Rape myths past and present

Popular prejudices estimate about half rape victims are lying, but research shows just 3% of rape al

Harriet Stump was a 14-year-old domestic servant, working in Islington in 1880. A couple of weeks before Christmas, her employer burst into the room she was cleaning and, without a word, raped her. As Stump later testified in court, “he came and pushed me down on the sofa and pulled up my clothes, and put a cushion over my face, so that I could not holloo. He then put his thing in me, he hurt me”.

Despite all the evidence, including testimony from Stump’s mother that he had offered money if they dropped the accusation, the case was dismissed. Unfortunately for Stump, a number of so-called “rape myths” could be applied to her.

The term “rape myths” is a shorthand way of talking about a number of seemingly commonsensical truths (often expressed as sound-bites) which, once examined closely, turn out to have no validity. The most common ones are “it is impossible to rape a resisting woman”, “men risk being falsely accused of rape”, and “no means yes” because women “really want ‘it’.”

Surprisingly, these rape myths are as strong today as they were in Stump’s time. Many doctors and lawyers in the nineteenth century didn’t think it was even possible to rape a resisting woman. In a phrase that appears time and again, it is “impossible to sheath a sword into a vibrating scabbard”. Metaphorically, the penis was coded as a weapon; the vagina, its passive receptacle. Merely by “vibrating”, this receptacle could ward off attack.

This wasn’t a mere fancy of the nineteenth century. Even in the late twentieth century, it was often argued that, unless the attacker possessed a weapon, the “average woman” would be able to fight him off. Raping a girl or women accustomed to manual labour (like Harriet Stump) was regarded as even more unlikely. By definition, all penetration by a sole and weaponless man was consensual.

Some women have even found the myth that no woman who “truly” resisted could be raped strangely appealing, since it held out the possibility of preventing victimisation (while unjustly stigmatising those women who somehow “failed”). As one rape law reformer sighed in the 1970s, “I wish I had a get-out-of-jail-free card for every time I have been told that ‘women with skirt up run faster than man with trousers down’.”

An even stronger myth is the notion that women frequently lie about rape. When Stump’s attacker was confronted, he claimed that he was “only having a game the same as I would with my own [adolescent daughters]". The fear that women lie about being rape can be found throughout history. In the seventeenth century, Lord Chief Justice Matthew Hale was responsible for introducing the “cautionary instruction” into common law. This entailed the judge informing the jury that rape was a charge that was easily made by the victim and yet difficult for the defendant to disprove. Until the 1980s, judges commonly uttered these words to jurors, despite the fact that the legal system within which Hale worked was fundamentally different from the one facing defendants from the nineteenth century onwards. In Hale’s time, criminals were not presumed innocent, proof beyond reasonable doubt was not required, and notions of due process were shaky. The accused did not have the right to counsel or the right to testify under oath; he could not subpoena witnesses.

It is still important to ask: what is the risk of an accused man being falsely accused of rape? Popular prejudices estimate that around half of rape victims are lying, but a major Home Office research project in 2000-2003 concluded that only three per cent of rape allegations were false. Indeed, contrary to the notion that men are at risk of being falsely accused, it is much more common for actual rapists to get away with their actions. Around four-fifths of rapes are never reported to the police. And only five per cent of rapes reported to the police ever end in a conviction. This is the lowest attrition rate of any country in Europe, except for Ireland.

But the most important rape myths that ensnared Stump were the belief that “No means yes” because women “really want ‘it’.” Any evidence that a woman was “promiscuous” was routinely used to argue that she was incapable of meaning “no”. Indeed, what eventually destroyed Stump’s testimony was evidence that she had dressed up in some old flour sacks and, with a doll she had made out of rags, sung a risqué song at a party. The song went:

My father is a sinker and a sinker was he
He sinkered my mother before he had me.

A “sinker” was a miner who opened new shafts. With this song and dance, Harriet Stump destroyed her 14-year-old reputation.

Even today, the claim that many rape victims had “asked for it” or “really wanted it” is frequently heard. As late as October 2005, an ICM poll found that one in every three women believed that women who acted flirtatiously were partially or totally responsible if they ended up being raped and one in four women believed that women who wore sexy clothes were also partially or totally responsible if they were raped.

Rape myths are alive and well in contemporary Britain. Today, as in the past, no injured party is more distrusted than the rape victim. In the late nineteenth century, Harriet Stump was caught within a sexual script biased towards perpetrators of sexual violence. Today, in the early twenty-first century, the same rape myths still circulate. These flaccid catchphrases seem clear and self-evident, yet are profoundly damaging for people who suffer sexual abuse. Exposing the underlying falsehood behind rape myths is an important step towards stopping sexual violence.

Joanna Bourke is Professor of History at Birkbeck and author of Rape: A History from the 1860s to the Present (Virago, 2007)

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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.