• Saahas

Myths and Realities about Sexual and Gender-based Violence

There are several mistaken ideas people have about gender-based, sexual and sexualized violence and people who have faced them. These mistaken ideas can be an impediment in supporting the survivors, in that these misconceptions form the basis for stigma, hurtful treatment and exclusion. A survivor has been through a trauma and deserves support, not harassment, victimization, isolation or the ascription of a trauma. While Saahas attempts, through all its libraries, address multiple dimensions of gender-based, sexual and sexualized violence, we also recognize that there are some pervasive myths and misconceptions that we hope to answer below.

Myth #1: Only girls are vulnerable to gender-based, sexual and sexualized violence

Reality: All gender, sex and sexual orientation identities are vulnerable to GBV, sexual and sexualized violence. Gender may form the basis for violence, sexual violence may target particular sexual identities and sexualized violence can affect people of all gender identities. Sexual assault harms all gender and sex identities in ways that are similar and different all at once, but all are equally harmful.Evidence suggests that certain characteristics such as sexual orientation, disability, status, ethnicity, and some contextual factors, such as humanitarian crises, including conflict and post-conflict situations, that may increase one’s vulnerability to gender-based, sexual and sexualized violence 

Myth #2: If the target were sexually aroused during the act, it is not assault. 

Reality: Regardless of whether the target was sexually aroused during the assault or not, if the sexual conduct / advance was unwanted and did not respect the consent of the target, it is assault.

Myth #3: Only people of a particular sexual orientation commit sexual assault

Reality: Sexual assault can be perpetrated by anyone. It is not a result of one’s sexual orientation, but a result of one’s use of power to take advantage of a person, or to disregard the other person’s consent.

Myth #4: If one dresses / behaves promiscuously, it can cause them to face sexual assault.

Reality: Nothing that a person dresses in is an invitation to sexual assault. A person’s dressing is an expression of that person’s fashion sense, comfort and interests. It is not an open invitation for anyone to disrespect their personal space, agency and freedom. Sexual assault is a crime of violence and control, and it arises from a person's determination to exercise power over another, to disregard their personal agency and their consent. Neither a “provocative” dress nor “promiscuous” behavior can be considered as invitations for unwanted sexual activity. Forcing a person to engage in non-consensual sexual activity is sexual assault no matter how the person dresses or behaves.

Myth #5: If a person has been sexually assaulted, it must have been their fault.

Reality: Absolutely not. Nothing that a person does or acts like is an invitation to sexual assault. If we focus on the abusive nature of sexual assault instead of shifting the blame to the person who has been assaulted, then we can see that the assault has nothing to do with the conduct or behavior of the person who has been assaulted.

Myth #6: A person who has been sexually abused becomes gay.

Reality:  Sexual orientation is a function of nature, and not a function of assault or abuse. One’s sexual orientation is not shaped by a history of abuse. Although their opinions, thoughts, feelings and perhaps apprehensions around sex may be shaped by trauma caused by incidents of assault or abuse, sexual orientation is not in any way affected or shaped by assault. There is no basis for the argument that a person can “change” another person’s sexual orientation or “correct” their sexual orientation – and using unwanted sexual advances or conduct is sexual assault.

Myth #7: If a person goes to someone's room, house, or goes to a bar, they assume a risk of sexual assault. If they face something later, they cannot claim to have been sexually assaulted because they should have known better than to go to those places.

Reality: The "assumption of risk" is a wrong placement of responsibility for the offender's actions on the victim. Even if a person goes into the room / residence / personal space of another individual, it is not consent to sexual activity.

Myth #8: Consenting to some sexual activity is consent to all sexual activity

Reality: Consent to engage in some sexual activity is not blanket consent for all sexual activity. If a person is unsure, or uncomfortable about proceeding and expresses themselves to that effect, that means consent has been withdrawn. When a person says no, asks to stop, expresses physical discomfort, it must be respected and sexual activity must stop. Any and all sexual activity forced on another is sexual assault.

Myth #9: When a person says no, they’re actually saying yes because they want it.

Reality: A no is simply a no. When a person says "No" or "Stop", it means NO, it means STOP. Sexual activity forced upon another without consent is sexual assault. 

Myth #10: It's not sexual assault if it happens when either are drinking or taking drugs.

Reality: Being under the influence of alcohol or drugs is not an invitation for any non-consensual sexual activity. A person under the influence of drugs or alcohol is not causing anyone to assault them. When another chooses to take advantage of the situation and sexually assaults a person who is under drugs or alcohol, they are exploiting a vulnerability. A person is cognitively impaired when they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol and is not able to consent to sexual activity. An offender who deliberately uses alcohol or intoxicants to subdue another in order to engage in non-consensual sexual activity with them is committing a violent crime.

Myth #11: It's not sexual assault if the people involved knew each other.

Reality: Most instances of sexual assault and rape are committed by a person that the victim knows. The World Health Organization states that35 percent women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives, and that some national studies show that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime.Most often, a partner, a former partner, a classmate, a friend, an acquaintance, a family member or even a co-worker sexually have been known to perpetrate sexual violence. Sexual assault can be committed within any type of relationship, including in marriage, in dating relationships, or by friends, acquaintances or co-workers. Sexual assault can occur in heterosexual or same-gender relationships. It does not matter whether there is a current or past relationship between the victim and offender; unwanted sexual activity is still sexual assault and is a serious crime.

Myth #12: Sexual assault can be avoided if the person stays away from dangerous places such as dark and unlit streets, empty rooms or rundown places.

Reality: Sexual assault is not about the place, but about the person’s use of power and dominance over another. There are several instances of sexual violence having taken place within the confines of homes, schools, workplaces, public places, on board public transportation, in hospitals and other places that are crowded, well-lit and accessed by many people at the same time. It can definitely be a prudent thing to avoid places that have been known to be thriving hotbeds of sexual violence, but, merely being in a place is neither an invitation nor a reason for one to be assaulted, and avoiding a place is not a guaranteed protection from sexual assault.

Myth #13: A person who has been sexually assaulted is a victim for life.

Reality: Sexual assault is traumatic, and a person can respond to it in a variety of ways. Response to sexual assault is not to be understood with as singular, uniform or specific to only particular forms, and thus, there is no singular “right” way to respond to sexual assault. How a person responds to it is entirely their choice, and no one can ascribe a route or dictate an “appropriate” way for them to response. However, one can always help them seek all the information they need in order to make an informed decision that weighs all the available options at their disposal. Reactions and responses to sexual assault, the amount of time taken to respond and the means chosen to do so are varied. Holding assumptions about how a survivor is supposed to act, respond or react can be disparaging to the interests of the survivor, because coping is a highly personal experience.

Myth #14: All sexual assault victims will report the crime immediately to the police. If they do not report it or delay in reporting it, assault didn’t happen, or they consented.  

Reality: To report or not to report a sexual assault remains the decision of the survivor themselves. A survivor of sexual assault may or may not report an incident of assault to the police – and however they choose, they have their own reasons for it. Speaking about sexual assault is not easy, and every experience of retelling what happened can be traumatic. A lot of factors can prevent a survivor from reporting – stigma, cost, fear of reprisals, fear of not being believed, fear of not having support after reporting, shame, shock, and much more. Just because a person did not report an assault or chooses not to report it at all does not mean that the assault did not happen. If a survivor does not want to report right away, it is a good idea to help them know that they can report later, within the frame of the law of limitation in each country.

Myth #15: It's only sexual assault if the person facing it puts up a fight and resists.

Reality: The law, across most nations, does not require that a person should resist in order for a charge of sexual assault to stand proved. There are many reasons why a person facing sexual assault may not fight or resist her attacker. Everything from freezing on the spot to fearing greater harm, to being caught off-guard and coping with the trauma may prevent a survivor from resisting. A person facing sexual assault should typically trust their instincts and intuition and do what they think is most likely to keep them alive. Not fighting or resisting an attack does not mean consent.

Myth #16: If a person wants to refuse a sexual advance, they must say no loud and clearly. Anything else is a yes.

Reality: Saying no is only one way to show that there is no consent. People may use different words – “let’s take this slowly” or “not now” or “stop” or “please don’t.” It is also important to take a cue from the conduct of the person themselves – are they participating fully, and engaging with pleasure, willingness and enthusiasm? If not, step back.

Myth #17: If the person doesn’t leave, it isn’t assault.

Reality: A person’s decision to stay in a relationship despite it being abusive, or a person staying put where they are while facing assault does not mean that they consent to what is being done to them. Leaving an abusive relationship involves making a complex decision that involves a lot of factors – and not-leaving is often backed by several genuine reasons. Not leaving or walking away from an incident of sexual assault is attributable to a variety of factors – such as fear, anxiety, panic, shock, physical inability to leave and even a sense of being overwhelmed and overpowered by the attacker.

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