In an essay excerpted in Vanity Fair from her new memoir, “Making a Scene,” Crazy Rich Asians star Constance Wu recounts being raped in her twenties by a date who used no weapon, no physical force or threats, and inflicted no physical injury. She writes “[m]aybe it wasn’t violent, but it was rape.” Wu explains why she didn’t fight back, report the incident to anyone at the time, and why it wasn’t until more than ten years later that she was able to recognize her experience for what it was, rape, and not just a sexual encounter where the man “didn’t listen.”
The erroneous stereotypes about what rape is and how victims should respond are powerful. They affect survivors’ views of themselves, society’s understanding of “real” rape, and the law enforcement and justice systems. As part of its Understanding Sexual Violence curriculum the National Judicial Education Program (a project of Legal Momentum), sent judges around the country a one-question survey: “What do you wish you had known before you presided in an adult victim sexual assault case?” The judges’ candid responses demonstrated a lack of awareness surrounding rape and survivors’ responses to it, even among those we ask to sit in judgement. Their answers included not knowing that few rapes are ever reported; that the vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows; that non-stranger rapists do not need to use a weapon or inflict injuries, and that traumatic memories are developed, stored and retrieved differently than nontraumatic memories.
When the public doesn’t understand the full spectrum of what constitutes rape, or the reasons why survivors might respond in ways inconsistent with society’s stereotypical expectations about how rape victims should react — like not physically resisting during an attack — we allow rape culture to be further perpetuated. As Wu writes, “I wonder if our culture tends to sympathize with accused men because their bafflement is often so genuine. When men don’t listen well, they might mistake the ways a woman covers her fear (giggles, silence) for consent.” It’s time to expand our public consciousness around rape and consent so that we can call this predatory behavior out by its name.
For further reading, our Judges Tell: What I Wish I Had Known Before I Presided in an Adult Victim Sexual Assault Case resource.