Fighting Rape Myths With Empathy

Cork, Ireland
Cork, Ireland

A hand flies into the air. I'm halfway through Psychology of Trauma, one of the courses I teach at the University of Oregon. Fifty students and I are crammed in a dim, humid classroom. We've been learning and talking about sexual assault on campus for the past week, and predictably, someone is ready to make a few waves.

I nod at the young man whose face is set with defiance as he thrusts his fingers high. He speaks. "I just need to say that I know of several situations where a girl lied about rape. One of my best friends was accused of rape, and that girl definitely lied." Although the desks are all nailed to the ground, the rest of the class still manages to swivel in their seats. They look at him, then back at me, waiting for a response.

My heart sinks. My mind flashes to a recent news report of sexual assault survivors waging an uphill battle to be believed. I dig my elbows onto the podium in front of me, silent, trying to gather my thoughts. This moment is incredibly familiar -- every time I teach about sexual assault, several students raise their hands and make impassioned comments like his.

Rape myths cause real harm -- they discount the reality of sexual violence and its devastating effects.

I recognize these reactive remarks as rape myths -- inaccurate beliefs about how and why rape and sexual assault happen. His conviction that "women lie about rape" is one example of a rape myth. Others include: she didn't physically fight back, so she must have wanted it; she was wearing sexy clothes, so she asked for it; she willingly had a drink with him, so she's responsible; she had sex with him before, so she must have wanted to again.

Media Matters

Although incredibly incorrect, these myths are common for good reason. Media influences, like movies, television, music and pornography, constantly shape and reinforce our beliefs about sexual violence. Research suggests that eroticized and stereotyped images of women in the media really do matter; constantly watching women be used as sex objects or be sexually violated effects how we think about real women and their experiences.

For example, after watching a short music video where a female singer was sexually objectified, research participants felt less empathy for a victim in a hypothetical sexual assault scenario.  Similarly, men who played a video game where female characters were objectified and violated were subsequently more accepting of rape myths. Women are not immune to the impact of objectifying media; after female research participants controlled a sexualized female avatar, they objectified themselves more, and in turn were more accepting of rape myths.  

Rape Myths Are Inaccurate and Harmful

What's scary is that rape myths cause real harm -- they discount the reality of sexual violence and its devastating effects. When we are indoctrinated in rape myths, the natural but terrible consequence is doubting, blaming, and stigmatizing survivors. Beyond harmful, rape myths are also just inaccurate. Let's take the "women lie about rape" myth my student spouted. For one thing, most women who are sexually assaulted never even report what happened to them. One large study of colleges found that just 4 percent of survivors ever told a campus official -- that's 19 out of 20 who stay quiet.

So far from lying, most survivors never share their stories. False allegations (where evidence ultimately proves that the assault could not possibly have happened) are also very rare; research suggests that in the university context, only about 6 percent of all reported assaults are later found to be false. Given the low rate of reporting and rarity of false reports, there's probably about one false report made for every 400 rapes that occur.  

I contemplate my student, his face stubborn and body stiff as he waits for me to respond. I am frustrated, because he has already learned all about rape myths. I've already provided evidence to the class: sexual assault happens frequently and few survivors, of any gender, age, or sexual orientation, come forward. We've spent the past days reading journal articles, watching documentaries, and engaging in class discussions. I am sure this particular student knows the facts because he's a diligent pupil, and he's responded perfectly on all his quizzes so far. A dull pulse of disappointment floods through my body, followed by a wave of anger. I feel like shouting: "You know better! Why don't you get it?"

I take a calming breath, shift my weight from one foot to the other, and reconsider. While he does know better -- cognitively -- there may be a disconnect between his cognitions (head) and his emotions (heart). His head knows that sexual assault is common, devastating and rarely lied about. But his heart has gone AWOL. Giving him the benefit of doubt, I wonder, Is this ugly, stubborn rape myth shielding him from unpleasant emotions?

Empathy Can Be Painful

After all, when you really "get" what we're learning about, it hurts, big time. It's painful to take in the fact that at least 20 percent of college women are sexually assaulted during their years at university. I look around my classroom and see about 30 young women's faces looking back at me. According to the stats, several of them have been victimized since they arrived on this campus. And I know from research that even more women in the class, plus several of the men, were probably sexually abused or assaulted during childhood as well.

His heart might break when he thinks about all the women in his classes, his residence hall, the library -- all the women who have been harmed, maybe by men he knows.

Given the enormity and the gravity of sexual violence, really understanding what survivors go through can be overwhelming. Actually feeling the tremendous betrayal, anger, misery and powerlessness sexual violence survivors endure is a bruising blow to the heart. Rape myths and other forms of denial get us quickly off the hook from feeling all that pain.

I look back at my student and ponder another, perhaps even more compelling explanation for his perspective. What would it mean for him to accept the statistically viable possibility that his close friend really did sexually assault another student? How would that disrupt his view of the world, his social circle, his ability to trust? If he believes survivors, his friend did a bad thing, maybe even on purpose. If he believes survivors, his heart might break when he thinks about all the women in his classes, his residence hall, the library -- all the women who have been harmed, maybe by men he knows.

Facts Alone Are Not Enough to Change Hearts and Minds

I abandon my initial impulse to lash back at his "women lie about rape" claim by reiterating the statistics, facts and findings. He has already heard the proof, and yet here we are. Instead, I summon my own empathic reserves and choose to focus on emotion. I say, "Ok, but what about when sexual assaults do happen? Imagine how a survivor might feel about disclosing her or his experience. What emotions do you think she would have? What thoughts would he think? What would it feel like to hear comments like yours?"

I do my best, imperfectly, to help him move away from blame ("Some women lie about rape") to understanding and empathy ("After a trauma, most people are hurt, scared and confused"). I know that imagining how someone else feels facilitates empathy, so I try to help him and the rest of my students connect with survivors' experiences. 
We do not achieve a cool and collected conversation. More rape myths surface and hands raise to challenge them. I struggle to give everyone a chance to speak, striving to maintain a respectful atmosphere. Our discussion is not perfect, not even close to a paragon of the ideal social justice classroom. We lurch and bluster and scuffle our way to the end of class. I cry in my car for a few minutes before driving home, feeling drained and discouraged.

Empathy Hurts, But Also Heals

A few weeks later, a local trauma psychologist comes to give a guest lecture about doing therapy with trauma survivors. She is funny and wise -- my class listens with fascination. I notice that many of the questions they pose follow a particular theme. One student raises her hand and asks, "How do you deal with hearing really hard stuff every day? Don't you take some of that sadness home with you?" Another student pipes in. "Yeah, how do you help your clients cope with their pain and not hurt too much yourself?" Others nod in agreement and curiosity. My guest lecturer smiles gently back at them. "Well, I do take it home with me. I often feel sad. Sometimes it really hurts."

I can hear the unspoken question -- why? Why would you choose a job that hurts? She continues. "But the cool thing is, because I'm willing to feel sad when my clients are hurting, I also get to feel happy when they thrive, and I get to feel joy when they heal." In short she tells us, by connecting to and feeling for and with others, you get both sides of the coin -- you open the door to others' pain, but you also let in their joys and triumphs.    

After she leaves, I remember why I'm willing to do a job that involves hearing rape myths and listening to victim blaming, both of which incense and hurt me. I remember that by remaining a feeling person, I face my students' reactions of doubt and shame. I take their denial and their apathy and their fear home with me. Sometimes I feel angry and exhausted. But there are also moments of growth and accomplishment. Sometimes my students come to my office and tell me this class has changed their lives. Some of my students have become amazing advocates for survivors. Others have stood up to rape myths in their fraternities. Many have provided support to a friend after a trauma.

So along with the denial and the fear and the apathy, I also take home their triumphs, their awakenings, and their fierce resistance. I experience the feelings of joy, connection and community that come when we honestly and courageously face problems like sexual violence. Sometimes, to find my bearings, I have to stand in front of my class of 50 and just breathe. I find peace within the chaos and remember why I chose this job. I summon my empathy. I find words to help us feel and heal, together.


Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.