Stanford swimmer Brock Turner was convicted of sexual assault after he attacked an unconscious woman. But to hear his father and close friends tell it, Turner isn’t a rapist, just another college kid who got carried away. Surveys of college students often unearth similar misconceptions. When Oklahoma State University professor John Foubert asks his students if they’ve ever raped someone, the answer is always no. Change the phrasing, however, and some admit to committing crimes. Ten percent of fraternity brothers in one campus study reported that they’d penetrated a woman without her permission. “They don’t see this behavior as rape,” said Foubert, who designed OSU’s rape-prevention program. “It’s not just college students. You hear these beliefs in broader society.” Even as the national conversation about sexual assault grows, myths persist. Let’s debunk five.
1. Rape is primarily a college problem.
Much of the coverage of rape over the past few years has focused on universities. Vice called campus rape an “undeniable, massive problem.” The Nation described it as a “crisis.” CNBC said college campuses are “one of the most dangerous places for women in America.”
It is true that women between 18 and 24 suffer sexual assaults more often than any other group. But young women who don’t pursue higher learning are much more likely to be victims. A 2014 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (using crime data from 1995 to 2013) found that the rate of rape was 1.2 times higher for non-students than for students. “It seems like these institutions get all the attention, and the other victims are never even talked about,” said Claudia Bayliff, a Virginia lawyer who has worked on rape cases for 25 years. “There are race issues here, class issues and media-access issues.”
2. Rape is about the victimization of women.
Rape often gets lumped into a broader conversation about violence against women, and many of the most prominent victims are female. Before 2012, even the Justice Department defined rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.”
This obscures something that should be obvious: Rape isn’t about gender, it’s about power and a particular set of behaviors. These include, according to the federal government’s updated definition, “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”
This crime can strike men as well as women. Overall, between 5 and 14 percent of rapes are reported by males. According to one study, 44 percent of women and 23.4 percent of men said they’d experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes, including unwanted contact. Seven percent of men, meanwhile, report that they’ve been “made to penetrate” another person. Nearly half of men who reported an assault said their assailant was a woman.
“Men and boys who are victims and survivors deserve our compassion and services just as much as women and girls,” said Jackson Katz, creator of the Mentors in Violence Prevention Model, a program that works to educate students about rape. “But when we speak about men as victims of sexual violence, we need to be clear that men are also the majority of perpetrators.”
3. You can’t rape your spouse.
The list of institutions and people who have made this claim is long. It includes the Michigan Court of Appeals, which once ruled that it is not illegal for a man to sexually assault his wife, and Virginia state Sen. Dick Black, who said in 2002, “I don’t know how on earth you could validly get a conviction in a husband-wife rape when they’re living together, sleeping in the same bed, she’s in a nightie and so forth.”
This election cycle, a lawyer for Donald Trump even claimed to a reporter, “You can’t rape your spouse.” The remark came last July in response to old allegations that Trump sexually assaulted his first wife, Ivana.
But Michael Cohen, a lawyer for the Trump Organization, was dead wrong. It is illegal to rape anyone in the United States, even if you’re married to the victim. And wives do report rape. Ten to 14 percent of ever-married or co-habitating women surveyed by researchers reported at least one sexual assault by a husband.
It’s true that rape of a spouse wasn’t always considered a crime. About 40 years ago, feminists began a campaign to strike down the “marital rape exemption,” a remnant from a time when a wife was considered her husband’s property. Nebraska was the first state to abolish it, in 1976. By 1993, every state had banned sexual assault within marriage. Half, however, still don’t grant married women the same protections that cover single women. And at least 23 states make it more difficult for a wife to accuse her husband of sexual violence. Some require evidence of violent force; some give married victims less time to report an assault.
4. You can’t prosecute a years-old rape.
News outlets often blame statutes of limitations for keeping alleged serial rapists such as Bill Cosby out of jail. How was the superstar able to evade criminal charges? a writer at Mic asked. “The simple answer? Statute of limitations.” In 2014, New York criminal defense lawyer Daniel A. Hochheiser told the International Business Times that “there’s not going to be any criminal charges filed against Mr. Cosby because these cases are all too old.”
But statutes of limitation vary widely among states, ranging from three to 30 years. Sixteen states, including Maryland and Virginia, have no statute of limitations at all. Many states also extend the statute of limitations if new DNA evidence is found. Others are pushing to relax these rules to prosecute sex crimes. California, for example, is moving to ditch its statute, which now sits at 10 years for adult victims. Florida and Oregon recently doubled their reporting windows.
Other states have vowed to end their backlogs of unexamined rape kits, the forensic evidence collected after an attack. Ohio’s Cuyahoga County Sexual Assault Kit Task Force has obtained more than 250 convictions from cases going back to 1993, said Rachel Lovell, a senior research associate at Case Western Reserve University. “Their success illustrates that when rape kits are tested,” she said, “and cases are thoroughly investigated and prosecuted, convictions for old rape cases are very likely.”
There has also been a surge in the number of reports of years-old assaults. A fifth of sexual assaults reported in New York City in 2015 happened at least a year prior to the police complaint, NYPD data showed, stretching back as far as 1975. New York Police Commissioner William Bratton dubbed this “the Cosby effect.” The trend touched other cities, too: Philadelphia authorities observed a 9 percent increase in delayed reports of rape between 2014 and 2015, with the number increasing from 110 to 121. In Houston, it climbed from 76 to 125.
5. The rising number of reported sexual assaults represents a crisis.
In a public service announcement last year, President Obama revealed a startling statistic: “Right now, nearly one in five women in America has been a victim of rape or attempted rape.” One in five women who attended college at some point between 2011 and 2015 said they’d been sexually assaulted, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll.
These numbers reflect a trend that does seem troublesome: More American college students are reporting rapes than ever before. Campus sexual assault reports increased by 25 percent between 2012 and 2013, Department of Education data shows.
But advocates say that’s not a bad thing. Rape is a massively underreported crime. Federal researchers estimate that just 34 percent of sexual assaults lead to police reports. So a reporting increase, in some cases, means the criminal justice system is working: Victims are coming forward, and authorities are listening.
“Once you talk about sexual assault and do prevention, that reporting increases,” said Jane Stapleton, who runs the University of New Hampshire’s Prevention Innovations Research Center. “There is absolutely no evidence to suggest the increase in reporting is directly associated with an increase in perpetration.”