Sixteen rape myths

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By Bolshie Elane

It is an uncomfortable fact that sexual harassment and violence take place within trade unions, the Labour Party and within left parties. In a depressing catalogue in recent years Labour counsellors have been jailed for rape; an employment tribunal for sexual harassment was taken against the general secretary of NAPO and accusations made against the deputy general secretary of the RMT and the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party has been accused of covering up sexual harassment, assault and rape by leading members.

The rape & sexual harassment allegations in the SWP centred on how allegations against a member of the Central Committee were dealt with. The arguments have been bitter because everyone who joins the SWP is determined to make a world without exploitation and oppression and all sides in the dispute want to see women’s liberation. I left the SWP because of this in the autumn of 2010. I could not reconcile the socialist politics I learned in the SWP, with what was happening around me in response to the CC being made aware that a young woman was distraught that sexual harassment she had first asked for help to stop in 2009 had begun again.

Since that day I have been trying to understand what has gone wrong and why such good socialists should turn out to be such difficult human beings devoid of solidarity or understanding, who could slander the complaints (yes there are more than one) with such callous disregard or who could simply say, “I am not interested in that stuff—the important thing is to fight this government who are wrecking women’s lives”[1].

I don’t think that this began as a conspiracy of cover-up in the SWP –although I feel that there is one now that the issue is doing ongoing damage and other stories are beginning to emerge. I certainly do not think that ”Leninism-leads-to-rape” as many to the right of the SWP  like to portray-although the apologists have done their best to prove me wrong on that by arguing this is about Leninism and not rape and sexual harassment.

The issue is truly that my comrades are not able to recognise sexual harassment hiding in plain sight because they accept some rape myths. They therefore handle the cases badly and in answer to criticism claim that trying to stop problems of oppressive behaviour between comrades is an attack on Leninism or a political deviation. In doing so, they unwittingly peddle rape myths.

A rape myth is an inaccurate belief about rape. Widespread acceptance of rape myths is connected to the very low level of convictions for rape by influencing the low level of reporting by women, the way police &  courts respond and how cases are judged by jurors[2]. There are several types of rape myths that feed into the big myth that women often make false reports. Categories of myths include those relating to why rapists rape; relating to what a someone who is raped wears/acts like; relating to when a rape is reported; related to how someone who has been raped acts/appears in the aftermath and more.

It seems from the literature that people often subscribe to different kinds of myth. We should keep that in mind for trying to understand why sections of the working class movement as a whole, or individuals within it, can rightly and angrily rail against some rape myths and then fall for others—even to the extent of giving a man accused by a young woman a foot stomping standing ovation when he trots out cliché after cliché about the accusations that angry women make after consensual relations go wrong.

Unsurprisingly, research shows that those who hold prejudicial views towards women, other races, gay people etc are especially prone to believing rape myths[3].  That rape mythology should be prevalent amongst bigots fits with our understanding of the world. But being on the left does not make us immune to rape myths and interestingly, the research also finds that older people are more likely to accept myths about rape than younger people[4]

It is my firm conviction, knowing so many of the SWP members who so brutally messed up the W case and it seems at least one more complaint since, would never consciously trample the rights or well-being of women into the dust in the way that they have done. But the ignorance on the issue of rape is harmful. Nothing at all that is helpful to the cause of women’s liberation or socialism has resulted from the three years of horrible rows within the SWP, the trade union cases or that in the Socialist Party. Who has learned anything about how to challenge within ourselves the bits of dominant sexist ideas about sex and sexuality that we have internalised?

In trying to debunk the rape myths, I am concentrating on what I know. My writing this in no way suggests that I think the SWP is worse than other organisations, it is just that I don’t have knowledge of what went on in response to the charges against people in other parties or at the top of unions.

The SWP was my organisation for 30 years and I am proud of the politics of solidarity and resistance I learned in it.  My belief is that a small band of friends of the accused have systematically spread rape myths—each one that I address is one I have heard personally since 2010.

MYTH ONE: Sexual history with the accused or others is in some way relevant

The myth that these things have anything at all to do with a rape is widespread and pernicious—having a vile history of being raised to abuse women in the courts and create the idea that a woman’s relationship history is in some way connected to the defence case. Believing this myth has an effect on coming to a verdict of who is believed among the general public[5].

The truth: sexual history is no indicator of anything. Having had sex a hundred times before with someone is not permission for sex at any time you don’t want to. Starting foreplay is not an excuse for rape. Since most accusations of rape come down to the question of whose word is believed as there is most often no physical proof or confession.  Research shows that in making that decision, jurors, rely on their general assumptions about situations.  That the panel asked any questions at all of W shows a lack of understanding of what issues are relevant to investigating the actual incident of rape.

The danger: bias is an unconscious process. Revolutionary socialists committed to women’s liberation don’t live in the future but in this world of alienation and oppression and are weighed down by the “muck of ages”. The panel investigating the W case were sure that they were not biased. However, that the panel were thinking about previous behaviours and relationships in relation to assessing the reliability of W as a witness indicates some bias towards rape myths.

MYTH TWO: She didn’t complain at the time…

One of the commonest rape myths is that a failure to complain at the time means there is something dodgy about the complaint. “She changed her mind afterwards” is a widespread myth related to the sometimes years long gap before a complaint is made of rape, sexual assault or sexual harassment.

I have lost count of the times that “But why now? Why didn’t she say anything at the time?” was thrown at me when I spoke privately to longstanding members about the W case in 2010. The question was often anguished but always rhetorical and answered immediately by the questioner themselves. Occasionally, very angry people would answer by saying “she was angry with him for ending the relationship” but most often the question was followed by speculation that demoralisation about politics was in some way related and had caused a political confusion about sexism and sexual harassment.

Very senior SWP women on a number of occasions told me that the reason why I was speaking of my own very disturbing experience of sexual harassment at the  time in 2010 that I found out about W was that I was feeling demoralised because I was being victimised at work for my militant trade union activities.  In the case of X (the young woman who gave evidence of being sexually harassed herself to support the claims of W) the argument went that late reporting was a clear sign of making a malicious allegation and this was evidenced in the minds of those repeating the myth because she was seen as being in no way vulnerable and therefore would have spoken up at the time.

The Truth:  Most sexual harassment and rape are never reported.  In rapes that are reported many are reported long after the event-and for a variety of reasons. Women often believe rape myths and are influenced by them and confused about what they feel; they may be in shock for some time or they may decide to come forward when others do.

The length of a gap before reporting rape or SH is not related to whether or not it is true. This is why section 120(7)(d) Criminal Justice Act which had required reporting sexual violence, “as soon as could reasonably be expected after the alleged conduct” was abolished in 2003 after a struggle by anti-rape campaigners to debunk the myth oft cited by defendants. I reported being sexually harassed at the time it happened. Nothing was done and I , having internalised myths myself, was made to feel stupid, I never spoke about it again until in 2010 when I realised what happened to me was not an isolated incident. But I did spend nearly 30 years being on edge whenever I saw the harasser.

The damage: every person who felt that delay in bringing the complaint was an issue in the W and X cases was prejudiced towards dismissing the claims of the young women and unable to properly consider the issues involved.

MYTH THREE: “but they were having an affair”

The phrase, “it was an affair gone wrong,” has echoed in my ears for three long years in regard to the W case.  The myth that prior consent in some way negates the assault or lessens the damage is of course what Socialist Worker along with the rest of the left, rightly took George Galloway to task for. However, people I have always respected have repeated this to me earnestly as an explanation for why there was no assault, sometimes adding the opinion that this was an unhappy vengeful young woman.

One person even explained to me carefully that, “it often happens that one of the people in a relationship don’t feel like having sex but decides they will because their partner really really wants to… I understand that is what happened in this case and then she later felt bad that she had given in and said yes.”   This is a version of the rape is just sex in the wrong time/wrong place myth.

The truth:  Having an affair is irrelevant. Prior consent is not consent at the time.  Most rapes take place within a relationship of some kind. Studies vary but date rape is sometimes put as high as 57%. Many rapes take place in marriage and we, the women’s movement and left, fought long and hard make that a crime.

Making someone have sex that didn’t want to have sex is rape-whether violence or not force is used, which it often is in subtle ways as it happens[6].  Research shows that verbal and physical clues are often expected by men especially where sex has previously taken place between them while the young women themselves think a verbal no is sufficient to be understood[7].

The damage of this myth: every person who accepted that the prior relationship had some relevance to the complaint of rape was prejudiced against the complainant and unable to judge properly if it had been properly handled

MYTH FOUR: “but she is in the opposition and is just making mischief

This has been said about X on many occasions to me directly and to others who have reported it to me.  Recent research argues that prejudice about women based on their behaviour, attitudes, dress etc is extremely harmful and biases juries[8].  It appears that for some in the SWP the same is true of political positions.

The truth: it wouldn’t make any difference if X were a Tory. Sexual harassment is wrong.

The damage: treating women members as sex objects hampers the development of the party, puts women off being members, brings the party into disrepute and amounts to wallowing around in the muck of ages crying moralist at anyone who complains.

MYTH FIVE: “Some women make it up”

That large numbers of women make up allegations is a common myth. A recent study found that 40.2% of the 3,210 participants thought accusations of rape were often false.  That W and X both made up complaints and put false accusations is something I have heard over and again. I have had people openly tell me, “I know nothing serious happened”; “some women do make it up you know” and “she had reasons to want to attack him”.

The truth: the highest estimates of false reports are 8%, but the generally accepted figure is that false reports are around the same as for other offences i.e. 4%. A recent report by the Crown Prosecution Service says that it could be as low as 1%[9]-significantly lower than other offences.  There is no reason to believe that the young women reporting sexual harassment (X) or rape (W) are lying. In the case of W she made no allegations to take revenge—she initially in 2010 simply disappeared from spaces where the man she later accused might be and became very upset, leading other women to approach the CC in concern when they found out why. The man accused admitted continuing to send texts when it was made clear she didn’t want contact. There can be no justification for claiming W was acting in revenge, or lying.

The damage:  Responding to a complaint of rape by saying, “some women make it up” makes clear that there bias against the complainant—and therefore bias towards the word of the man. This bias is illogical since in at least 92% of cases, and maybe in 99%, the report is not false.  The belief that false reporting of rape takes place is dangerous. Estimates are that about 85% of rapes go unreported Fear of being disbelieved is the reason most commonly given for the vast underreporting.

MYTH SIX: One woman’s rape is another’s  bad night/it’s a matter of interpretation

Myths about rape are held by women as much as men. A recent survey showed that 1 in 3 women believed that there are varying degrees of rape[10]  and that if a woman hadn’t clearly said no, then it was not rape.

The finding of the SWP disputes committee that the complainant was sincere, i.e. it is not doubted that she was genuinely unhappy with the sexual acts that took place but the accused had not done anything wrong appears to be based on the rape myths about reinterpretation/misinterpretation of experience. That the complaint was an issue of reinterpretation or of over sensitivity is absolutely widespread among those in the SWP “loyalist” camp. The idea of exaggeration and reinterpretation of events was also a theme in the Socialist Party case and in the NAPO case. I was shocked recently to be told, “You know that saying, ‘one woman’s rape is another’s bad night?’ well that is true. It is about how you deal with events”.

Again there is a special version of the myth in which reinterpretation is located in political deviation and weakness. Several women have told me that it is a political choice how to interpret these “messy” situations and arguing that women don’t always make it clear or “give in” and then wish they had not. I have even been told, “She (W) was taught to view it through feminist eyes and now feels used” or some such on several occasions.  I have even heard it said that I was the person who taught her to misinterpret her experience and change her mind about it[11].

The truth:  that saying about a bad night is from Katie Rophie who argued in the mid 1990s that women were making too much fuss about date rape on US campuses especially. She pointed to the way in which different tags were given to the same sorts of experience of having sex when they didn’t want to. Some women understood what happened to them to be rape and others just put it down to (bad) experience. Rophie could find no significant difference in the experiences and argued that women needed to be stronger. At the time the SWP said this was an oppressive idea.

It is important that when it comes to one person’s word against another’s, especially when dealing with teenage women, there is evidence that particularly in the case of young women that a no is not taken seriously unless both verbal and physical signals are strongly given while the men don’t hear/see/understand the no clearly given[12]

Sex with someone who doesn’t want to—where you are aware they don’t want to, or don’t care if they want to or not, or don’t bother to listen to them/take note of the obvious physical pulling away etc–is rape.

How a woman responds to that is about her personal experiences of life, her unconscious defence mechanisms and many other individual factors. It can be affected by her understanding of various rape myths and self blame etc[13].  The myriad of different responses to rape and coping with it do not change the fact sex without consent is rape.

The damage: peddling such myths does real damage to the personal wellbeing of victims and makes it more likely that perpetrators will feel safe to abuse while women will feel unsafe to report. It makes many angry as what appears to be being said is that W is not able to know her own mind and is unable to judge if she gave consent or not.

MYTH SEVEN: “There are two sides to the story”,  

I have often been told, “There are two sides to this. I can’t chose one” and “You weren’t in the bedroom so why are you taking her side” by people arguing that the man accused did nothing wrong.

Indeed there are two sides. The accused in the W and X cases was given a super long contribution in the discussion about his remaining on the CC in January 2011 following the initial allegation of sexual harassment.  Speakers were called to talk about what a good comrade he was[14].  Leading women such as Julie Waterson[15] and Shelia McGreggor spoke of how everyone was alienated and had skeletons in their cupboards. A standing ovation followed.  After her complaint of rape was finally made and she felt able to do it, W asked to speak to the conference where the handling of the complaint was discussed last year. She was refused that right.

The truth: statistically there is at least a 92% chance that the woman complaining is telling the truth. To argue there are two sides to the story and that therefore the man must remain a member of a socialist organisation in good standing, is to pick a side as no sane person would argue that someone in a position of power they thought had engaged in an oppressive & violent behaviour towards a rank and file member should remain in good standing.  After the evidence in the second case was given in, the man left the SWP without responding to the charges. There was at least a 92% chance of him being guilty on that occasion too.

MYTH EIGHT: Drink and drugs were/might have been involved

The women making complaints were asked about drink and drugs in ways they felt prejudicial[16].  The rape myth goes, “she was drunk/had taken drugs. She didn’t mind at the time-but changed her mind when she sobered up”.  It is a commonly held myth used to attack women and in particular to give credibility to the accused claiming that they assumed consent[17].  Socialist worker supporters rightly reacted with fury in 1982 when a judge told a young woman who had been raped that she was guilty of “contributory negligence”-now young women feel they are accused of the same.

The truth:  having sex with someone who is so incapacitated they cannot consent is a crime.  Having sex with someone unable to articulate resistance who does not want to have sex—is a crime. These are not crimes because the bourgeois state wanted them to be. The women’s movement, backed by the left, fought to smash that myth.  It is shocking to most people on the left that these questions are even asked in any context other than to enquire if the accused had deliberately tried to get the complainant too incapacitated to resist.

The damage: if the disputes committee did not make themselves aware of all the possible issues of unconscious bias prior to hearing the cases involving their friend and/or close working companion, they cannot rule out that the powerful effects of the myths around alcohol consumption were not at play. That they asked the questions indicates that in fact it was to some extent.

Some special myths circulating in the SWP:

MYTH NINE: “I don’t listen to gossip”

This appears to be ‘the line’. I have heard it repeatedly for several years.  The idea that accusations of rape and sexual harassment are gossip is a myth.  The truth is that they are accusations that socialists should listen to and respond to, with solidarity and care.  To proclaim complaints of rape and sexual harassment as gossip shows a frightening ignorance of rape and the damage it does and a callous disregard for the rights of young women to equality and respect.

MYTH TEN: “I don’t listen to gossip because I trust the disputes committee who investigated”

There is no other political debate question arising in the SWP in which members are encouraged to think something because someone told them to. The DC is of course made up of ethical and trustworthy people. This does not mean they have no unconscious bias or have a fully rounded well thought out understanding of all the issues around sexual harassment and rape.  It is not good enough, when women are crying out for justice and unhappy with the way they have been treated, for people not to think for themselves about DC decision, and whether they might be influenced by rape myths. 

MYTH ELEVEN: “It doesn’t matter that the disputes committee all knew the accused. The question was decided according to our politics”

It is unfortunate that instead of deciding if the man accused of rape by W and sexual harassment by X was fit to be a member of the party—the only thing that they should have considered, they made a decision as to whether or not he had raped W.  This could only be done by deciding whose account of events was believed. Research has demonstrated that that this judgement of credibility[18] is more likely to be based on personal biases and attitudes than what a witness says.  In this context the panel being friends of the accused is a serious problem.

MYTH TWELVE: “But they all care about women’s liberation and one of them is a rape counsellor”

I do not dispute for one second the personal integrity of the people on the committee.  However, sadly it seems from the questions about drink and partying and other comments, they are not immune to rape myths and acceptance of rape myths have been shown to have a detrimental effect on the ability to make judgements on the issue of rape and sexual harassment.[19]

That one of the panel says she is a rape counsellor is misleading as it might imply that the woman is in some way fully trained and accredited as a rape counsellor.  She is not accredited with any counselling organisation at the time of writing and does not list being a trained counsellor anywhere in her profiles on Rapar or LinkedIn. It is therefore misleading to imply that her training ensures that questions asked were appropriate and especially not ethical. Counsellors anyway have nothing to do with investigations and no training in how to investigate.

MYTH THIRTEEN: This isn’t about rape it is an attack on our politics

There is no doubt that huge numbers of people from across the political spectrum have criticised the SWP and many have connected the way the cases have been handled to the general organisation of the party. But the idea that the complaints and anyone angry about what has happened made it up to attack the SWP is a myth. This is not as one particularly crazed friend of the accused argued, the Scottsboro boys.

The truth young women feel violated and harassed and complained to the party about the behaviour of fellow members. Complaining about rape is always about rape

MYTH FOURTEEN: The party dealt well with other cases and has expelled men accused of rape before

That there were previous processes where the women felt supported is somehow proof that nothing is wrong in the recent cases is a myth. That there was good behaviour in the past has no more relevance to this bad process than previous sexual history has to the incident of a rape. Possibly the DC has never had to confront its own unconscious bias before—no previous case resulting in expulsion has involved someone who was known to, friends with, had worked closely with, been arrested with etc. 

MYTH FIFTEEN: Our organiser is a young woman-the party is the only party that develops women to lead

The existence of women playing all sorts of roles in the party has absolutely no relevance to the problems surrounding the cases and the way they were handled.  The research has shown that women are also prone to believing rape myths even if to a lesser extent than men—that is what it means to grow up in a society in which the dominant ideas are those of the ruling class. Also Thatcher was a woman which obviously was not relevant to defending the lives of other, working class, women.

MYTH SIXTEEN: I am not interested in this stuff, the key thing is to fight the Coalition/ for the NHS/for socialism.

Which goes alongside of no one in my anti-bedroom tax/union branch cares about this gossip.

The Truth: an organisation, whether political party or trade union, that allows the abuse of women to go unchallenged is an organisation that will miss out on having in its ranks many of those it needs to make a better future for us all.  In the past many tenants associations did not have BME representation or deal with racists in the meetings—the struggle for tenant’s rights was weakened as a result.

References

Anderson et al, 1997; Individual differences and attitudes toward rape: A meta analytic review, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 23(3),

Barter, C et al, 2009, Partner Exploitation and Violence in Teenage Intimate Relationships, NSPCC, London

BPP Working Paper, November 2012, Do Rape Myths Affect Juror Decision Making? BPP, London

Hird, M. J. (2000) An empirical study of adolescent dating aggression, Journal of Adolescence, 23,  pp69–78

Levitt, A & CPS (2013) Charging Perverting the Course of Justice and Wasting Police Time in Cases Involving Allegedly False Rape and Domestic Violence Allegations

McGee et al, 2011, Rape and child sexual abuse:  What beliefs persist about motives, perpetrators, and survivors.  Journal of Interpersonal Violence 26(17),

Rape Crisis, 2013; accessed at http://www.womensviewsonnews.org/2013/09/rape-crisis-and-reveal-campaign-together/

Schuller R. A., & Wall, A. (1998). The effects of defendant and complainant intoxication on mock jurors’ judgments of sexual assault.; Psychology Of Women Quarterly  22(4)

Schuller , R A & Klippenstein M, 2004, The Impact Of Complainant Sexual History Evidence on Jurors’ Decisions: Considerations From A Psychological Perspective,  Psychology, Public Policy, and Law 2004, Vol. 10, No. 3, 321–342

Suarez, E., & Gadalla, T. M. (2010). Stop blaming the victim: A meta analysis on rape myths, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 25(11), 2035

Taylor and Joudo, 2005, The Impact of Pre-recorded Video and Closed Circuit Television Testimony by Adult Sexual

Assault Complainants on Jury Decision-making: An Experimental Study Australian Institute of Criminology

Research and Public Policy Series 68.


[1] Said to me on the NHS demo on 29th Sept by a lovely woman that I remain friendly with, who hadn’t realised I had left the SWP and was shocked to find out why I had.

[2] BPP Working Paper , November 2012

[3] Anderson et al  1997; Suarez & Gadalla, 2010

[4] McGee et al, 2011; Anderson et al 1997

[5] Schuller 1998, also Clark 2011 are useful on this, although I am not suggesting for a moment that the SWP panel or any of the party’s members accept all of the myths examined, merely that there remains some taints of acceptance of some of those ideas as evidenced in the questioning of W about other relationships and X in relation to alcohol

[6] Actually as far as I am concerned, not caring if your partner actually wants to have sex is not okay even if there is no resistance.  Consent should involve the active choice of everyone involved in a sexual act. At the very minimum it should involve a yes and stop at any indication of unwillingness.

[7] Hird 2000

[8] BPP Working Paper November 2012

[9] Levitt et al 2013

[11] Let me clear that I have never had any discussions with W since 2010

[12] Barter et al, 2009

[13] BPP Working Paper, November 2012

[14] indeed he had been my organiser in the early 1990s and the best we ever had in my opinion-which is entirely irrelevant to whether or not he raped a young women and sexually harassed others

[15] Julie later apologised. I am unaware that Shelia McGreggor has ever done so

[16] Writing recently another woman has complained of questions about alcohol consumption being used against her when she complained of rape

[17] Eg Schuller , R A & Klippenstein M, 2004 which shows that there is strong bias towards thinking that consuming alcohol prior to the rape is a defence for the man to have assumed consent

[18] Taylor and Joudo, 2005

[19] BCC Working Paper, November 2012.

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2 responses »

  1. Fantastic article. I wish, as I said in the IB 1, members would read up on these myths, and actually be open to considering their bias. Instead, they claim ‘we know all this but we just don’t believe her.’

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