Submission: Rape Victims Are Often Told They Weren’t 'Really' Raped, But What Does “Real Rape” Look Like?

“sex takes the consent of two
if one person is lying there not doing anything
cause they are not ready
or not in the mood
or simply don’t want to
yet the other is having sex
with their body it’s not love
it is rape”

― Rupi Kaur, Milk and Honey

What do you imagine when you hear or see the word rape? Perhaps you think of a strange man lurking in an alley or hiding in the bushes with a gun, waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting woman. If so, you are not alone. One of the most pervasive myths about rape is that it is usually committed by a violent stranger — typically a man with a weapon — against a random woman. It is no surprise, then, that forcible rape, primarily if it results in physical injuries to the victim, is the kind most likely to be reported to the police.

When we think about the criminal justice system, we have an image of the “perfect victim” — an unsuspecting person who doesn’t look for trouble, who readily reports the crime committed against them, and who cooperates with the police after filing the report. In cases of rape, the perfect victim is a chaste, sober young woman (most likely white in our minds) who always dresses modestly. Perfect victims are the most sympathetic of victims. The problem is they seldom exist.

For one, when it comes to rape — the most under reported crime — victims more often than not know their assailant, which makes them feel less justified in reporting the crime. In fact, the victim’s relationship to the offender is correlated with reporting, meaning that victims are less likely to report sexual assault if it was committed by someone they know. This is perhaps due to fearing that their association with the assailant will make their story less believable. Secondly, contrary to what you might see on an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU), where detectives take every rape allegation seriously and are 100% devoted to solving each case, police departments aren’t always useful in helping victims seek justice. This can range from police officers doubting the credibility of sexual assault accusers from the get-go to badgering and intimidating them to recant their stories or drop the charges against the accused. Simply put, police have negative biases about women who report rape, so they frequently dismiss accusers and allow cases to go unsolved.

The idea of “real victims” versus fake ones is closely tied to the concept of “real rape.” Because if a rape did not “objectively” take place — although the very nature of the act is subjective — then the accuser is not a real victim. And if the accuser is not a real victim, then she has no right to complain, lest she “ruin a man’s life” over a simple misunderstanding. Be honest: would you be more inclined to believe a person who said they were assaulted while heavily intoxicated at a frat party or one who said they were attacked in a deserted subway station when travelling home from work? While the former scenario is more likely to occur, the latter is taken much more seriously.

But most of the time, rape does not look like an episode of SVU, where sex crimes are committed by strangers, reckless individuals, and drunk concert-goers. Instead, it might resemble a boyfriend who refutes your pleas for him to get out of your vagina mid-intercourse and go put on a condom as he assures you, “Don’t worry. I’ve got this.” Rape sometimes looks like a partner who ignores all signs of your physical and emotional discomfort — who pretends not to hear your sobbing or notice your tears — during anal sex. To most, classifying these seemingly minor infractions as anything akin to sexual assault would seem like an overreaction to a miscommunication, even though they contain the most defining characteristic of rape — that is, a violation of mutual consent in the form of unwanted sexual advances.

Ordinary instances such as these may not be what we immediately think of when we think of rape, but they are far more common than the stranger-jumping-out-of-the-bushes cliche. So let’s dispel the notion of real or legitimate rape, especially since it can have devastating legal and political consequences for victims. Otherwise, all we are doing is stifling necessary conversations about consent while hindering victims from sharing their stories for fear that their experiences weren’t “that bad.”