We might talk more openly about sexual violence now than we did ever before, but does that mean we actually know more about it?
Myths about sexual violence are abundant and pervasive, and too often these myths stigmatize survivors, making it harder to access much-needed support. So today, we’re unlearning 10 of those (many) common, harmful myths.
Just a heads-up, reading this article might be tough for people who have experienced some type of sexual violence. Pay attention to how you’re feeling, and as you move through this article, know that you can take breaks or stop whenever you need to.
1. Myth: “Sexual assailants and rapists are usually strangers.”
The “stranger in the bushes” media trope became really popular in the 70s and 80s, during the time when Joseph DeAngelo (known as the East Area Rapist, Night Stalker, and the Golden State Killer) was active. DeAngelo committed at least 50 rapes and 13 murders in California during the 70s and 80s, and he wasn’t arrested until 2018. As more and more cases became reported, media attention and law enforcement advice often focused on telling women to not walk alone, to not go places in the dark—advice that may feel familiar today.
It’s a lot easier to talk about strangers, like DeAngelo, committing violence against people than it is to talk about people we know hurting us. While stranger rape isn’t non-existant, it’s much less common than media tropes would lead you to believe: overall, only about 19.5% of all rapes are committed by strangers. The rest are done by someone the survivor knows—that could be a friend, partner, acquaintance, or family member.
We need to get comfortable talking about the realities of both situations.
2. Myth: “Only cisgender women can be victims of sexual violence.”
Let’s clear this one up right away: Anyone, of any gender, can be sexually assaulted.
The stories we hear in the media about sexual violence often focus on victims who are cisgender women, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only victims. Studies tell us that 18.3% of women overall and 1.4% of men overall have been raped at some time in their lives. When we look specifically at the trans community, data shows us that 47% of trans and non-binary people have been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives.
That data might not align with your idea of who typically experiences sexual violence, but a lot of that difference has to do with stigma and access to affirming resources.
Trans folks might feel less comfortable going to the hospital for a forensic exam or to the police to file a report. Men may fall into the trap of believing this myth, and end up silencing themselves (plus, 27.8% of men experience their first sexual assault when they’re younger than 10 years old, so they may not even have control over filing a report).
So remember: Just because you’re not hearing about something on the news doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Access to safe reporting and resources looks different for everyone.
3. Myth: “If you’ve done something together before, you don’t need consent.”
Consent isn’t a one-and-done thing. It’s an ongoing, informed decision. So if you and your partners have done a certain sex act before—yes, you still need consent! Consent is fundamentally just an open conversation about what things we are and aren’t down for and what things we’re uncertain about. It can be given (or revoked) at any point, and it needs to be checked for every. single. time.
4. Myth: “Not letting your partner pull out isn’t sexual violence.”
Sorry, Daphne Bridgerton, but if your partner practices the pull-out method, you don’t get to mess with that. Tampering with someone’s birth control is never okay, and that’s true for both people with vaginas and people with penises. Forcing someone to ejaculate inside of you is just as abusive as someone tampering with your birth control pills.
This type of behavior is called reproductive coercion, and it’s a type of sexual violence that describes many different behaviors, ranging from messing with someone’s pregnancy prevention strategy all the way to forcing someone into a particular pregnancy or parenting situation.
5. Myth: “It’s okay to remove the condom during sex without telling your partner.”
This one can fall under the reproductive coercion category, but it also affects STI transmission, so there’s a whole other layer here, too.
Remember how consent is an ongoing, informed decision? Well, if your partner consented to sex with a condom, and then you remove it…consent is gone.
You don’t just get to decide that a condom is too uncomfortable or inconvenient to wear. If you’re feeling that way, pause what’s happening and talk with your partner about it. You can do other things together and then spend some time finding barrier methods that feel better for both of you.
6. Myth: “Letting trans women share bathrooms with cis women puts cis women at risk of sexual assault.”
Any time so-called “bathroom bills” start moving through the legislature, you’ll probably encounter this myth. This fear-mongering myth has one purpose: discriminating against trans folks, and specifically discriminating against trans women.
The idea that trans women using a bathroom that matches their gender are going to use that space not simply to do bathroom business but to sexually assault a cis woman in the loo is, to put it bluntly, totally preposterous.
In fact, one study found the opposite to be a problem: 36% of trans and non-binary teens who dealt with bathroom or locker room restrictions had also been sexually assaulted. In 2016, the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women even put out a public letter calling for the end of discriminatory legislation:
“Discriminating against transgender people does not give anyone more control over their body or security. Those who perpetuate falsehoods about transgender people and nondiscrimination laws are putting transgender people in harm’s way and making no one safer. We cannot stand by while the needs of survivors, both those who are transgender and those who are not, are obscured in order to push a political agenda that does nothing to serve and protect victims and potential victims.”
Yeah. What they said.
7. Myth: “If someone doesn’t report an assault right away, it means they’re probably lying about it.”
The vast majority of people who experience sexual violence will never file a report.
In fact, sexual violence is one of the most underreported crimes in the United States, and reporting is going down, while media representation is increasing. In 2018, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that while 40% of all estimated rapes and sexual assaults were reported to police in 2017, in 2018, that number was only 25%.
People don’t report sexual violence to law enforcement for a lot of reasons. They might be in shock, or not know how to describe what happened to them. They might fear law enforcement because they’re undocumented, trans, Black, homeless, or all of the above. They might be afraid of retaliation if they report. They may just want to put the incident behind them, rather than having it interrogated as part of an investigation. There are as many reasons as there are experiences.
It can take years for someone to feel safe enough to talk about what happened to them. They might never file a report with law enforcement, but that doesn’t mean that they’re lying—it means that societal judgment against victims of sexual violence is extremely pervasive.
8. Myth: “The way you dress or act invites sexual assault.”
Nope. Nope-ity nope. Nope!
Someone choosing to commit violence against you is never your fault. It doesn’t matter if you flirted with that person, had painted your outfit onto your body, or if you’d had sex with them before. There is no excuse for sexually violating someone else, and it is never the survivor’s fault.
9. Myth: “Certain types of sexual violence are more ‘real’ than others.”
While certain acts may be more physically violent than others, that doesn’t mean that less physically violent acts aren’t traumatic. Sexual coercion, persistent harassment, non-consensual voyeurism—all of those things can be incredibly traumatic, even though they may not leave us with visible injuries.
Let’s not rank traumatic experiences—it’s not a game where someone with more or less points wins! It’s terrible stuff happening to people, and it all deserves empathy and compassion.
10. Myth: “Survivors of sexual violence are permanently ‘broken.’”
If you unlearn any of these myths today, unlearn this one.
Survivors of interpersonal violence are not broken. Regaining a sense of autonomy and safety takes time and support, but it’s not impossible. It’s never too late for survivors to work on their own healing, and it’s never too late to seek support from a victim advocate, therapist, hotline, or someone you care about.
And to people wondering how they can best support the survivors in their lives: Be there for them, without judgment, and with abundant patience.
The Bottom Line
Unlearning isn’t easy, but if we want to live in a kinder, more empathetic world, we need to examine our biases, let go of misinformation, and be open to saying that we were wrong—I’ve even believed some of these myths at certain points in my life!
We can all help create a more supportive, less shameful society by unlearning toxic myths. Where will you start?
About the Author
Cassandra Corrado is a Contributing Educator for Nurx and an independent sex educator who teaches at colleges and universities across the United States. Formerly a victim advocate, she mostly teaches on topics related to un/healthy relationships, violence prevention, LGBTQ+ health, and sexual pleasure.
This blog provides information about telemedicine, health and related subjects. The blog content and any linked materials herein are not intended to be, and should not be construed as a substitute for, medical or healthcare advice, diagnosis or treatment. Any reader or person with a medical concern should consult with an appropriately-licensed physician or other healthcare provider. This blog is provided purely for informational purposes. The views expressed herein are not sponsored by and do not represent the opinions of Nurx™.