Some myths are so powerful that they change our perception of reality. Under their influence even the most obvious truths — or crimes — can be rendered invisible. Such as rape.
Hidden in Plain Sight is an aptly titled new study by the United Nations International Children’s Fund. It shows that one in 10 girls and young women interviewed reported being sexually abused before age 20. “These are uncomfortable facts,” one UNICEF official said of the report, the largest study on global child abuse to date. “No government or parent will want to see them.”
Even if we want to see these facts, however, the many myths about rape prevent us from doing so.
Rape remains one of the most misunderstood crimes. It is often portrayed as a violent attack perpetrated by strangers in dark alleys. This image is inaccurate and misleading.
Up to half of all abused girls in some countries, according to the UNICEF report, experienced sexual violence at someone’s home. One-third said that the incident took place in their own home; close to a quarter said it happened in the home of a friend, relative or neighbor. As for the perpetrators, they are usually known to victims.
The disconnect between myth and reality makes it hard to identify rape — even for victims. Many children, according to UNICEF, said they did not report the crime because they “did not realize that what they experienced was a form of violence.”
Victims aren’t the only ones confused as to what constitutes rape. In the notorious 2012 Steubenville, Ohio, incident, for example, an intoxicated high-school girl was raped by several local high-school football players during a party. The assault was photographed and widely shared on social media. Students who witnessed the rape and those who later linked to it on Twitter all seemed unaware that a serious crime had been committed.
One witness to the rape, when asked why he did not intervene, said: “It wasn’t violent.”
He defended himself, adding “I didn’t know what rape was. I pictured it as forcing yourself on someone.” The teenage girl who was assaulted had passed out after drinking at the party. So force was not needed.
Law enforcement agencies are also vulnerable to misconceptions.
In Rotherham, a depressed former coal-mining town in north England, at least 1,400 children are known to have been violated by gangs of predatory men who targeted vulnerable minors between 1997 and 2013. On Aug. 26, an independent inquiry into the scandal, commissioned by Rotherham Council, revealed the extent that myths about rape allowed the crimes to be hidden from view.
One girl, identified as Child A in the report, was 12 years old when she revealed that she was having sexual intercourse with five adults. Under the law, this should have immediately been identified as statutory rape. Yet even after two men confessed to this crime, the police let them go.
An officer in the criminal investigation department insisted there was no abuse. “It was 100 percent consensual in every incident,” he said.
That’s just another way of saying: “She wanted it.”
Minors are considered incapable of consenting to sexual intercourse under most Western legal systems. By making sexual intercourse with minors a blanket crime, children are supposed to be spared from the burden of proving in court that they did not agree to sex.
Investigating officers in Rotherham, however, forgot this basic legal tenant. And just like that, consent was imagined where there was none.
Police know that myths about rape can affect investigations. In 2013, Britain’s then-director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, listed some of the most prevalent misconceptions that officers should be wary of when investigating child abuse, which applies to victims younger than 17.
These included that the victims “invited sex by the way they dressed or acted,” “used alcohol or drugs and was therefore sexually available” and that they were “in relationship with the alleged offender” and therefore “a willing partner.”
One would think that, when it comes to children, it wouldn’t be necessary to state any of the above because of increased awareness about consent. But Rotherham and the new UNICEF findings suggest otherwise.
One social worker, interviewed for the Rotherham investigation, said, “The reality wasn’t recognized. These young people weren’t seen as victims.” In fact, she says the girls were “seen as perpetrators themselves and treated as adult prostitutes.”
Indeed, officers called minors as young as 12 “tarts” who had made a “lifestyle choice.” By painting a portrait of the children as sexually precocious, they insisted that they must have consented to everything that happened to them.
With this prevailing attitude, is it any surprise that many children told UNICEF researchers that “fear of getting into trouble” was one major reason they didn’t report the crime?
Even minors, it seems, know that rape survivors cannot expect to be believed.
This makes sense. It is hard to believe two opposing things at once. We either believe myths or we believe victims. But we cannot do both at the same time.
That’s how we can be looking right at rape and not recognize it. Even when it is staring us right in the face.