The Aesthetics of Rape Myths (trigger warning)

In my previous post about medieval English laws on rape, I described how difficult, isolating and exhausting the process of bringing a rape case to court was for medieval women, who were automatically considered less likely to tell the truth than men. My research project looks at the ways medieval narratives reinforced, or reflected, social perceptions of women and truth, amplifying the effect of the legal system. A modern parallel shows us how the qualities we usually associate with fiction – the aesthetic qualities of a well-written narrative – play important roles in conveying these social perceptions.

Modern laws have moved on from their medieval roots (not far enough!), but one of the biggest issues facing women in the UK today is the persistence and prevalence of ‘rape myths’.

Modern rape myths begin with the stranger in the ‘dark alley’, the man who waits for a woman walking home alone after nightfall. In reality this describes a tiny percentage of rapes, but it is often cited the default example of ‘real’ rape, of rape where the victim is innocent. It’s also a narrative in which the perpetrator is necessarily a blank, a shadowy figure without an identity, and not the named man known to the victim (as he usually is in real life).

The insidious impact of this myth is even more complicated than its simple lack of truth: in its visual imagery, it is a dead ringer for that other popular rape myth, the ‘grey area’. In rape mythology, a ‘grey area’ is the zone of confusion which – apparently – prevents otherwise decent and upstanding men from realizing that rape is rape. The same imagery of darkness or greyness, substitued for the figure of a named, identified rapist, encourages us to conflate these two myths in our memories. They work together to convince us that rape itself is something shadowy, something whose perpetrators are uncertain, hard to identify, hard to blame.

What is frightening – and frighteningly powerful – about these rape myths is that they are aesthetically powerful, like the most compelling story. They have the consistency of imagery that the best fiction has. So, they shape the ways we imagine and talk about rape, without us even realizing they have done so, and they blur together the distinction they claim to uphold, between the first, ‘valid’ kind of rape in the dark alley, and the ‘grey area’ of other rapes.

It is vital that we learn to recognise the ways rape myths work as narratives, so that we can be wise to the messages they send out, and so we can learn to counter what they say.

For more on rape myths, have a look at Rape Crisis’s page:

If you’re in the mood for a cracking rant deconstructing some of these rape myths, have a look here: