Popularity of long-debunked rape myths: talk about disheartening

Update 2013-01-08: Welcome to you new visitors! Since comments on this post were closed long ago, I’ve reposted this post. Please comment there if you have something to say.

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.

Categories: gender & feminism, skepticism, violence

Tags: , , , ,

11 replies

  1. Maybe my mum read this… she had a paranoia about me seeing anyone male before 8.30 in the morning. I never understood, but given my mothers… state of mind, it wouldn’t surprise me if she had heard something like this.
    I did a course with Brett Sanders (a rapist profiler) once, as part of our university college o-week. He said that there are different kinds of rapists, and that we should pay attention to which kind is attacking us. His advice about the psychology of date rapists helped me prevent myself being raped by the same man a second time… but I’m not an expert in rapist profiling, he still got me the first time.
    RhianWren’s last blog post..A long rambling post about my horrible day?

  2. His advice about the psychology of date rapists helped me prevent myself being raped by the same man a second time… but I’m not an expert in rapist profiling, he still got me the first time.

    I’m sad to hear he got you the first time, RhianWren. Sounds like he was someone you knew before the attack? So none of the advice in the email above would have helped there (ETA: even if it was accurate).
    It’s important to be able to recognise the warning signs of potential rapists, but unfortunately because most rapists look just like normal people, some normal people get all upset at the slightest suggestion that they are not immediately perceived without a shadow of a doubt as obvious non-rapists.

  3. Great post, tigtog. I’ll have to fess up, at the very least, to having given some credence to myth #1 and unfortunately, I must also admit to being somewhat ignorant of #8; I had always considered (most, if not all) rapists to be cowards who would run for cover at the first sign of resistance (maybe the media has something to be accountable for in that respect with regards to the false sense of security implied in self-defence mechanisms/courses?)
    To quote an old cliche; ya learn something new every day
    Thanks again for an informative post.

  4. Thanks, Scott. I’m not surprised you absorbed some of these rape myths – they and their cousins are pervasive, to say the least. One has to consciously re-educate oneself to get beyond them.

  5. Here’s a nice brief resource on the most infamous rape myths:

  6. Yeah, I did know him. He was my ex-boyfriend.
    Nothing would have made me able to stop it… I couldn’t believe he really ‘meant it’ until he tried a second time, so how could I stop it?
    I just think its foolish to put any kind of onus on the victim of the crime to be able to stop it, even with training.
    rhianwren’s last blog post..A long rambling post about my horrible day?

  7. Whoever wrote that “guide” has been watching too much televison. I’m surprised they didn’t add a number 9 – “And cliched spooky/scary music will start low a get louder”
    Francis Xavier Holden’s last blog post..sound: one hand typing

  8. rhianwren

    I just think its foolish to put any kind of onus on the victim of the crime to be able to stop it, even with training.

    Absolutely! Add into the mix that convicted rapists confess to premeditation of their crimes, with much planning of how to get their target into a vulnerable, isolated position, and it makes such an expectation even more foolish.
    FXH: Nail. On. Head. It’s cliche city.

  9. Thanks for this – great piece. I just linked to it on Dollymix (sorry it’s a little delayed!)


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