Think of the most convincing, beyond-a-shadow-of-doubt, believable rape story you can imagine. One that could even be won in court, although less than 2% of cases are.
Who is the victim? She is a cisgender woman; young, and sexually inexperienced -- even a virgin. Perhaps she is religious; perhaps she doesn't drink. She is probably white. Probably middle or upper class. Perhaps she was just out with her friends, or walking home, or attending a party when she was approached, attacked or drugged by a man she didn't know. She said no, she tried to escape, but he was stronger than her and overpowered her, probably violently.
Thus, we introduce our rapist. A stranger. A criminal. A bad guy. There are two common mythical rapists. Both are men. The first is intelligent, calculating, even sociopathic, although he seems like a "good" guy. This rapist premeditates his crime, he uses date rape drugs, identifies a target who will be likely to succumb to his strategies, and makes his move -- isolating her, incapacitating her and committing the act. He comes from a privileged background and thinks he is above the law. He is probably in a fraternity. The other likely suspect is more impulsive. He sees a woman and attacks. He is less cautious, driven by lust and often violent. Typically athletic, strong; often a man of color.
Do you recognize these characters? They are the archetypal rape victims and perpetrators that populate media narratives about rape on campus, particularly the recent documentary The Hunting Ground, which premiered on CNN on Nov. 22nd.
When many of us hear the word "rape," certain scripts and myths spring unbidden to the forefront of our minds. Although rape and all forms of sexual abuse are disgustingly, soberingly common in all their forms in our present culture, there are certain stories, certain rapes that resonate more strongly with our cultural preconceived notions and assumptions/scripts about what rape looks like, who is affected by it and who commits it (Susan Brison: Aftermath, Chapter 6). There is, for lack of a better word, a "perfect victim," a "perfect perpetrator" and a "perfect crime," at least when it comes to which stories are seen as believable and relevant by the media.
These assumptions do not occur in a vacuum. They are intimately tied to very intentional stereotypes and scripts with a long and ugly history. Historically, rape has only been taken seriously when to do so is politically advantageous to those in power.
Spousal rape, for example, has really only been taken seriously legally since the 1970s; before then, it wasn't considered possible, echoing legacies of archaic English law in which a woman's body was considered the property of her husband. Evidence of past sexual activity can be used by the defense in a rape case to undermine a victim's "credibility." Even today, the "stranger danger" paradigm means that widespread domestic violence and relationship abuse is all but ignored.
Despite the explicit usage of rape as a tool of colonization and genocide, Native American women have not legally been able to prosecute rape and abuse by non-Native perpetrators until a provision in the 2013 Violence against Women act finally made it possible.
White slaveowners intentionally cultivated the stereotype of the "Jezebel" -- the wantonly, uncontrollably sexual black female -- to justify the forced breeding of black women throughout slavery (Stephens, Dionne P. "Freaks, Gold Diggers, Divas, and Dykes: The Sociohistorical Development of Adolescent African American Women's Sexual Scripts." Sexuality & Culture (2003). This stereotype is the foundation of ongoing fetishization, objectification, and hyper-sexualization of black female bodies that continues to justify sexual violence and harassment of black women to this day. Young Latina and black girls are seen as "chronologically older" than their white peers in order to justify their sexualization and abuse. Rape of women of color is deemed "less traumatic" by juries.
LGBT people have also been targeted for sexualized hate crimes, including "corrective rape," and experience higher rates of sexual assault but receive less support -- and indeed are frequently victim blamed because their very identity is seen to be sexualized.
These dynamics shape the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses. A University of Michigan study found that LGBT students and students of color were at least two times as likely to be raped as their straight and white classmates.
Another internal survey conducted at Harvard echoed the finding that LGBT students are twice as likely to be assaulted. And yet women of color, LGBT people -- and even sex-positive women -- are seen as "unrapeable," their stories are sidelined and disbelieved. Paradoxically, these are the people most likely to experience rape due to the tendency of perpetrators of sexual assault to target victims who are hyper-sexualized and therefore less likely to be believed.
While privileged perpetrators of rape have historically been protected, other communities have been scapegoated with scripts of sexual violence. When Donald Trump says that Mexican immigrants are "rapists," he links into a longstanding tradition of scapegoating men of color for rape. In the United States, this dynamic has grievously affected Black men, who have been subject to rampant lynching, arrest and accusations of rape for hundreds of years, particularly due to how stereotypes of their sexual uncontrollability have intersected with stereotypes of white female vulnerability.
Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was brutally lynched in 1955 by two white males. His crime? Flirting with a white woman. His adolescent black male sexuality was perceived as a threat, and he was killed for it.
Although it is simpler to believe rape is committed by strangers and "bad guys," 80-90% of rapes are actually committed by someone the victim knows . In a sex-negative, consent-illiterate hook up culture where substance abuse is rampant and sexual communication is impoverished, coercive and opportunistic rape are rampant.
The media tells stories, and "stories help us make sense of the world," but too often serve to validate our own perceptions, "reinforc[ing] the status quo, serving particular interests without appearing to do so" (Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists p. 75). Rape myths are therefore inseparable from the larger power dynamics in our society. Which rapes are covered in mainstream media, and which rapes are sidelined -- which we have shown are at odds with the actual prevalence of rape -- are not only informed by, but also replicate historical patterns of erasure and "believability." Stereotypes have the power not to tell you what to do, but who to be in order to be heard. The tendency of media -- even, and especially media intending to help "solve" rape -- to fall back on stereotypes to create a simpler narrative of rape minimizes many, if not most survivors' experiences of rape.
Within a simplified myth of "rape culture," other types of rape- intimate partner violence, same-sex violence, any scenario that strays far from the "perfect victim" and "perfect perpetrator" -- which is, after all, a myth -- are viewed as add-ons. This is a form of tokenization, and links into a disturbing trend of "disaster porn," evoking pity towards and alienation of survivors of "complicated rape." When media falls into stereotypical oversimplifications it alienates the majority of survivors, making our stories less believable, making it harder for us to get support and even to believe ourselves. When we re-write the stories of survivors to fit into preexisting myths that link into dangerous stereotypes, we erase and rewrite history, thereby reinforcing the problem.