Common Myths About Sexual Assault

Rape Myth Busting

Below are common myths about rape and information about why they are incorrect. Of note, although the majority of them are discussed with respect to women because most victims of sexual violence are women, men can also be raped – as described below – and the corrective information provided about these myths apply to all victims of rape.

MYTH: Rape is not very common.

BUSTED: Misconceptions about the scope of rape are affected by widely discrepant prevalences across studies.  Obtained prevalences can be affected by a number of factors, including the wording of questions, perceived anonymity of responding, methods for data collection (e.g., survey vs. interview) and the population studied (e.g., Koss, 1992; Koss, Gidycz & Wisniewski, 1987).  Prevalences obtained using behaviorally specific questions (i.e., oral, anal or vaginal penetration that is unwanted and/or for which the victim did not, or could not, provide consent) in national samples reveal that approximately 18% of women endorse a lifetime rape experience (Black et al., 2011; Kilpatrick, Resnick, Ruggiero, Conoscenti, & McCauley, 2007).

MYTH: Most rapes are reported to the police.

BUSTED: Many victims choose not to report their rape for a number of reasons, including fear of revictimization and loss of privacy (e.g., Allen, 2007), concerns of negative reactions from others (e.g., blame), embarrassment and self-blame for the rape (e.g., Heath, Lynch, Fritch, McArthur, & Smith, 2011; Starzynski, Ullman, Filipas, & Townsend, 2005; Wolitzky-Taylor, Resnick, McCauley, Amstadter, Kilpatrick, & Ruggiero, 2011).  Reporting is also dependent on the victim’s ability to recognize their assault as a rape (Kahn, Jackson, Kully, Badger and Halvorson, 2003).  Unacknowledged rape (or incidents that meet the behavioral criteria for rape, but that the victim does not label as a rape) is said to account for 43-57% of all rape experiences; these assaults are not only more likely to occur within the context of a relationship, but they are also less likely to be violent (Littleton, Rhatigan & Axsom, 2007).  In a national survey, only about 16% of rapes were formally reported by victims to the police; this number that has not increased notably since the 1990s (Wolitzky-Taylor et al., 2011).  Thus, rape prevalence data based on police reporting results in significant underestimations of the actual scope of sexual violence.

MYTH: Men cannot be raped.

BUSTED: A national study done by Tjaden and Thoennes found that almost 3 million men were raped in the United States between the years 1995 and 1996.  The low prevalence of male rape victimization (i.e., 0.2-2%; see Peterson, Voller, Polusny, & Murdoch, 2011 for a review) is affected by gender differences in reporting.  According to Pino and Meier (1999), men are 1.5 times less likely than women to report being raped.  Given how low the rate of rape reporting is among women, men’s rate of reporting may make it seem as if male victimization is almost non-existent.

MYTH: Most rapes are perpetrated by strangers.

BUSTED: Strangers commit less than 20% of female rapes; acquaintances account for about 25% of perpetrators, and just over half of all assaults are committed by a romantic interest such as a spouse, boyfriend or date (Chen & Ullman, 2010).  The continuation of this myth may be due to greater rates of reporting of stranger-perpetrated rapes relative to acquaintance- or partner-perpetrated rapes (Clay-Warner & Burt, 2005; Clay-Warner & McMahon-Howard, 2009; Felson & Pare, 2005; Koss, Dinero & Sibel, 1988).

MYTH: Women encourage rape and sexual assault by dressing or acting provocatively.

BUSTED: Rapists do not choose their victims based on their appearance.  In an international study of non-partner rape perpetration, the most common reasons for rape were feelings of sexual entitlement, seeking entertainment and wanting to punish the victim (Jewkes et al., 2013). Similarly, a sample of incarcerated men revealed eight motivations for rape perpetration: revenge/punishment, anger about sexual rejection, desire for impersonal sex, rush of excitement, adventure/challenge afforded by the act, control/power over the victim, masculinity and physical fulfillment of a fantasy (Hale, 1997). In both cases, victim characteristics (such as dress or behavior) were not found to be motivating factors.

MYTH:  A woman cannot be raped if she is drunk.

BUSTED: A woman can be raped if she is drunk; in fact, consent given under the influence of alcohol or any other drug is not considered legal consent because alcohol/drug consumption can disrupt higher cognitive processes.  These cognitive processes include (but are not limited to), conceptualization, planning skills and problem-solving skills (Abbey, Zawacki, Buck, Clinton, & McAuslan, 2001).  Because a person’s cognitive ability is impaired when he or she is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, true consent to engage in sexual activity cannot be given (Taylor and Chermack, 1993).

MYTH: Husbands cannot rape their wives.

BUSTED: Unwanted intercourse in any type of relationship is considered rape (Bergen, 2004); thus, it would be considered rape if a husband forced his wife to have sex when she did not provide consent.  Research shows that 10–14% of all women are raped by their husbands in their lifetime, and this rate rises to 40–50% among battered women (Martin, Taft, Resick, 2007).

MYTH: Unwanted sex is only considered rape if it is violent.

BUSTED: In the past, rape was narrowly defined as forcible sexual intercourse perpetrated by a man against a woman; however, this definition has recently been updated to include any oral, anal or vaginal penetration against the victim’s consent (Kahn & Mathie, 2000).  The persistence of this myth is likely influenced by higher rates of formal rape reporting among victims who sustain physical injuries (Clay-Warner and McMahon-Howard, 2009) and lower rates of conviction for non-violent vs. violent rapes (Temkin and Krahé, 2008).

MYTH: Many women lie about being raped.

BUSTED: The vast majority of rapes that women disclose to others, including those that are reported to the police, did happen.  In fact, false rape allegations are highly infrequent (Patton and Snyder-Yuly, 2007).  An international survey of research assessing sexual assault reporting indicated that only 2 - 8% of reported sexual assaults are believed to be false (Lonsway, Archambault, and Lisak, 2007).


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Chen, Y., & Ullman, S. E. (2010). Women’s reporting of sexual and physical assaults to police in the National Violence Against Women Survey. Violence Against Women, 16, 262-279. doi: 10.1177/1077801209360861.

Clay-Warner, J., & McMahon-Howard, J. (2009). Rape Reporting: Classic Rape and the Behavior of Law. Violence and Victims, 24(6), 723-743.

Hale, R. (1997). Motives of reward among men who rape. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 22(1), 101-119.

Heath, N. M., Lynch, S. M., Fritch, A. M., McArthur, L. N., Smith, S. L. (2011). Silent survivors: Rape myth acceptance in incarcerated women’s narratives of disclosure and reporting of rape. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35, 596-610.

Jewkes, R., Fulu, E., Roselli, T., & Garcia-Moreno C. (2013) Prevalence of and factors associated with non-partner rape perpetration: findings from the UN multi-country cross-sectional study on men and violence in asia and the pacific. Lancet Global Health, 1, e208-e218. doi: 10.1016/S2214-109X(13)70069-X

Kahn, A. S., Jackson, J., Kully, C., Badger, K., & Halvorsen, J. (2003). Calling it rape: Differences in experiences of women who do or do not label their sexual assault as rape. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 27(3), 233-242.

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Littleton, H. L., Rhatigan, D. L., & Axsom, D. (2007). Unacknowledged rape: How much do we know about the hidden rape victim? Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 14(4), 57-74.

Lonsway, K., Archambault, J., & Lisak, D. (2007). False reports: Moving beyond the issue to successfully investigate and prosecute non-stranger sexual assault. National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women.

Martin, E. K., Taft, C. T., & Resick, P. A. (2007). A review of marital rape. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 12, 329 –347. doi:10.1016/j.avb.2006.10.003.

Patton, T. O., & Snyder-Yuly, J. (2007). Any four Black men will do: Rape, race, and the ultimate scapegoat. Journal of Black Studies, 37, 859–895. doi:10.1177/0021934706296025.

Peterson, Z. D., Voller, E. K., Polusny, M. A., & Murdoch, M. (2011). Prevalence and consequences of adult sexual assault of men: Review of empirical findings and state of the literature. Clinical Psychology Review, 31, 1-24.

Pino, N. W., & Meier, R. F. (1999). Gender differences in rape reporting. Sex Roles, 40, 979-990.

Starzynski, L. L., Ullman, S. E., Filipas, H. H., & Townsend, S. M. (2005). Correlates of women’s sexual assault disclosure to informal and formal support sources. Violence and Victims, 20, 417-432.

Taylor, S. P., and Chermack, S. T. (1993).  Alcohol, drugs, and human physical aggression. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 11, 78-88.

Temkin, J., & Krahé, B. (2008). Sexual assault and the justice gap: A question of attitude. Portland, OR: Hart Publishing.

Tjaden and N. Thoennes, 1998, Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice.

Tjaden, P., & Thoennes, N. (2006). Extent, Nature and Consequence of Rape Victimization: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice.

Wolitzky-Taylor, K. B., Resnick, H. S., McCauley, J. L., Amstadter, A. B., Kilpatrick, D. G., & Ruggiero, K. J. (2011). Is reporting of rape on the rise? A comparison of women with reported versus unreported rape experiences in the National Women’s Study-Replication. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 26, 807-832.