Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center

Survivors of Sexual Assault Handbook

Several misconceptions exist about sexual assault.  These misconceptions often shift responsibility and blame from the assailant to the victim.  Understanding the misconceptions surrounding sexual assault may help you in your recovery.  What happened to you was a crime.  You are not to blame for the assailant’s behavior.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

x Misconception

Sexual assault happens because people need sex. People get carried away by their sexual desires and/or hormones and loose control.

✔ Truth

Sexual assault is a form of sexualized violence, that is, violence enacted in a sexual way. Like many other crimes, sexual assault is about power and control. Sexual assault happens because perpetrators put their desires over the survivor’s agency to consent. The survivor is never to blame.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Misconception

Sexual assault is sex.

✔ Truth

Sexual assault is an act of violence, not sex. This is an important distinction because by framing sexualized violence as about sex and not about violence we focus on the perpetrator’s narrative and not the survivor’s. Focusing on the perpetrator’s narrative leads society to blame the victim and to not hold the perpetrator accountable for their actions. Remember, sexual assault happens because perpetrators exert power over the survivor to take away any control the survivor has in choosing whether or not to engage in a sexual situation. Thus, sexual assault is not sex to the survivor – it is an act of violence. 

____________________________________________________________________________

Misconception

Sexual assault is correlated with sexually repressed societies. If people had more sexual opportunities, sexual assault would be less frequent.

✔ Truth

This misconception again ties sexual violence to uncontrollable sexual desire. People don’t commit sexual assault because they don’t have enough sexual opportunities. People commit sexual assault because they feel entitled to other people’s bodies and disregard other people’s right to consent.

___________________________________________________________________________________  

Misconception

Sexual assault happens when people drink too much. If people drank less, rates of sexual assault would plummet.

✔ Truth

The consumption of alcohol does not cause sexual assault. Perpetrators, however, often use alcohol or other drugs as a means to facilitate assault. Like other criminal offenses, sexual assault is often an opportunistic crime, and perpetrators often take the survivor’s incapacitation as an opportunity to commit violence. Additionally, perpetrators often use their own substance use as a strategy for relinquishing responsibility. Like other crimes, however, being drunk when committing sexual assault does not absolve a person of responsibility. Whether or not a person is drunk, the person initiating sexual activity must always have clear and unambiguous consent to do so.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Misconception

If they didn’t want it to happen, they would have said something or fought back. It must have been consensual since there are no bruises or other physical evidence of assault.

✔ Truth

Many people have heard of the fight or flight response as the typical responses to danger, but it is actually fight, flight, or freeze. The freeze response is a documented neurobiological condition also referred to as tonic immobility. Tonic immobility is an autonomic mammalian response that happens in extremely fearful situations; it is uncontrollable and not something a person decides to do. Research shows that around 50% of survivors experience tonic immobility during an assault. This does not mean the sex is consensual. 

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Misconception

People often falsely accuse others of sexual assault.

✔ Truth

False accusations of sexual assault are extremely rare. Research demonstrates that rates of false reporting are consistent across violent crimes, including sexual assault. Because of the cognitive dissonance that occurs when we hear about rape, it’s difficult for people to believe that it can be true. But it’s important to remember that each individual’s personal reaction is the first step in a long path toward justice and healing for the survivor. Knowing how to respond is critical—a negative response can worsen the trauma and foster an environment where perpetrators face zero consequences for their crimes. If someone confides in you that they were sexually assaulted, believe them.

___________________________________________________________________________________

Misconception

Men can’t be sexually assaulted.

✔ Truth

Men are also survivors of sexual violence, and their perpetrators can be of any gender identity, including both men and women. The University of Michigan’s 2015 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Misconduct found that 1.4% of male students experienced unwanted oral or anal penetration and that 6.8% of undergraduate males experienced some form of nonconsensual touching and kissing or penetration. While these rates are significantly lower than those experienced by female students, we need to remember that these numbers represent real people, and that even one case of sexual assault is too many. All survivors deserve our advocacy, support, and activism. There continues to be a great deal of resistance in many spaces to recognizing men as survivors, and this resistance is reinforced by misconceptions like “men can’t be forced to have sex” or “men want sex all the time,” both of which are false. When we talk about men being responsible in preventing sexual assault, we should remember that men are survivors too. And when talking with men about sexual assault, it’s important to remember that men could experience or have experienced sexual violence as well.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Misconception

All men want to commit sexual assault.

✔ Truth

This misconception results from a simplistic and ultimately inaccurate understanding of gender. At the root of this argument is the belief that men are biologically predisposed to sexual violence because of their hormones, sex drive, etc. But sexual assault isn’t about sexual desire; it is about power and control. While it is true that the majority of perpetrators are men, this has more to do with how men are socialized, and how our society has constructed gender and masculinity, than biology. Rooting the issue of rape in biology is counterproductive, because the actual issue is behavior and culture—things that are well within our power to change.

_____________________________________________________________________________________ 

Misconception

Women can only be sexually assaulted by men.

✔ Truth

Women can be sexually assaulted by people of any gender identity, including other women. Sexual violence is often rigidly defined in our society as committed by men against women, however people of all gender identities can be survivors or perpetrators.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Misconception

Most rapists are strangers to their victims.

✔ Truth

Most sexual assaults are committed by someone the survivor knows or even cares about - a roommate, friend, acquaintance, co-worker, classmate, spouse, partner, or ex-partner. The University of Michigan’s 2015 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Misconduct, for example, found that 56% of students who had an unwanted sexual experience said another U-M student was responsible. Only 5.5% of students reported no prior relationship or did not know the perpetrator. Knowing one’s perpetrator can be especially confusing for survivors, because of the added betrayal of having the trust they put into someone close to them violated.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Misconception

If they were really sexually assaulted, they would report it to the police and/or the university.

✔ Truth

The University of Michigan’s 2015 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Misconduct found that only 3.6% of students reported their experience of sexual misconduct to an official University resource or law enforcement (Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, Counseling and Psychological Services, Office of Institutional Equity, Office of the Dean of Students, Office of Student Conflict Resolution, the Ann Arbor, or U-M police department). When asked why they did not report their experience, most students who responded said they did not want to get the person responsible in trouble, or they blamed themselves. A significant number also felt embarrassed or ashamed, did not think the community would label their experience as serious or worthy of professional attention, or did not believe the incident was serious enough to merit a report. Among students who said they had a least one unwanted sexual experience at U-M, however, 46% did tell someone else, most often, a friend or a roommate. Thus, we as a campus community can remove barriers to survivors reporting by creating a campus and societal culture where we don’t blame survivors, where we take disclosures seriously, and where we hold perpetrators accountable. SAPAC also provides services to friends, family, and colleagues of survivors, who are looking to learn more about how to be supportive and to connect a survivor to resources.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Misconception

Sexual assault is an exaggerated issue.

✔ Truth

Sexual assault is a serious, prevalent crime. The University of Michigan’s 2015 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Misconduct found that 11.4% of all students experienced some form of nonconsensual touching and kissing or oral, vaginal, or anal penetration – including 22.5% of undergraduate females and 6.8% of undergraduate males. The survey also found that 9.7% of all female students (graduate and undergraduate) experienced unwanted oral, vaginal, or anal penetration (compared to 1.4% of male students). Sexual assault is a serious physical, emotional, and psychological crime and should be treated that way.

_____________________________________________________________________________________  

Misconception

Women entice men to sexually assault them by dressing a certain way or by leading them on.        

✔ Truth

People may experience sexual assault no matter what they are wearing or how they were acting; what the survivor was wearing in no way makes them responsible for the assault. No person deserves to be assaulted, asks to be assaulted or wants to be assaulted. This misconception again shows the extent to which sexual assault is sexualized in our society. Sexual assault does not occur because of uncontrollable sexual desire. People commit sexual assault because they feel entitled to other people’s bodies and disregard other people’s right to consent. Perpetrators often use the excuse of how the survivor dressed or acted as way to avoid taking responsibility for their own criminal sexual behavior. But perpetrators are responsible for their own desires and actions.

_____________________________________________________________________________________ 

Misconception

If a man is sexually assaulted by another man, he must be gay or have been acting gay.

✔ Truth

People commit sexual assault because they feel entitled to other people’s bodies and disregard other people’s right to consent. Saying that someone was “acting gay” is just another excuse perpetrators make to justify their own criminal behavior. Regardless of a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, no one deserves or asks to be assaulted. The perpetrator is responsible.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Misconception

If we allow transgender and gender non-conforming people to use whichever bathroom they feel safest in, sexual assault in bathrooms will increase.

✔ Truth

This misconception is rooted in the false belief that people who are transgender or gender non-conforming are sexual predators. There is absolutely no evidence of this. There are no statistics that support the idea that LGBT individuals are more likely to commit sexual assault or be sex offenders than heterosexuals or cis-gendered individuals. In fact, sex offenders are disproportionately likely to be heterosexual cis-gendered men.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Misconception

When someone says no to sex, you should just keep asking until they say yes.

✔ Truth

Pressuring someone into having sex, means having non-consensual sex. The University of Michigan’s Sexual Misconduct Policy defines consent as a clear and unambiguous agreement, expressed outwardly through mutually understandable words and/or actions, to engage in a particular activity. Consent must be voluntarily given and cannot be obtained through coercion or force. Coercion is conduct, including intimidation and express or implied threats of immediate or future physical, emotional, reputational, financial, or other harm to the person or others, that would reasonably place an individual in fear, and that is employed to compel someone to engage in sexual activity. Coercion includes continually verbally pressuring someone to have sex after they said they didn’t want to. Coercion includes telling lies, threatening to end a relationship, threatening to spread rumors about the person, showing displeasure, criticizing your sexuality or attractiveness or getting angry but not using physical force. If you are ever unclear about someone’s wishes, ask for clarification.  If someone says no or seems unsure, respect that person and their wishes. People can withdraw consent at anytime - if you’re having sex with someone and they tell you to stop, you should.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Misconception

If someone becomes physically aroused, orgasms and/or ejaculates when they are assaulted, then it is not really sexual assault. 

✔ Truth

Reaching orgasm does not mean that someone enjoyed being assaulted, or that they wanted it. Orgasm is a natural biological reaction to physical stimulation that cannot always be controlled; it does not mean that forced or coerced sexual activity was consensual. In fact, perpetrators often exploit these biological reactions as a way to convince both themselves and the survivor that the experience was consensual - when in reality it was not.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Misconception

Black men target white women to sexually assault.

✔ Truth

There is no racial monopoly on rape; however, our culture’s definition of rape has depended heavily on dynamics of political power and social privilege. The long-dominant view of rape in America envisioned a brutal attack on a chaste white woman by a male stranger, usually an African American. But since the early nineteenth century advocates for women’s rights and racial justice have challenged this narrow definition and the sexual and political power of white men it sustains.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

xMisconception

They had sex with them before, so it can’t be sexual assault.

Truth

It can be – consent should not be assumed from an existing or previous dating or sexual relationship. Even in the context of a relationship, there must be mutual consent to engage in any sexual activity each time it occurs. Consent to engage in one sexual activity at one time is not consent to engage in a different sexual activity or to engage in the same sexual activity on a later occasion. A person who initiates a specific sexual activity is responsible for obtaining consent for that activity. Either party at any point can withdraw consent. Consent is a clear and unambiguous agreement, expressed outwardly through mutually understandable words or actions, to engage in a particular activity. Consent must be voluntarily given and cannot be obtained through coercion or force. Once consent is withdrawn, the sexual activity must cease immediately.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Misconception

There’s no way that person could be a rapist - they’re good looking, nice, and have always been a positive role model in our community. Why would they sexually assault someone when there are so many people who would want to be with them?        

✔ Truth

Likable and charming people commit violence, too.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Misconception

Sexual harassment is over-exaggerated. Policies on sexual harassment make normal flirtation a crime. Most harassment is minor, harmless flirtation.

✔ Truth

Sexual harassment is severe, persistent, or pervasive behavior that unreasonably interferes with, limits, or deprives an individual from participating in or benefitting from the University’s education or employment programs and/or activities. Harassment also occurs when submissions to or rejection of such conduct is made, either explicitly or implicitly, a term or condition of a person’s employment, academic standing, or participation in any University programs and/or activities, or is used as the basis for University decisions affecting the individual. Although repeated incidents generally create a stronger claim of sexual harassment, a serious incident, even if isolated, can be sufficient. The University of Michigan’s 2015 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Misconduct found that nearly 23% of all students reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment; most said they had been stared at in a sexual way, had been the subject of teasing comments of a sexual nature or someone had made a sexual motion towards the student, all in spite of requests to stop.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Misconception

If someone were sexually assaulted, they wouldn’t be talking to the perpetrator the next day.

✔ Truth

There are many reasons why a survivor might maintain a relationship with someone who has assaulted them. The survivor might feel their safety would be threatened if they end the relationship. The survivor may be unable to avoid the perpetrator if they live together, work together, are in class together, or have the same social circles. Or the survivor might still be defining and trying to understand what’s happened to them. Because many survivors knew the perpetrator before being assaulted, survivors may be trying to negotiate the conflicting thoughts and feelings they have about their perpetrator. Sexual assault is a traumatic experience, and one common reaction to the overwhelming thoughts and feelings of trauma is to attempt to forget that the situation happened and to move on. Survivors often feel social pressure to act like everything is okay, regardless of what they actually feel. The important thing to remember is that people cope with traumatic incidents in different ways.