Normalization of sexual assault, mislabeled perpetrators harm women

Autumn Kunkel and Autumn Kunkel

Women have always been told that they should prevent their own sexual assaults.

The messages are constant: “don’t walk alone at night,” “don’t drink too much” and “pay close attention to your surroundings.” These are just a few rules women are encouraged to abide by. There’s even a new line of rape-prevention gear that includes items like “anti-rape” underwear and nail polish that detects date rape drugs.

With the introduction of these items, specifically, there’s been tremendous backlash and an outcry blaming perpetrators of sexual assault, rather than weighing down the burden on women. But even as we begin to see this progressive shift in attitudes toward sexual assault, there are still many misconceptions about who rapists are, in general.

Perhaps the most frustrating of these is the idea that rapists are “sociopathic” or “mentally ill.” Labels like these further the problem of sexual assault because they distract from the real issue of its general normalization.

The notion that rape is normalized may seem like a stretch, but the raw data on the topic states otherwise. In a study published in “The Lancet,” a leading medical journal, researchers surveyed 10,178 men in order to figure out how many had committed a rape, as well as to delve into the reasons behind their actions.

They asked men if they had ever “forced a woman who was not your wife or girlfriend at the time to have sex” or “had sex with a woman who was too drunk or drugged to indicate whether she wanted it.” Researchers intentionally left out the word “rape” to figure out if study participants realized what they’d done.

What they found was unsettling. It turns out 55.4 percent of respondents had raped one woman in their lifetimes. The most prominent reason for rape was the feeling of entitlement “over the woman’s wants and needs.”

What’s most striking to me is the fact that most of these men were unaware they were admitting to committing sexual assaults.

As mentioned previously, the researchers purposely left out the word “rape” in their questions in order to get respondents’ honest answers. Had they explicitly asked those men if they had raped a woman in their lifetimes, the results wouldn’t have been quite as telling.

The fact that the surveyed men admitted to rape only when the questions did not explicitly use the word “rape” hints at the bigger issue of how sexual assault has been normalized. These men thought they had a right to women’s bodies and saw nothing wrong with being truthful in the survey.

They weren’t sociopathic or mentally ill; they were average men who were unaware that what they were doing was wrong.

This needs to be noted because, when people mistakenly label rapists as sociopathic or mentally ill, it takes the responsibility of their crimes away from them, further harming the women they sexually assaulted.

The fact that many people don’t understand what rape is, and therefore end up committing the act, is the root of the problem.

This normalization of sexual assault is the very reason why so many rapists go unpunished, and why so many women are victims of rape in the first place.

It’s important that people understand why sexual assault is normalized [so much so that even rapists don’t know they’re rapists], and start holding perpetrators accountable, instead of labeling them in ways that rob them of accountability altogether.

Only then will the rape epidemic be able to subside.

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