Think of the most convincing, beyond-a-shadow-of-doubt, believable rape story you can imagine. One that could even be won in court, although less than 2% of cases are.
Who is the victim? She is a cisgender woman; young, and sexually inexperienced — even a virgin. Perhaps she is religious; perhaps she doesn’t drink. She is probably white. Probably middle or upper class. Perhaps she was just out with her friends, or walking home, or attending a party when she was approached, attacked or drugged by a man she didn’t know. She said no, she tried to escape, but he was stronger than her and overpowered her, probably violently.
Thus, we introduce our rapist. A stranger. A criminal. A bad guy. There are two common mythical rapists. Both are men. The first is intelligent, calculating, even sociopathic, although he seems like a “good” guy. This rapist premeditates his crime, he uses date rape drugs, identifies a target who will be likely to succumb to his strategies, and makes his move — isolating her, incapacitating her and committing the act. He comes from a privileged background and thinks he is above the law. He is probably in a fraternity. The other likely suspect is more impulsive. He sees a woman and attacks. He is less cautious, driven by lust and often violent. Typically athletic, strong; often a man of color.
Do you recognize these characters? They are the archetypal rape victims and perpetrators that populate media narratives about rape on campus, particularly the recent documentary The Hunting Ground, which premiered on CNN on Nov. 22nd.
When many of us hear the word “rape,” certain scripts and myths spring unbidden to the forefront of our minds. Although rape and all forms of sexual abuse are disgustingly, soberingly common in all their forms in our present culture, there are certain stories, certain rapes that resonate more strongly with our cultural preconceived notions and assumptions/scripts about what rape looks like, who is affected by it and who commits it (Susan Brison: Aftermath, Chapter 6). There is, for lack of a better word, a “perfect victim,” a “perfect perpetrator” and a “perfect crime,” at least when it comes to which stories are seen as believable and relevant by the media.
These assumptions do not occur in a vacuum. They are intimately tied to very intentional stereotypes and scripts with a long and ugly history. Historically, rape has only been taken seriously when to do so is politically advantageous to those in power.
Spousal rape, for example, has really only been taken seriously legally since the 1970s; before then, it wasn’t considered possible, echoing legacies of archaic English law in which a woman’s body was considered the property of her husband. Evidence of past sexual activity can be used by the defense in a rape case to undermine a victim’s “credibility.” Even today, the “stranger danger” paradigm means that widespread domestic violence and relationship abuse is all but ignored.
Despite the explicit usage of rape as a tool of colonization and genocide, Native American women have not legally been able to prosecute rape and abuse by non-Native perpetrators until a provision in the 2013 Violence against Women act finally made it possible.
White slaveowners intentionally cultivated the stereotype of the “Jezebel” — the wantonly, uncontrollably sexual black female — to justify the forced breeding of black women throughout slavery (Stephens, Dionne P. “Freaks, Gold Diggers, Divas, and Dykes: The Sociohistorical Development of Adolescent African American Women’s Sexual Scripts.” Sexuality & Culture (2003). This stereotype is the foundation of ongoing fetishization, objectification, and hyper-sexualization of black female bodies that continues to justify sexual violence and harassment of black women to this day.Young Latina and black girls are seen as “chronologically older” than their white peers in order to justify their sexualization and abuse. Rape of women of color is deemed“less traumatic” by juries.
LGBT people have also been targeted for sexualized hate crimes, including “corrective rape,” and experience higher rates of sexual assault but receive less support — and indeed are frequently victim blamed because their very identity is seen to be sexualized.