When we discuss the issue of rape, the language we use takes on an elevated significance. When rape is used in gendered terms, many are quick to point out, quite correctly, that boys and men are also victims of rape. When it comes to rape jokes, we call out offensive elements, and when it comes to preventative measures, many point out that phrases such as ‘don’t get raped’ puts the onus of violent assault on the victim. Yet when it comes to referring to certain sexual assaults as ‘myths,’ we’ve seemingly turned a blind eye.
The ‘myth’ of stranger rape is all over the internet. While it’s true that the vast majority (more than 90 percent) of rapes are committed by someone the victim already knows, there is still a sizeable portion of rape victims (10 percent) that are being outright ignored or insultingly dismissed. The understandable push to bring attention to acquaintance rape makes sense, as historically it has been widely overlooked. But in promoting this cause, we are unfortunately erasing an entire group of rape survivors.
The numbers in those who suffer stranger-rapes are still appallingly high. Even if just 10 percent are victims of this crime, globally it still adds up to more than 100,000 victims each year.
A quick Google search of the phrase ‘Stranger Rape Support’ should bring up resources available for survivors of stranger rape. What was the first actual result? A page entitled Stranger Rape Myth. The second included a brief guide from a university that spends a few sentences on the unlikely act of stranger rape, before giving advice to women on what to do if an acquaintance rapes them. The third result is titled ‘Common Myths.’
Other results that follow include ‘Coping with Acquaintance Rape’, a link of basic statistics from RAINN, an academic paper comparing stranger vs. acquaintance rape, and another acquaintance rape site. Near the bottom of the page was one website focused on generalized feelings of women who have suffered rape.
If you had just suffered a stranger-rape, what message would you take away from this?
Well meaning resources often minimize or outright dismiss the idea of stranger rape. The Cambridge Rape Crisis Center states on a page called ‘Myths and Facts’ that stranger rape is actually a complete myth, even though by their own estimates, almost 7,000 women each year in the UK suffer stranger rape.
Another website dedicated to Rape Crisis helpfully points out that that “only 9% of women are raped by ‘strangers’”. Why is the word stranger in put in scare-quotes? To denote irony? Incredulity? Imagine that sentence if instead it read: “only 9% of women are ‘raped’ by strangers.”
In the United States alone, it’s estimated that 300,000 women are raped each year. That’s 30,000 women who have suffered stranger-rape according to those same statistics. If we are framing the conversation around the premise that such victims don’t exist, matter, or warrant significant support, then we are absolutely doing it wrong.
In my search to find resources for stranger rape I typed a myriad of different phrases into the search engine. ‘Healing for Stranger-Rape’, ‘Stranger-Rape Happens’, ‘Help with Stranger-Rape’, and plenty of websites dealing with marital rape, acquaintance rape and date rape popped up immediately. It wasn’t until I typed in ‘Stranger-Rape Resources’ that one website, just one, Take Back the Night, provided a list of handbooks and resources for those who have suffered an attack by a stranger.
Providing help and support for rape victims is not a zero sum game. While it makes sense that the vast majority of websites would dedicate themselves to providing help to those that suffer the majority of attacks, it doesn’t make sense to exclude, or outright dismiss those suffered by thousands of women.
Speaking with one woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, she recounts her ordeal with stranger rape. “I was strangled and raped by two men, both of whom were complete strangers. They jumped out of the darkness and attacked me on the roadside, and then ran away. After I was raped, I was referred to my local rape crisis center for counselling. Very quickly I came to understand that they were not equipped to deal with what happened to me; all of the leaflets and posters were aimed at women who had been victim of acquaintance rape, whether it was inter-family abuse, acquaintance date rape, inter-marital rape or otherwise. I turned to the internet to search for any kind of service, whether it be an online message board, support group, helpline, or counselor who specializes in violent stranger rape. I felt stifled and angry when all I could find were articles and statistics and pages of information telling me that what I had experienced was a myth. It may be less common, but stranger rape — that stuff of people’s nightmares — it does happen to some people. Rape charities really should be making some effort to cater to the needs of these people too.”
We have a choice; we can either support every victim of rape and sexual assault, or pick and choose who deserves our resources and time. Thousands will be raped by a stranger this year, and not only do they need resources available to them, they deserve to have their situation framed in other terms than a myth.
Language counts, and it’s time that as a culture, we start considering and redefining the way our terminology erases victims.