The myths that help rape to flourish

WITH barely a sound, the glossy black leaflet slid through the letter-box of my home in Aberdeen, North-east Scotland.

I was around 13 or 14 years old at the time, but I still remember the phrase printed on it in bold white type.

It said: Zero tolerance.

As I read on, I found a list debunking the common myths about rape. Clear arguments were used to dismantle common misconceptions about sexual violence, such as victims sometimes "ask for it" and that men who are aroused "cannot help themselves".

More than 15 years on, the powerful message contained in that leaflet by a Scottish anti-violence charity has remained with me.

And it is now more relevant than ever following last month's horrifying gang rape and murder of an Indian student on a bus in Delhi and the report by British police last Friday that detailed the decades of abuse perpetrated by the late BBC TV presenter Jimmy Savile.

In both cases, victims have been blamed and excuses made for the behaviour of the perpetrators. A popular spiritual guru said the 23-year-old Indian rape victim, who was so badly assaulted with a iron rod that she died from horrific internal injuries, could have saved herself if she had begged for mercy and called her attackers "brothers". 

 In Britain, Savile used his position as a well loved television personality to silence hundreds of victims. One woman told British media that when she complained about the abuse as a schoolgirl she was told “Oh,that’s just Jimmy, that’s his way.”

I was born in Bangladesh but have lived in England, Scotland, Canada and now Singapore. It is clear that rape is a problem in every society and decent people everywhere want it to end. Yet this will require more then simply tougher laws to deal with sex offenders.

Hard-hitting public awareness campaigns, like the one that made such an impression on me, are also needed to help change mindsets.

They can do this by challenging and dismantling a number of powerful myths that help to prop up a "rape culture" which shames victims into silence and even excuses the attacker's actions.

"Women who are sexually assaulted 'ask for it', in the way they dress or act." This particularly toxic myth surfaces time and again. In reality, women from all walks of life fall victim to sexual abuse. The horrific newspaper reports are there for all to see.

In 2011, a serial rapist in Britain was convicted of raping several elderly women over a 17 year period, including a “housebound and immobile” 81-year-old.

Female demonstrators wearing the hijab have been sexually assaulted during protests in Egypt's Tahrir square, according to testimonies in Forbes magazine.

There is no "ideal" way that women can behave to make themselves immune to sexual violence. Instead, society needs to banish a mentality where the knee-jerk reaction to sex crimes is to blame the victim. The onus should be put on men not to rape.

This sentiment has been echoed loudly by the Indian women protesting in the wake of the Delhi gang-rape. Many of them clutched placards saying "Don't tell me how to dress, tell your sons not to rape".

“There is no other crime in which so much effort is expended to make the victim appear responsible,” says the Rape Crisis England and Wales website. “Imagine the character or financial background of a robbery victim being questioned in court.”

Of course, I believe men, women and children should be informed of simple precautions that could reduce their vulnerability to attack. For example, Scottish police have run advertising campaigns to warn Christmas party-goers against accepting rides from unlicensed cabs.

But this does not mean that if an attack does occur, the victim should shoulder any kind of blame. As in any other crime, the fault lies solely with the criminal.

Another common misconception is that rape is “a crime of passion” and the consequence of uncontrollable lust. It suggests that once men are aroused they can't help themselves.

Not only does this myth demean men by portraying them as mindless creatures, it ignores several studies that show the majority of rapes are premeditated.

Evidence from rapists themselves suggests that most of them are planned, Chief Crown Prosecutor for London Alison Saunders said in a speech last year. Rape is about power not sexual gratification. It is often about asserting control over the victim. The men accused of the Delhi attack had planned to find a victim to rape and kill, according to a police report seen by the Reuters news agency.

Savile deliberately sought out vulnerable young people in children's homes, hospitals or at the BBC studios. These were not spur of the moment attacks but cold, carefully-planned crimes.

Perhaps the most staggering fact about rape is that in most attacks - 83 per cent, according to a 2007 British study - the assailant is someone the victim knows. This blows apart the myth that rapists tend to be strangers lurking in dark alleyways.

Although these sorts of attacks do occur, the reality is that the majority of sex abusers fall into the category of relative, partner, ex-partner, colleague, teacher or acquaintance.

The fact that a lot of sexual violence occurs "behind closed doors" makes it even harder for victims to come forward. This is why better policing is only part of the solution. If we want to make women and girls safer, wide-scale public education about the reality of rape is also needed.

Only then can we cultivate an environment of zero tolerance towards this most misunderstood of crimes.