FAQs/Myths and Facts

Frequently Asked Questions/Myths and Facts

Relationship Abuse FAQs

1. Isn’t Relationship Abuse a Rare Occurrence?

No. Worldwide, including in the United States, men will commit relationship abuse or sexual assault against at least one in three women.* On average more than three women a day are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends in the United States.** Women and children are more at risk of violence in their homes and relationships, by men they know, than in the street. Domestic violence never shows up in statistics as much as it occurs. *World Health Organization, Global and regional estimates of violence against women: Prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence, (2013);
**Catalano, Shannan. Intimate Partner Violence in the United States. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (2007)
Visit the Futures Without Violence website for more information on the prevalence of domestic violence.top of page

2. Does Relationship Abuse Happen in Same-Gender Relationships?

Relationship abuse occurs at roughly the same rate in same-gender relationships as it does in heterosexual relationships. The elements of abusive relationships are similar for heterosexual and homosexual relationships, and there can be different tactics of control used; for instance, the abusive partner may threaten to out the other partner to family or professors. An individual’s size, strength, politics or personality does not determine whether she or he could be abused or an abuser. In our still largely homophobic society, the threat of “outing” someone who is not ready can be used to isolate and silence a person who is experiencing relationship abuse.For more information, please see our resources on Same Gender & LGBT Relationships.

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3. Does Relationship Abuse Happen to Teens?

Women of all ages are at risk for domestic and sexual violence by a male partner, and those ages 20 to 24 are at the greatest risk of experiencing nonfatal intimate partner violence. One in five U.S. teen girls report ever experiencing physical and/or sexual IPV by a boyfriend. Adapted from Catalano, Shannan. Intimate Partner Violence in the United States. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (2007);Tween and Teen Dating Violence and Abuse Study, Teenage Research Unlimited for Liz Claiborne Inc. and the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline (2008); CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (February 2008); and Silverman et al. (2001).

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4. Isn’t Relationship Abuse Caused by Alcohol?

No. Abuse is a choice. Although alcohol and drugs are often associated with relationship abuse (because so many people drink in general), they do not cause the violence. A lot of people drink and use drugs and most people do not abuse. Not all abusers drink and not all people who drink are abusive. Violence often continues even after an abuser stops drinking. Adapted from Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse. See What Causes Relationship Abuse for more information.

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5. Does Mental Illness Cause Relationship Abuse?

Personality disorders, mental illness, poor impulse control, and generational abuse do not cause relationship abuse. Even in cases where a particular mental illness may cause a person to be abusive (such as Alzheimers), the abuse is not specifically targeted at one person but to everyone around during the episode. However, abusers who are severely depressed or isolated may stop caring about the consequences of their actions. Adapted from Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse.See What Causes Relationship Abuse for more information.

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6. Does Poverty Cause Domestic Violence?

No. Domestic violence occurs in all socioeconomic groups. Many people are poor and most people do not choose to abuse their partners. There are studies that report that there is more abuse in low-income populations and there are studies that report that there is more abuse in higher-income populations. Many statistics are skewed because they come from public agencies, city hospitals, police departments, social service agencies and the courts. Since upper middle class individuals are often less likely to seek services from a public agency, they are not included in these stats. In low income groups, there is often decreased access to resources which can be a barrier to leaving an abusive relationship. In addition, during “hard” economic times, nationally, domestic violence resources are often cut and can impact the likelihood that survivors of any economic class can access safety. Adapted in part from Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse. See What Causes Relationship Abuse for more information.

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7. Don’t Low Self Esteem and Stress Cause Abuse?

Domestic violence is not caused by stress. Many people are stressed and do not choose to abuse. Many people have low self esteem and do not choose to abuse. See What Causes Relationship Abuse for more information.

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8. Doesn’t Abuse Occur Due to Anger Issues or the Perpetrator Losing Control?

Abuse is not about anger management. For example, abusers do not choose to hit their bosses or TAs, no matter how angry they are. Domestic violence is not a result of the perpetrator losing control; The abuse is targeted and controlled—perpetrators choose to be violent only against their intimate partners.See What Causes Relationship Abuse for more information.

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9. How Do We Hold Abusers Accountable?

Holding abusers accountable is important because it sends a message to others that abuse of any kind will not be tolerated in our community.  Unfortunately, there are still many barriers to justice in the criminal justice system, and when professionals do not understand the dynamics of domestic violence, it can make it difficult to adequately identify and prosecute abusers.  In addition, many women cannot rely on the criminal justice system due to institutional barriers, including discrimination or homophobia. Therefore, it is important for us to hold abusers accountable on an individual level as well.  Do not blame the survivor. Teach your children that violence is never the answer to a problem, and that controlling another person is wrong.

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10. Don’t Women Abuse Just as Much as Men Do?

No. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, 95% of relationship abuse is perpetrated by a man against a woman and the remaining 5% is primarily a man against a man or a woman against a woman. However, men can be victims and women can be perpetrators, and domestic violence occurs in same-gender relationships.This is not to minimize, in any way, the experience of men as survivors of relationship abuse, but instead to highlight the fact that this is a type of gender violence. This also does not mean all men are abusive. In the same way that all NFL players are men, but most men aren’t NFL players—most abusers are men, but most men aren’t abusive. Finally, these stats do not include child abuse.* National Crime Victimization Survey: Criminal Victimization, 2007. 2008. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Bureau of Justice Statistics Selected Findings: Violence Between Inmates (NCJ-149259), November 1994; A Report of the Violence Against Women Research Strategic Planning Workshop sponsored by the National Institute of Justice in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1995.
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11. But What About Those Studies That Show Women Are Just as Violent as Men?

These studies use a research tool called the “Conflict Tactics Scale,” which does not control for the context in which the violence occurred, such as use of force in self-defense or retaliation. So, for example, if a man is strangling a woman and she scratches him to get him to stop, they each get “one point” on the conflict tactics scale for use of violence! Even more significantly, if a woman has been abused by a man for years, he pushes her into the wall, and she picks up a knife, brandishes it and says “get away from me,” she will get two points and he will get one. This is the substance of studies that found women are more violent than or as violent as men. Furthermore, other studies consistently find that no matter what the rate of violence or who initiates the violence, women are 7 to 10 times more likely to be injured in acts of intimate partner violence than men are. Adapted from Susan McGee, Minerva, Inc. For more information, please see A Critique of the Conflict Tactics Scale (PDF).

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12. So, is Mutual Abuse a Myth?

There is almost always a dominant aggressor; someone whose actions are part of a larger pattern of abusive behavior. The dominant aggressor is “the person determined to be the most significant, rather than the first aggressor.” Studies that say abuse is mutual are based on inaccurate tools such as CTS or surveys that failed to control for context. The myth of mutual abuse contributes to wrongful arrests due to improper investigation and contributes to a cyclical misunderstanding of the existence of mutual abuse. In addition, the myth of mutual abuse is dangerous for victims who may have used self-defense because it colludes with the perpetrator who tells the victim that it is the victim’s fault. Please see What is Wrong With Mutual Orders of Protection and Some Thoughts on the Myth of Mutual Abuse.

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13. Isn’t Most Violence Against Women Committed by Strangers?

No.  Most violence against women is committed by a current or former partner.   76% of women who report having been physically assaulted or raped were victimized by a current or former husband, cohabiting partner, or date. Only 14% of physical assaults against women are committed by strangers.*

*Patricia Tjaden & Nancy Thoennes. Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey, 1998. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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14. Why Don’t Women in Abusive Relationships Just Leave Their Partners?

Many people ask “Why doesn’t the victim leave? Why does the victim stay?” as if it is that simple. It is important to understand that there are many barriers to safety in an abusive relationship. The better question is “Why does the abuser do this and how can I help the survivor gain access to safety?” There are many factors an abused partner must consider in the analysis of how to respond to an abusive partner.The reality is that the most dangerous time for a survivor/victim is when she leaves the abusive partner; 75% of domestic violence related homicides occur upon separation and there is a 75% increase of violence upon separation for at least two years. These concerns are very real and must be addressed with safety planning.

Please see Barriers to Leaving for more information.

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15. What About Culture?

All cultures have both traditions of resistance to relationship abuse as well as forms of acceptance of it.  Culture cannot excuse relationship abuse—though abusers may use “culture” as a way to justify their choice to abuse. Abuse is not inherent or natural to any culture or group — it is always a choice, and focusing on culture takes the focus away from accountability.  Unfortunately, relationship abuse is prevalent in all cultures.  Across the world, different cultures may have different responses to domestic violence, and some may hold abusers more accountable than others. Perpetrators need to be held accountable in every culture and with equality (e.g. not disproportionately jailing African American men in the United States). Culture is ultimately defined by the individual, so ask a survivor about her definition of her culture before making any assumptions and recognize that every individual has the right to live a life free from violence and abuse.

See What Causes Relationship Abuse for more information.

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16. Won’t Therapy for the Abuser Stop the Violence?

Referral of a batterer to a Batterer Intervention Program (BIP) or therapy often provides victims with a false sense of security. Couples counseling is dangerous and should not be utilized. BIPs, rather than individual therapy, should be the only referral, but there is not conclusive evidence that BIPs are effective in ending violence and abuse. Research indicates that only a small number of batterers who complete BIPs are committed to a violence free life. Stats show non completion rates of up to 89% in some counties and the people who drop out are the most likely to re-offend.* There is a lack of consequences for noncompliant perpetrators who may be re-enrolled in another program. The effectiveness of BIPs is often measured by victim reports (via telephone rendering it potentially unsafe to disclose) and re-arrest (which does not accurately represent re-offense). Individual therapy for batterers may be useful for other issues, but it can be dangerous as a method to address domestic violence. If the accused or convicted individual is the therapist’s only source of information about their domestic violence, the therapist’s information is at best, faulty, and at worst an ongoing danger to the victim.* Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse.

See Why Individual Therapy for Batterers is Problematic

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17. Why Is Couple’s Counseling Dangerous?

Couples counseling is contraindicated in cases of relationship abuse.From Confronting the Batterer, written by Phyllis B. Frank, MA, and Beverly D. Houghton, PhD: “Couple counseling is beneficial to work on relationship problems. Abusing a partner, however, is a violent criminal act, not a relationship problem. It is illegal. It is a behavior that is solely the responsibility of the violent person, is chosen by him, and he alone is capable of changing it. This is true regardless of the alleged provocation, since the behavior of one family member cannot compel another family member to be violent…Treating a couple together…could:

  • Endanger the battered woman who may face violence or threats of violence for revealing information during therapy which is disapproved by her partner;
  • Lend credence to the common misunderstanding that abused women are responsible for the violence inflicted upon them;
  • Ignore the denial, minimization and deception about the violence that occurs when the focus of counseling is on the couple’s interaction.
  • Indicate that the therapist condones violence or that violence is acceptable or not important;
  • Increase the abused woman’s sense of isolation, as she may prevaricate about the violence of fear to speak, even in therapy.
  • Imply that the abused woman has responsibility for seeing that the batterer gets help. Therapists need to be particularly wary of the manipulation inherent in a batterer’s refusal of anything other than couple treatment.

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18. Do All Boys Who Witness Domestic Violence Grow Up to Be Batterers?

Studies have found that between 10% -30% of male child witnesses choose to become batterers as adults. The remaining 70%-90% do not become batterers. Witnessing domestic violence does not mean that a child will become abusive as an adult; it is still a choice and many child witnesses are actively against abuse.

For more information, please visit Children and Relationship Abuse.
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19. Isn’t Domestic Violence Often a One Time, Isolated Occurrence?

Physical violence is only one of the tactics used to control another person and is usually part of a larger pattern of control that includes the repeated use of a number of tactics including threats, intimidation, isolation, economic and financial control, psychological and sexual abuse. Abuse escalates over time and often physical violence is used when perpetrators feel they have lost control of their partner.

*Safe Place, ending sexual assault & domestic violence (n.d.).

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20. Don’t Battered Women Provoke the Abuse? Explain the Myth of Masochism.

Victim provocation is no more common in domestic violence than in any other crime. Abusers make a choice to abuse; an abuser can always make a choice to break up with the person or walk away or talk it out rather than use abuse. There are no studies that show women like being abused. Battered women often make repeated attempts to leave violent relationships, but are prevented from doing so by increased violence and control tactics on the part of the abuser. 75% of domestic violence-related deaths occur after a victim takes steps to separate from the abuser. Therefore, staying in a relationship is often a survivor strategy.

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21. Why Does Language Framing Matter?

The way we discuss relationship abuse and sexual assault is directly tied to our ability to end it. As an example, look at this situation (also outlined in Avoiding Victim Blaming). Let’s say that John and Mary are in a relationship and John chooses to act abusively. If we say “Mary was beaten,” it makes us focus on Mary and her actions, when we should be thinking about John and his decision to abuse. “John beat Mary” is more effective because it draws attention to John, who has perpetrated the act, and forces us to think about the root of the problem. When we say “violence against women” we continue to try to figure out what is wrong with the women. When we say “men’s violence against women or violence committed by someone in same gender relationships” we start to look at specifically what has the perpetrator done to the woman. Gender-based violence encapsulates both, but important to note that this means we are being gender inclusive, rather than gender neutral (which is important in service provision, but should be avoided in a discussion about gender based violence). This sort of reframing is important when it comes to statistics about relationship abuse and sexual assault. Most of the statistics are framed like this:

“Worldwide, including in the United States, at least 1 in 3 women will experience relationship abuse or sexual assault in her lifetime.” (World Health Organization, 2013)When they should be reframed to look like this: “Worldwide, including in the United States, a man will commit relationship abuse or sexual assault against at least 1 in 3 women.” (World Health Organization, 2013)

Here are some more examples of how to reframe the World Health Organization statistics so that we focus on who is committing the violence:

  • Men will hurt 1 in 3 women in a relationship
  • Men will rape 1 in 4 women and 1 in 33 men
  • A man or woman will hurt his/her partner in 1 in 4 same-gender relationships

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Sexual Assault FAQs

1. What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault is an unwanted or forced sexual act committed without consent. It can occur either against a person’s will, by force or coercion, or when a person is incapable of giving consent, such as when they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Force includes actual physical aggression, threats of physical aggression, emotional coercion, and/or psychological blackmailing.
Under federal and state law, sexual assault includes, but is not limited to: rape, forcible sodomy, forcible oral copulation, sexual assault with an object, sexual battery, forcible fondling (e.g., unwanted touching or kissing), and threat of sexual assault.top of page

2. What is the difference between regretted sex and sexual assault?

Regretted sex is when two individuals consent to sexual intimacy, but one or both people experience regret or feel guilty afterwards. Though they may regret that encounter, they do not feel like they did not have a choice. In contrast to regretted sex, sexual assault is about one person taking control and proceeding without consent.

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3. Why isn’t rape considered an act of uncontrollable sexual desire?

Rape is an act of dominance, hostility, control and violence. Rape is a means by which one person uses their power to violate another person. A rapist is in complete control and can stop at any time if he wanted to stop. To claim that men can become so consumed by a sexual desire that they cannot help raping someone is an insult to men and their sexual agency.

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4. What constitutes consent?

“A person consents if s/he agrees by choice and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice.” Sexual Offenses Act, section 74.

  • In the absence of mutually understandable words or actions, it is the responsibility of the initiator, or the person who wants to engage in the specific sexual activity to make sure that he or she has consent from the partner.
  • Silence (or lack of resistance) does not equal consent.
  • Consent to some form of sexual activity does not necessarily imply consent to other forms of sexual activity. Mutually understandable consent must be obtained by the initiator at every stage of sexual interaction.
  • Kissing someone or going back to their room is not “implicit consent”.
  • Consent which is obtained through the use of fraud or force, whether that is physical force, threats, intimidation, or coercion, is ineffective consent.
  • Consent cannot be implied by attire, or inferred from the spending of money on a date.
  • If person was incapacitated, and initiator should have reasonably known of the incapacity, indications of consent are irrelevant.

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5. What Is Affirmative Consent?

According to California State Law, Section 67386 of the Education Code, affirmative consent is defined as the following:

  1. An affirmative consent standard in the determination of whether consent was given by both parties to sexual activity. “Affirmative consent” means affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. It is the responsibility of each person involved in the sexual activity to ensure that he or she has the affirmative consent of the other or others to engage in the sexual activity. Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time. The existence of a dating relationship between the persons involved, or the fact of past sexual relations between them, should never by itself be assumed to be an indicator of consent.
  2. A policy that, in the evaluation of complaints in any disciplinary process, it shall not be a valid excuse to alleged lack of affirmative consent that the accused believed that the complainant consented to the sexual activity under either of the following circumstances:
    • The accused’s belief in affirmative consent arose from the intoxication or recklessness of the accused.
    • The accused did not take reasonable steps, in the circumstances known to the accused at the time, to ascertain whether the complainant affirmatively consented.
  3. A policy that the standard used in determining whether the elements of the complaint against the accused have been demonstrated is the preponderance of the evidence.
  4. A policy that, in the evaluation of complaints in the disciplinary process, it shall not be a valid excuse that the accused believed that the complainant affirmatively consented to the sexual activity if the accused knew or reasonably should have known that the complainant was unable to consent to the sexual activity under any of the following circumstances:
    • The complainant was asleep or unconscious.
    • The complainant was incapacitated due to the influence of drugs, alcohol, or medication, so that the complainant could not understand the fact, nature, or extent of the sexual activity.
    • The complainant was unable to communicate due to a mental or physical condition.

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6. Okay, but how do I get affirmative consent?

We have gotten this question from some freaked out dudes. When it comes down to it, consensual sex consists of the mutual and sustained enjoyment for both people involved. This is obvious. In order to achieve this, open communication is key. Checking in with your partner does not have to ruin the mood; Asking questions such as “Are you cool with this?,” “Are you enjoying this?” or “Is this still okay?” can actually improve the sexual experience for both of you, rather than making it awkward. Read nonverbal cues as well and remember that if there is any question about whether someone is enjoying themselves, then the logical choice is to stop because if the enjoyment is not mutual, there is no reason to proceed.

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7. Why do we focus on women as victims and men as perpetrators?

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, nearly 99% of sexual assault offenders in single-victim incidents were male. An estimated 91% of the victims of rape and sexual assault are female and 9% are male. We focus on the gendered nature of this crime.
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8. Does rape affect men?

Both men and boys are victims of rape. In addition, any man who knows someone who has been raped may be deeply affected. Many men are part of ending violence against women and the gender hierarchy that influences these crimes.

See Guys Getting Involved for more information

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9. Does this affect college students?

A 2006 college survey indicated that 1 in 4 women have been victims of rape or attempted rape. (2006 CALCASA Report).

More than half of college rapes involved a date. Eighty-six percent of these rapes occurred in off-campus housing or in a car. (Rape on Campus: Facts and Measures)

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10. Why do survivors sometimes change their story?

Many victims of sexual assault will experience Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS). As the victim works through the stages of RTS, denial and memory loss are often experienced, followed by flashbacks and slowly coming to terms with the trauma of the event. During this process, victims may not be able to remember specifics or order of details. The amount that they remember will change over time.

Survivors may also face social pressures to change their stories. The survivor may be afraid of the attacker, especially in cases where sexual assault is linked to relationship abuse, and change the story once the assailant finds out charges have been filed. The survivor may also be pressured by family, friends, or other community members to change her story.

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11. Why doesn’t she report?

There are many barriers to reporting. Consider the ways reports of sexual assault are usually handled in the media, in communities, and in the criminal justice system. Often, the victim’s sexuality and sexual history are questioned along with her clothing, drinking choices, and behaviors. Victims are often scrutinized just as harshly, if not more harshly, than the perpetrators. This process is re-victimizing and does not make reporting an appealing option. Based on societal reactions, and low prosecution rates, victims may think that no one will believe them if they come forward. In many cases, women may not recognize what they experienced as a crime because of the proliferation of sexualized violence in the media. Victims may also deny or minimize what happened to them as a coping mechanism. There are also substantial physical barriers to reporting. Women may not have the time, money, knowledge, support system, or language capacity needed to access the reporting process.

In one study, the following explanations were found as to why no report was made after a sexual assault:

    • 43% thought nothing could be done
    • 27% thought it was a private matter
    • 12% were afraid of police response

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12. How can I help a friend/respond to survivors?

13. What can I do right now?

  • Learn about sexual assault and its impact on society.
  • Speak out against sexual assault and sexual violence – including language that degrades women or makes a joke out of sexual assault.
  • Change the conversation – move from victim-blaming dialogue to offender accountability when you hear sexual assault discussed.
  • Support agencies that are a resource for survivors.

For more tips, see Tell Us How You Take Action.
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14. Is it true that false accusations are not common?

Yes, it is true that they are not common. This fear of false accusations is common, but unfounded. Only 2% of all rape accusations are false, which is the same percentage as for any other felony. These accusations are often interrupted very early in the process and do not go to trial. However, people are not worried about being falsely accused of stealing a car in the same way that they are worried about a false accusation of rape. Some of these fears stem from misconceptions about what happens when a woman reports a rape. In Macho Paradox, Jackson Katz (2005) points out that between 80-90% of rapes go unreported, due to how traumatic and victimizing the process can be. Rape kits are invasive and painful; survivors are often subject to their own sex lives being put on display and their reputations destroyed; and many people do not believe survivors when they come forward. Katz asks “if these disincentives are powerful enough to keep the vast majority of actual from reporting the crime, how realistic is it to believe large numbers of women are falsely doing so…invit[ing] the heartache and social stigma?” (218). We would add that if a woman regrets sex, she doesn’t call the police to feel better about it and if she wants revenge, there are less socially damaging ways for a woman to do this. We all see the media and we know what happens to the women when she has the courage to report. On top of this, prosecution rates are very low for sexual assault (only 2%) and college campuses generally do not hold perpetrators accountable, so survivors who choose to come forward rarely receive justice. This fear of false rape accusations stems from an inability to see oneself, a friend, or a loved one as being capable of perpetrating such assault or abuse; it is easier to blame the victim. However, when you ask most men whether they are afraid of being falsely accused, they say no, because most men know how to obtain consent and are not afraid of “accidentally” committing sexual assault.
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