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Spotlight Report

Unraveling the old myths that foster sexual violence


The following column was written by Wendy J. Murphy and Judith Greenberg, professors at New England School of Law; Laurence H. Tribe, professor at Harvard Law School; Nan D. Stein and Linda M. Williams, co-directors of National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center, Wellesley Centers for Women; Rebecca Bolen, professor at Boston University; Diane Rosenfeld, lecturer on Women's Studies at Harvard University; Bessell A. van der Kolk, professor at Boston University School of Medicine; Ann Burgess, professor at Boston College; and Ross Cheit, professor at Brown University.

IN APRIL, Acting Governor Jane Swift created a Sexual Assault Task Force to take a critical look at law enforcement, public health, human services, and criminal justice responses to sexual violence with the goal of proposing recommendations for reform. Reform is desperately needed.

The Commonwealth is dealing with an unprecedented number of cases of sexual abuse of children by priests; there is an apparent epidemic of rape of high school girls by boys whom they call friends; judges handling sex crimes have infuriated the community by doling out meager sentences; and Massachusetts is one of only a few states where a university is under review by the US Office for Civil Rights because its policies and procedures on sexual assault appear inconsistent with longstanding federal civil rights laws.

Part of the work of the task force must be to address these problems by debunking pervasive age-old myths about sexual violence that make intervention, treatment, and deterrence difficult.

  • Myth 1: The media exaggerate the problem of sexual assault.

    Facts: According to a survey of the Department of Public Health, 23 percent of women in Massachusetts and 6 percent of men have been sexually assaulted; 16 percent of female high school students and 6 percent of male high school students have been sexually assaulted before they finish school. DPH-funded rape crisis centers received more than 10,000 hotline calls last fiscal year and served more than 1,738 clients.

  • Myth 2: Rape only occurs if there is intercourse.

    Facts: Under Massachusetts law, rape occurs if there is any forcible nonconsensual oral, anal, or vaginal penetration, however slight. Other types of sexual crimes do not require proof of penetration or force. Children under the age of 16 cannot legally consent to sexual conduct involving penetration. Children under age 14 cannot consent to any sexual touching.

  • Myth 3: Most sexual assault is caused by homosexuals.

    Facts: There is no evidence that homosexuals abuse children, teens, or adults at a higher rate than heterosexuals. Studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicate that 90 percent of abusers of young children are male and 95 percent of those are heterosexual. Sexual assault is not an issue of uncontrolled sexual desire, but rather is rooted in issues of power and control. Focusing on homosexuality rather than on abuse serves only to perpetuate homophobia and the silencing of many victims.

  • Myth 4: Sexual violence is most often committed by strangers.

    Facts: In about 85 percent of cases, sexual assaults occur between people who know each other. For children under the age of 13, most sexual assaults are committed by male relatives, including fathers, and ''friends'' of the family.

  • Myth 5: Sexual contact by a person in authority (e.g., a parent, teacher, doctor, religious leader) is mainly an issue of sexual attraction, especially when the victim is a teenager or adult.

    Facts: Sexual contact by a person in authority represents a severe abuse of power and manipulation of trust, regardless of age or sexual orientation.

    Such violations, which often occur in the absence of threats or force, can have severe and long-term physical and emotional consequences for the victim.

  • Myth 6: ''Date rape'' is not a crime if either the victim or the rapist was drunk.

    Facts: It is a crime for another person to engage in sexual conduct with an individual who is too drunk to consent. Furthermore, intoxication on the part of the offender does not excuse or mitigate the rapist's criminal liability.

  • Myth 7: False allegations of rape are common.

    Facts: Studies show that false allegations of rape are rare and are no more common than false allegations of other types of crime.

  • Myth 8: Victims of sexual assault will be protected if they just say ''no.''

    Facts: While it is important to recognize that the right to say ''no'' reflects society's commitment to principles of bodily integrity and autonomy, it is also important not to make victims feel they are responsible for their own abuse if they are unable to stop someone from exploiting them.

    Abusers use trust, manipulation, threats, and fear to accomplish their abuse. Failure to see sexual assault in this light can have severe long-term consequences for victims of all ages. This may be made worse if the survivor's community disbelieves, minimizes, or excuses the abuse or attempts to ''rank'' victims' ''worthiness.'' A coordinated community response, including offender and institutional accountability, is necessary to prevent sexual assault. The offending individual, and not the victim, should always take primary responsibility for the crime.

    Unfortunately, the composition of the governor's Sexual Assault Task Force makes it unlikely that these myths and related ineffective state policies and programs will receive the critical attention they deserve. The acting governor held a press conference announcing the formation of her task force, but panel members thus far identified comprise a group top heavy with government employees. There are few nongovernmental independent experts on the panel who will be in a position to offer meaningful criticism and ideas for reform.

    The acting governor has identified no academic experts, private attorneys who specialize in representing victims of sexual violence in civil and other noncriminal proceedings, adult survivors of sexual violence, or therapists who regularly treat victims of sexual trauma. The panel does not even include a legal expert from the attorney general's office. Without independent members like these, we are skeptical that the task force will be able to achieve the laudable goals the acting governor has set for it.

    This story ran on page A11 of the Boston Globe on 6/17/2002.
    © Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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