Rape culture is a frighteningly insidious thing in the way it reinforces harmful ideas about gender, personal boundaries, consent, and sexual assault. Rape culture encourages the belief that lying about rape or sexual assault is more common than it really is, and it promotes the silencing of women about sexual assault by subjecting them to harsh judgments and the implication that women are responsible for their own assaults. Women who do report their assaults are disbelieved by people they know, by police, by the public, by the media. And at the end of this, the grim reality of statistics: nearly half a million sexual assaults occur every year in Canada, and fewer than 10% are reported. Of those that are reported, only a small fraction results in a conviction.
Within the context of rape culture, women who report their assaults are disbelieved, humiliated, and outright erased, with little hope of achieving any measure of justice for what they endure. It’s no wonder that sexual assault is underreported. Given that women who do report their assault often experience further trauma as a direct result, and given the way rape and sexual assault is reported in the media, it’s amazing that the report statistics are as high as they are.
The Effects of Trauma
Part of the problem is the pervasive stereotypes about how women “should” look and behave after being raped. These stereotypes effectively erase the experiences of women who are assaulted, replacing those experiences with myths that are highly damaging.
A traumatic incident like rape results in the development of post-traumatic stress disorder in around one third of people, and rape survivors are six times more likely to develop PTSD than the general population. In the long term, people who develop PTSD are likely to experience flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts and memories relating to the event. People who don’t develop PTSD are still highly likely to be affected by what’s known as rape trauma syndrome, a similar disorder that involves an immediate period of intense distress as well as long-term effects.
In both cases, the immediate reaction to the trauma can result in incomplete memories of what happened—the victim may not be able to remember part or all of the events leading up to the rape, as well as the rape itself, or might not be able to recall the events in chronological order. Unfortunately, it’s common for law enforcement officers to see the incompletely memories as evidence of lying.
The trauma reaction may also result in a dampening of emotional reactions to the assault. And again, this does not mesh with what people “expect” to see in a woman who has been raped. This means a woman may be less likely to be believed if she does not react as expected—that her own genuine reaction to what she’s experienced is erased in favour of expectations that are based on stereotypes, that, within the context of rape culture, serve to reinforce the myth that false rape allegations are much more common than they really are.
In the Media
Media reporting of high-profile rape cases in recent years has only gotten more sensationalistic, and the cases in which the victims of rape are erased in favour of concerns about the perpetrators are piling up. Perhaps the most famous recent example is the Steubenville, Ohio case, and how so many news outlets referenced the tragedy of the young male perpetrators whose lives would be forever ruined—but neglected to contemplate the life of the girl they had raped.
After serving nine months of a one-year juvenile detention sentence, one of the convicted rapists, Ma’lik Richmond, has already been released. In a press release issued at the time, Richmond’s lawyer spoke only of how “challenging” it had been for Richmond, and how he had endured “hardness beyond imagining”, without any reference to responsibility or remorse—in essence asking the public to have sympathy for a convicted rapist while erasing the trauma suffered by his victim.
Amy Mena. “Rape Trauma Syndrome.” Accessed April 20, 2014. Symptoms and recovery.
Dean G. Kilpatrick. “The Mental Health Impact of Rape.” Accessed April 20, 2014.
Melissa McEwan. “Today in Rape Culture.” Accessed April 20, 2014.
New YorkDaily News. “Ma'lik Richmond, convicted in Steubenville rape case, released from juvenile detention.” Accessed April 20, 2014.
Psych Guides. “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Accessed April 20, 2014. Symptoms of PTSD.
Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network. “Rape Trauma Syndrome.” Accessed April 20, 2014. Symptoms associated with rape trauma.
Rebecca Ruiz. “Why Don’t Cops Believe Rape Victims?” Accessed April 20, 2014.
The Raw Story. “CNN grieves that guilty verdict ruined ‘promising’ lives of Steubenville rapists.” Accessed April 20, 2014.