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)