"The Power of Rape Myths" by Dr. Megan Burke
On this year’s International Women’s Day, many women-led protests around the world
drew attention to the reality of sexual violence against girls and women. These protests follow
the #MeToo movement and the more recent viral and global phenomenon of the Chilean feminist anti-rape song, all of which follow decades of concern among feminist scholars and activists on the prevalence of rape and other sexual violations against women. Often, such feminist responses are met with dismissal, denial, and even state violence.
In the context of the United States, one reason feminist responses fail to galvanize
support is because of the persistence of rape myths. Rape myths obscure the reality of rape and produce the very gender system out of which high rates of sexual violence against girls and women emerge.
Feminist scholars— people like myself who center a critical and intersectional analysis of
gender in relation to systems and histories of power— use the concept of ‘rape myths’ to name and describe a variety of ideas about rape that produce a way of knowing and thinking about rape that masks the actual reality of rape. One of the most pervasive rape myths is the myth of stranger rape. Many young women are warned about and come to fear rape as a matter of “stranger danger.” As a result, many young women in the United States are most likely to perceive rapists as “bad guys” who lurk behind bushes at night or sneak up behind women in public spaces. In reality, however, most rapes girls and women experience are perpetrated by boys or men they know, are acquainted with, or who come from the same community. Those rapes are usually non-violent and occur in spaces like one’s own home. Typically, rape is not perpetrated by a stranger, is not perpetrated in public, and does not entail brutal force.
The pervasive and ordinary presence of rape myths has dire consequences. If we come to
learn to identify rape and rapists through the scripts and images of myth, then we’re going to get reality wrong. The very idea we have of what rape is and looks like will be incorrect. Rapists will not be identified. Rape victims will not be believed. Those who have experienced a rape may not even be able to call it ‘rape’ because it doesn’t match the mythical image.
Rape myths also play an important role in shaping our embodied experience of gender.
French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir shows how patriarchal myths— ideas, images, scripts—about what and who a woman is, structures and is the vehicle through which ‘woman’ is lived and embodied. Patriarchal myth imagines a woman as nurturing, caring, connected to nature, as a husband’s wife, and as a sex object. Although not a woman’s image of herself, the power of patriarchal myth is that it is so pervasive and so deeply embedded in society that it comes to shape and often becomes the image a woman has of herself.
The myth of stranger rape shapes one’s experience of gender in relation to a history of
white supremacist patriarchal myth. As philosopher Angela Davis points out, at the turn of the
twentieth century, the myth of the black male rapist became a widespread image of and belief
about black men among white individuals in response to the new political status of black men.
Perhaps best depicted in the white supremacist propaganda film, The Birth of a Nation, the myth draws on racist ideologies that portray men of color as hypersexual, dangerous, and violent savages who are out to rape white women. The myth intended to and achieved a hysterical fear of black men as sexual predators in order to justify the targeted violence and policing of black communities, including lynching. It also bolstered enrollment in the Ku Klux Klan. In various other times and contexts, this myth has become about other men of color— in more recent years, the mythical rapist has become Mexican and Mexican American men. The intent always remains the same: to circulate a perception of men of color as rapists and white women as real victims, entrenching a racial and gender hierarchy into the social fabric.
Although the myth of stranger rape seems rooted in the idea that rapists are not family,
lovers, or friends, being marked as a stranger has long been bound to racial ideologies that mark people of color as different, as outsiders, as strange. Historically, in the U.S., men of color are seen as invasive and violent strangers. Even though the image of the stranger-rapist in the myth seems race-neutral, it feeds off of and follows a historical reality that equates strangeness with racial Otherness. In the dominant American context, “stranger” means blackness; the image of a stranger is already one marked by race.
To learn to fear rape through the fear of a dangerous “someone” who is “out there,” who
is hiding in the bushes while you walk at night, is a racialized fear. Such fear is powerful. It
shapes how you feel, where you go, how, where and with whom you walk, who you trust, who
you think is safe, and how you live and protect the very space of your body. And so, because it is a fear girls and women negotiate and live with, the fear of the stranger produced by the myth shapes a racialized gendered embodiment.
It is the case that girls and women are likely to be victims of rape, and so it is legitimate
for them to fear the possibility of rape. But when that fear is shaped by white myths of rape, the consequence is the production of a gendered existence that can carry on violent legacies and myths of rape, gender, and race. While feminist anti-rape protest like those heard on
International Women’s Day intend to undercut this racialized gender system, rape myths grip our lives and so, they undermine feminist efforts.