BFTP: Popularity of long-debunked rape myths: talk about disheartening

This is a repost: originally published in 2008. Over the last week it’s suddenly started getting first dozens and now hundreds of views per day.  I’m presuming that it’s been linked somewhere busy.  So, welcome to you new visitors!  Since the original post’s comments were closed long ago, please comment here 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: , , , ,

12 replies

  1. A useful caution, Tigtog. Well said.

  2. It’s good that you’re re-posting articles like this one: they take a helluva lot of cycling around before they begin to penetrate the web of bullshit that is popular culture and urban myth.
    On the self-defence topic, did you know that if you hold your assailant’s hand and feet (sounds rather odd and contortion-y, but oh well), call him “brother” (or them “brothers”), and chanted hymns to Goddess Saraswati and to Guru Diksha, he/they won’t rape you? according to tinpot guru Asaram Bapu commenting on the Delhi gang rape. Good to know 😛

  3. It might have something to do with the ‘Through a Rapist’s Eyes’ “essay” currently going around on Tumblr.
    I could’ve sworn it was around pre-2000 because I’m positive I saw it as an email forward when I was in college, and I graduated in ’99. Maybe it was just something similar.

  4. It’s currently doing the rounds on Facebook, too.

  5. Yes I’ve seen it twice on FB, both times from well intentioned friends and I don’t know how to says the 1in5 stat without sounding… I dunno, something unfriendly. 😦 Is there a statement that says “good intentions friend, but this is not where our energy should go because…”?

  6. Well, if they have it wrong this is the right way to go about repairing it, examining and where necessary refuting, their specific dot points, proposition by proposition.

  7. Seems that one of the wonders of the internet is that misinformation never truly dies – it merely dies down and resurfaces again via a different social medium. I’m sure this kind of stuff started out as a much-mimeographed chain letter, then moved to email, did time as a poorly-thought-out newsgroup post, wound up on someone’s blog once upon a time, got linked hither and yon, and it’s now landing up on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr because that’s what people are using to communicate. I’ve no idea what’s going to eventually replace the web, but I’m sure if I live to see it, I’ll be seeing this kind of thing crop up there as well.

  8. There’s an interesting discussion at
    Te Nehisi Coates makes a link between male on male violence and the black reaction to it that he experienced growing up and rape in the comments.
    Note that the comments on his pieces are moderated and usually intelligent.
    “It’s a deep question. I was once talking to my (very feminist) wife and asked “If you could change the physical strength difference between me and you, would you?” And she said, “In a minute.”
    And it amazed me. And I have since been amazed that I was amazed. But it is a profound question and I’ve since wondered a lot what the world would look like without that difference.”

  9. Hey Ali,
    I had the same thing – saw it on FB, and was like, “what’s this victim blaming bullshit?!”, but couldn’t figure out a way to debunk without sounding.. mean.
    Maybe I’ll just share this article 😉

  10. That’s what I’ve done, Laurin. And gotten a very positive response from many of my friends and family, ‘though nothing from the person who re-posted the original post that tigtog takes apart so beautifully here.

  11. Thank you for this. I too have had this crop up on Facebook, and like many others, wanted to debunk without coming across as attacking those who posted it (it’s very easy to be misunderstood on Facebook I’ve found).

  12. Helen – I saw that “advice” aka victim blaming from that unspeakable wretch. I was just too angry for words.

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