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Debunking the Myth of Sexual Assault Responsibility; It’s Not What She Wore

Did you know...Most sexual assaults are not reported

Often when survivors of sexual assault do reach out for help they are met with doubt and blame.

“What were you wearing?”

“Why were you drinking?”

“Are you sure (you were assaulted)?”

Looking back through history...

The views of Hale, Freud and Amir are the basis of many current myths and attitudes toward survivors of sexual assault:

  • Sir Matthew Hale, Lord Chief Justice of England had a lasting influence on public opinion of sexual assault and survivors. Charged with adjudicating rape cases, Lord Hale described sexual assault as a “he said she said” crime, implying survivors who come forward lie. Therefore corroborating evidence is needed. In 1680, Lord Hale wrote “Rape is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho never so innocent’’. (M. Hale Pleas of the Crown 635, 1680)

  • Lord Hale’s assertion that spousal rape does not exist profoundly influenced common law in our country. Most states did not recognize marital rape as a crime until the well into the 1970’s and 80’s. “For the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband which she cannot retract”. (M. Hale. 1736. Pleas of the Crown 629)

Sigmund Freud maintained that women say no when they really mean yes

He said women fantasize about being sexually assaulted and are confused about their sexuality, therefore making inaccurate witnesses. In 1933, Sigmund Freud also prompted his readers to doubt survivors, stating:

"I was driven to recognize in the end that these reports [of sexual abuse] were untrue and so came to understand that the hysterical symptoms are derived from fantasies and not from real occurrences."

While there was no research to substantiate Freud’s claims that women say no when they mean yes (in Freud’s era, or to our knowledge since), this idea continues to influence the treatment of survivors by law enforcement, media and communities.

In 1967, Menachem Amir introduced the idea of Victim Precipitated Forcible Rape

“The notion of negligent and reckless behavior on the part of the victim is as important to understanding the offense as is the appearance of these types of behavior in the offender. It does not make any offender innocent but allows us to consider some of these men less guilty and leads us to consider that the victim is perhaps also responsible for what happened to her.”

Ahmir’s book Patterns in Forcible Rape discussed his belief (let’s underline the word believed) that how a person behaved and how they dressed attracted a rapist. If we took that to its logical conclusion we might say: If women never dress a certain way and never behave a certain way, there’d be no rape (which is absolutely ludicrous). These views are apparent in police investigations, often the first question is “What where you wearing?” or “Why were you there” as in the Kobe Bryant case. It shouldn’t matter if someone’s stark naked, no one has the right to take from them. Those questions focus on survivor behavior instead of the person trying to harm them.

Though we initially bought into the connection to the way targets dressed, working with survivors daily with the Albequerque PD in the mid-eighties, it just wasn’t the reality we saw. We conducted a study and found that what a person wears does not predict whether they are targeted.

The fact is:

More often location; a target being in the wrong place at the wrong time - influenced target selection.

When assault survivors come forward, they often hear:

“What where you wearing?” “What were you doing in his room?”

“Why were you drinking?” “Did you say no enough?"

“Are you sure (you were assaulted)?”

These questions shift responsibility from the offender to the target. No matter how sound or unsound the judgment of the survivor was, anyone who chooses to harm them has sole responsibility. The ideas of Hale, Freud, and Amir continue to influence court cases and public reaction to survivors and incidents of sexual assault. Police, media and law enforcement continue to focus on judgment instead of responsibility.

No Zebras seeks to debunk the myths of sexual assault and place accountability squarely where it belongs….with no excuses. Contact us today to find out more about our stance on sexual assault , as well as our cutting edge prevention programs.


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