Everyday Victim Blaming

challenging institutional disbelief around domestic & sexual violence and abuse

Let’s hear from the ‘real victims’ – a response to Nick Ross

This has been submitted to us by email by Jane Callaghan, and she kindly gave us permission to reproduce. It comes with a content note as it discusses a personal account of rape.

Let’s hear from the ‘real victims’?
Jane Callaghan

When I was 21 years old, I was pressed onto a bed at a party, and forced to have sex. I had had a little too much to drink. I knew the man.  The attack was painful, I was pushed down, I was slapped. I said no. Repeatedly.  When it was over and he had gone, the zip on my dress was broken, and I had to get home, clutching it together with my hands. I cried. A lot. I bled. I tried to wash it all away. I found it hard to date, for a couple of years afterwards. I found it hard to sleep some nights. I had bad dreams, and I felt scared a lot of the time.
But it took me two years to name what happened to me that night as rape.  Even now, term doesn’t easily slide off my tongue to describe what happened. I’ll say I was ‘attacked’. I was ‘sexually assaulted’. But ‘real rape’… well, that happens between strangers, in dark places, it’s violent, it’s horrible. It’s not what happened to me, right… ?
I know that none of this is really true.  I know that I was raped, and that many women’s experience of rape is very much the same as mine. But the repetition of the kinds of rape myths characterizing the Daily Mail’s reported interview with Nick Ross reinforces a view in the minds of rape survivors, of police, and of society at large that there is a distinction between some kind of ‘real rape’ and ‘the other kind’, a kind that can be dismissed, and seen as less important.

According to The Daily Mail, Nick Ross claims it has become “sacrilege to suggest there can be any gradation: rape is rape” and that “the real experts, the victims, know otherwise”. Laying claim to the voices of survivors, Ross’s argument here is that ‘real victims’ can draw a distinction between ‘real rape’ and the other kind. Extending his argument, the DM reporter quotes Ross as saying “‘Half of all women who have had penetrative sex unwillingly do not think they were raped and this proportion rises strongly when the assault involves a boyfriend, or if the woman is drunk or high on drugs: they led him on, they went too far, it wasn’t forcible, they didn’t make themselves clear. . .  For them, rape isn’t always rape and, however upsetting, they feel it is a long way removed from being systematically violated or snatched off the street.’

What Ross is missing here is the impact of rape myths on women’s own interpretations of rape. When we experience sexual violence, we only have our social knowledges to draw on to make sense of what’s happened to us. Rape myths are damaging to survivors, precisely because they make it hard for  us to name  what has happened to us as rape.  As long as influential figures rehearse the claim that there’s ‘real rape’ and some ‘other kind’, and that in the ‘other kind’ rape victims were at least partly to blame for the attack, these individuals make it harder for us to say “yes, I was raped”. That victims do not easily label date rape as rape doesn’t mean it isn’t rape. It means that our interpretations of the things that happen to us are at least partly shaped by prevailing cultural norms.  As Flood and Pease (2009) point out:

“One of the key reasons why women do not report incidents that meet the legal definition of sexual assault is that many do not fit common stereotypes of real rape—They were not by a stranger, did not take place outside and with a weapon, and did not involve injuries.” (p.127)

We need to make it easier, not harder, for women to recognize rape for what it is, both at the time it occurs, and in the aftermath of the event.  Rape doesn’t only occur, as Ross appears to naively believe to sober women, who are “snatched off the street” or “systematically violated”.

Du Mont, Miller and Mhyr (2003) demonstrated that myths about what constitutes ‘real rape’ had an impact on police officers’ responses to reported rapes, and influences the likelihood of charges being pressed.  Bohner, Siebler and Schmelcher (2006) established that the perception that those around us accept rape myths actually increases male rape proclivity –  in other words, an accepting social climate around rape myths raises the risk that rape (particularly in this case date rape) might occur.  Campbell, Dworkin and Cabal (2009) found that in cultural contexts with high rape myth acceptance, there the mental health of survivors was impacted, as self-blame, associated with prevalent cultural victim blaming atttitudes, affected self-esteem and had consequences for recovery. Rape myths like the ones that Ross and the Daily Mail perpetuate here have real consequences for people in the real world.


Bohner, G. Siebler, F and Schmelcher, J. (2006) Social norms and the likelihood of raping: Perceived rape acceptance of others affects men’s rape proclivity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(3):286-97.

Campbell, R., Dworkin, E. and Cabral, G. (2009) An ecological model of the impact of sexual assault on women’s mental health. Trauma Violence Abuse,  10(3): 225-246

Flood, M. Pease, Bob (2009). "Factors Influencing Attitudes to Violence Against Women". Trauma, Violence, & Abuse 10 (2): 125–142.
Du Mont, J, Miller, K.L and Myhr, T.L. (2003) The Role of "Real Rape" and "Real Victim" Stereotypes in the Police Reporting Practices of Sexually  Assaulted Women, Violence against Women, 9:466.

Petre, J. (2013) Crimewatch creator Nick Ross provokes fury by suggesting that 'not all rape is rape' when victim is drunk or leading men on. Daily Mail, 26 May 2013,  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2330930/Crimewatch-creator-Nick-Ross-provokes-fury-suggesting-rape-rape-victim-drunk-leading-men-on.html#ixzz2UOOb7Ux9

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