wise for women to watch for accurate warning signs from men around them regarding attitudes of sexual entitlement, but none of that will necessarily protect a woman from an experienced serial rapist.


    I’m thrilled for you that you managed to protect yourself, truly. I’m especially glad for you that your attacker wasn’t the type of rapist who responds to forceful resistance with an escalation to lethal force, because many rapists are that type. What worked for you won’t necessarily work for somebody else, and it won’t necessarily work for you again with a different attacker. You took a risk and it paid off. Any other women who choose not to fight their attacker are still making a valid choice.

  4. Wow. I’m glad you are alright, Charlotte.

    Yeah, what tigtog said. I think I didn’t express myself correctly, it’s not they can’t do anything to defend themselves, it just doesn’t depend on them if they will be attacked (and how) or if they won’t. They aren’t controlling the attacker’s actions; what he will do, who he will attack, and how far he intents to go; those are only up to him. The victim can’t know what the attacker has in mind, and how he will react.

  5. Hello! 🙂 I love this blog. I know it’s a little late, but Happy International Women’s Day!

  6. My mother forwards that email to me at least once a year.

  7. Great article. It’s so frustrating how often these myths are perpetuated by stupid email forwards and lazy journalism. Thank god for Snopes, that’s all I can say – though it’s amazing how many of the people who send this kinds of forwards round have never actually heard of Snopes. Barbara should be knighted for services to the public… if America had knighthoods.

    Sorry, slightly flawed comment there!

  8. I read a book back in about 1990, called ‘Stopping Rape’. I can’t remember the names of the authors and I can’t seem to find an internet reference. I only know that it was written by two American feminists as part of a university rape study.

    From what I recall, it was based on a series of interviews with about 100 women – about 50 of whom had been raped, and the other 50 had been confronted with a serious rape situation at some point in their lives but had managed to avoid actually getting raped.

    What the study revealed was that there was a significant difference in the average level of self-esteem between the two groups. Those who had avoided rape had a higher self-esteem level overall than those who had been raped.

    They found there was a significant difference in how each group of women had confronted the rape situation. Among those who were raped, the main fear they reported having at the time was that they would be killed. Among those who avoided being raped, the main fear reported was that they would actually be raped. These fears also roughly correlated with their levels of self-esteem. Those with low self-esteem mainly reported that they feared being killed, while those with high self-esteem mainly feared being raped.

    The overall interpretation of the study indicated that women with high self-esteem were more likely to assert themselves to regain control of the situation – e.g. by talking to the rapist, assessing the rapist’s psychology, using eye contact, taking advantage of a getaway opportunity, distracting the rapist etc.

    This is definitely not to say that all the women with high self-esteem managed to avoid being raped; so too, several women with low self-esteem got away. Luck, too, often played an important part. There is also the causal factor – i.e. being raped may well have contributed to some of the women’s low self-esteeem.

    However, the study does lend weight to the feminist view that rape is a crime of power. Because high self-esteem is empowering, it may also be our best protection against rape.

  9. Wow. I never heard of that study, but it sets my skepticism’s radar totally on wild.

    You know, you would think that the difference in self-esteem would be consequence of the rape. That is one crime that has a awful effect on people’s lives. It’s not something that goes away easily. And getting away from rape could give the escaper the feeling that they are capable/clever/strong because they ‘won’ over their aggressor. .

    Seriously, if it’s a power crime, I think people who act more ’empowered’ would make a more likely victim for a rapist: they are more attractive for ‘being put on their place.’

    I can say I find a study like that very uncomfortable. It turns over the responsibility on the victim (they were raped because they acted in a ‘wrong’ way, some people could ‘convince’ their potential rapist…), it’s kind of insulting for victims (and seriously, how can you say that not wanting to die in a specific moment means lower self-esteem?), and it gives the false sense of security to some people that if they act in a certain way they won’t be raped. All this in opposition to completely blaming the rapist, and the sexism in our society (power through sex).

  10. You know, I like what Snopes did. They focused on the rapist, the types, and what they look for in rape; and not in what the victim does and how she acts.

  11. Noir

    I agree with so much of what you said, but I can’t agree with the depth of your negativity towards my post.

    Rape has many sides to it. To concentrate on the victim’s behaviour is not to neglect the role of the rapist as perpetrator of the crime. Neither does it exempt society’s responsibility for creating the kind of distorted gender climate that leads some disturbed men to develop a sense of rape entitlement (or ‘normal’ men in disturbed circumstances such as war).

    The above book was actually recommended to me by my women’s self-defence instructor. The emphasis on self-esteem resonated with me at the time, because learning to fight awakened a dormant sense of empowerment in me, which I suppose I injected into my reading of the book.

    I should also add that the study looked at many other aspects of rape, dispelling several myths in the process. For example, (as I recall) only one of the victims was deemed to be wearing scanty clothing – and she happened to be at the beach! And many of the attacks occurred during winter when the women were wearing excess layers of clothing. Also, hardly any of the attacks occurred in isolated places – many took place in the victim’s home or within proximity to other people.

  12. I understand, Marian. I wasn’t really trying to show negativity towards your post. It’s just that the idea that rapists attack/rape women that have some specific attitude -specially if that attitude is seen as ‘negative’- doesn’t set well with me.

    And hell, I sure haven’t read the book. The things you said about it now make it sound a lot better. I’m just baffled that they made such an inference from a sample of 50 women raped and 50 who weren’t. Considering it was something potentially offensive for raped women.

  13. Marian, I have two points to make and am not feeling very coherent.

    1) I would need to see a lot of evidence that the low self-esteem was not a direct result of having been successfully raped.

    2) I also strongly suspect that women who are *right now being raped* are not *right now* afraid of being raped because it’s *happening*. They go on to the next scary thing, being killed. Women who have not yet been successfully raped in this attack perhaps just haven’t had to escalate to that level of fear yet.

  14. […] and KBR (and KBR, again), immigration officials, and many more. The coverage of rape myths has continued to remain popular, despite the thousands of women who have experienced otherwise. Stories have been […]

  15. Rape is an act of violence and a hate crime. There are no excuses and no exceptions, thus these figures do not surprise me at all. People who rape are sick, sick individuals, and hate society, especially women, in general. Sick people will pick anyone they think of as weaker than them, anyone they think they can subdue, anyone they think they can do it to and get away with it.

    Rapists are cowardly slime. They need the cover of night. Why would they want to carry out such acts that they know are shameful in broad daylight? And why would they want to be near people when they want to do such a repulsive act?

    Thanks for the insightful post. It may help keep the women in my life out of harm’s way.

  16. I’m a little late in stumbling across this post, but I would just like to add one little consideration about Marion’s comment.

    Perhaps the women who got away, who were afraid only of being raped and not of being killed, felt that way (and escaped) because their potential rapists were simply not as violent/big/strong/armed/angry as the rapists in the cases in which the women were actually raped and were afraid of being killed.

    Just a suggestion.

  17. WAAAAAAAAAAAAAY late to this party, but I wanted to respond to Mark’s comment for the benefit of future readers.

    Rapists are regular guys. That’s what makes them so scary–you can’t pick them out of a crowd by any criteria, behavior, attitude, “cowardliness”, you just can’t do it. (In fact, there’s an argument to be made that rapists are the brave ones, considering the statistics about men who would “force a woman to have sex” if they knew no one would ever know.)

    I would venture to suggest that the reason most rapes happen at night is that a lot of people seem to be at work during the day. I was raped at night because that was when my boyfriend had me in his bed. If we had been third-shift workers at the time, I’m sure it would have happened during the day. Men who rape their live-in girlfriends, wives, daughters, stepdaughters, and other female relatives are more likely to be in proximity to these women and girls at night, because some or all of these people are at work and school — apart from each other — during the day. Men who rape their dates tend to rape at night because that’s a common time to date, again because people work during the day. Rapists do not choose “the cover of night” to rape because they are afraid someone will see them; they have very little fear that anyone will believe the woman wasn’t asking for it in some way or other, and I would venture to say the vast majority of them don’t think what they are doing is rape or is wrong in any way. They choose “the cover of night” because that’s when they happen to be around their victims.

    And yes, rapists are sick people. What they are sick with is patriarchy, and we’ve all got it to some degree. In the garden-variety rapist it’s more advanced, possibly, than in the dude who opens the door and pulls out the chair for his female partner out of “respect”, but less advanced than the dude who routinely tortures his female partner until finally he kills her.

    Finally, no, this post is not going to help keep the women in your life out of harm’s way (unless you personally had previously been going to rape them and now have been inspired not to); that’s the whole point.

  18. can I just say, as someone who is not a troll and simply sharing my personal opinion as a woman (and a feminist at that), that I would fight tooth and nail to not be raped (at least in the stranger danger sense of the word, and possibly in the date rape sense of it)

    I know that in some cases, survival is achieved by picking the lesser evil. But for me, I feel like I would rather die than let someone exert that sort of psychological coercion over me. Because if it truly is all about the rapist feeling as though they should get their way, I would rather die than let them think I would go along with that for a second.

    Sort of in the spirit of, “you want to rape me and make me scared? Well fuck you. All you could ever be to me was an annoying little bug that won’t buzz away.” (punch kick punch)

    I recognize that this would not work with the truly sick and perverted serial rapists a la ted bundy and others, who have no problem committing grievous bodily harm and murder, but for a lot of “men” who are coming from a place of seeing women as weak sex objects, asserting personality and will shakes them.

    I am a little hotheaded and more than a little stubborn when it comes to things like this, and I know I’m by no means speaking for womankind, or even saying that my way is the wisest. I was just sharing my perspective – this is the way I feel about it.

  19. @Slythwolf – If the person who posted the comment above yous wasn’t named ‘Mark’ would you have responded like that, with such venom? Answer- probably not. I agree with what you are saying, but how dare you treat someone with such a patronising lack of respect simply because of their biological sex? If I’d posted what Mark has, you’d be agreeing with me. But obviously, because he’s a man he must be totally ignorant of the whole system of patricarchy etc, etc. By reading between the lines of his comment you throw out a a subtext that says anything said by a man cannot be of any validity. How patronising and insulting. What if Mark is a trans man and has spent the former part of his life on the female side of the fence? Assumptions are dangerous things.

    Of course, we have to prevent our male supporters and non-supporters making feminism ‘all about them’ – but that’s not what Mark is doing here. You’re simply assuming that as a man, he must be. In my opinion, two wrongs don’t make a right – regardless of the injustices we face, there is no excuse for treating people with the complete lack of respect that you just did. It’s frankly embarrassing.

  20. “physical skills are only as good as recent training — someone who hasn’t practised a move in the three months since she took a course is only a tad better prepared to fend off an attacker than someone who never had any training at all.”

    I just want to make a remark about this particular bit. My brothers are Tae-Kwon-Do instructors, I did quite a bit of it as well (in mixed classes). The above quote is true if the course you took was a short course, say up to a few months. If, however, you go to regular classes over a couple of years, then your skills, while rusty after a while, will always be good.

    Self defence and martial arts are like sports in this regard. Practice a bit for a short time and then play a year later and you’ll be almost as bad. Practice a lot for a long time and you will always be pretty good. At some point, some of the moves actually become instinctive, you don’t have to think about them, that’s just how you always react.

    Train for long enough and your confidence will be improved. This is mostly a good thing. If you need to defend yourself then you need to be confident, you can’t hesitate. Of course, I once saw a guy who took one lesson and then started a fight in an isle on a bus, trying to do side kicks and stuff – he didn’t do very well, obviously. That kind of confidence is dangerous. On the other hand, the kind of confidence, the one that stops you living in fear and gives you an edge over some one without training in a self defence situation is good.

    You shouldn’t shun self defence classes because you think they will make you overconfident. They are a good way to get fit and improve strength and co-ordination, plus one day someone may attack you. Then you will be better prepared if that attacker happens to be the type that might want to rape you and then kill you regardless.

  21. ThisGirl: I’m gonna jump in and say that perhaps it is you who has had a knee-jerk reaction to a post, not slythwolf. Mark seemed to be making a familiar argument: that rapists are antisocial Bad Men who are easy to spot – just look down dark allies for the men lurking around in trench coats! (Yes, I realise this is not exactly what he said, but it’s a familiar line of argument.) Slythwolf made the perfectly reasonable response that rapists can be ANY ‘type’ of men – family men, business men, politicians, artists, doctors, teachers, clowns, candlestick makers. Rapists can be ‘good men’ – as Melissa McEwan once said, “your great guy is also my rapist”. Rapists do not necessarily lurk around in the “cover of night” and avoid people, as Mark said. Hence, regardless of Mark’s sex, slythwolf was right to call him out on his stereotypical classification of a rapist.

  22. Model Mugging is women’s self defense that is research-based (women are often dragged to the ground, so they teach you to fight lying down, for example), and the last time I checked, their website reported that the vast majority of graduates who have since been attacked successfully fought off their attackers. And the MM training is 24-25 hours spread out over 3 to 5 days, but it’s seriously intense. When I took it it changed my fear levels, which I think makes me a poorer target. I haven’t been attacked since then, but I know for sure it’s changed my ability to deal with sexual harassment. I’m not afraid like I used to be.

    Like all predators, rapists look for vulnerable prey, so anything that increases your confidence can improve your odds of not being attacked.

    Not that I’m denying many of the points made here. Just thought I’d add some perspective, since not all self-defense is the same.

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