The Comfort of Rape Legends

I recently started tumbl-ing (I think that should be the term) and ran across a very disturbing story making the rounds:

This message is for every girl who goes to work, school, or home alone.
If you find a child crying on the road showing his/her address & asking you to take him/her to that address, immediately take that child to the police station and ABSOLUTELY NOT to the address.
This is a new way to gang rape girls.

Please reblog this message in order to help make girls aware of this sick & twisted method of tricking girls into getting raped.

Dont be shy to reblog this message, as this 1 message can save the lives of many girls.
This makes a lot of sense. Always remember this!

Now, don't get me wrong, nothing I am about to say is intended as any sort of criticism of anyone who re-blogged this message, but instead of the larger culture we live in.  I almost re-blogged it myself, because if true it is absolutely the sort of thing people should know about.  However, my mom was pretty obsessed with urban legends and folklore growing up (that is the study of them, as an anthropologist) and this had the familiar whiff of legend: the lack of specificity (really, this is happening everywhere, cause it seems like there should be some geographic boundaries or at least specific gangs), the extreme luridness, and the fact that it isn't in the news or an episode of Law & Order.  It sure enough is false, but being a board-certified over-educated angry feminist, I couldn't leave it at that.  I have to wonder why these things get started and perpetuated so uncritically, why don't we look harder at such a wild claim?

If you'll indulge a little armchair sociology, I think, relative to the true statistics and fact on rape, these myths are weirdly comforting.  These weird tales of gang rapists using children to lure women conform to our cultural beliefs about rape: rapes are committed by strangers, are always violent, and occur in strange environments.  It pushes to the side the fact that actually 2/3 of all rapes are committed by acquaintances (93% if the victim is a minor) and 50% occur within a mile of the victim's home.  It lets one believe that rape is an elaborate, exotic crime, not something so horrifyingly mundane that it will happen to 1 in 6 women in America.  So at first this crazy story about child-baited gang rape sounds horrifyingly scary, but actually it is so much less scary than the truth that it bobs and weaves away from.  I worry that these comforting lies convince women that how they protect themselves from rape is by doing x,y, and z, which shifts blame both from the rapist (who holds 100% of the blame no matter what), and rape culture; out of activism and education and into taking precautions against imagined threats.

It kind of reminds me of Freudian psychology.  When Freud first began interviewing crazy ladies from well-respected middle-class Viennese families he began learning that many of them reported childhood sexual abuse, usually by a close relative.  His colleagues pointed out that these were nice middle-class families these girls came from, so obviously such things were impossible, and anyway he'd be run out of town for reporting that.  Obviously something else must be going on.  Freud's whole elaborate (now massively discredited) theories of psycho-sexual development are the result of grasping for any way to explain why girls from nice families had memories (and the attendant psychological trauma) of sexual abuse committed by respected members of the community.

The point is we will believe a lot of really elaborate, weird shit to avoid mundane horror.  Here's a final statistic for you, actual activism and education campaigns based around awareness of real sexual violence statistics have decreased the incidence of sexual assault by 60% since 1993.  That's huge, and awesome, and in no way furthered by promulgating falsehoods. 

PS: I know this blog isn't usually so heavy.  I'm a generally cheerful person, but occasionally feel the need to treat serious things with seriousness.  If you would like, Kitteh Roulette is pretty much the ultimate in Unicorn Chasers.

3 comments:

VictorianKitty (Sophistique Noir) said...

This is a very thought-provoking post, and I'm glad you wrote it! I've been trying for ages to rationalize with people who not only allow themselves to live in fear because of these legends but SPREAD that fear by forwarding them on. I remember a few years ago, the one about the gang shootings at Wal-Mart was going around and all the ladies at my work were warning every woman they could find. I knew a couple of ladies who were *terrified* and didn't leave the house all weekend. I consider these messages to be a mild form of terrorism - they are created because someone thinks it's funny to scare people. The more they are spread, the more the "mini-terrorists" win.

Unfortunately, fear seems to be a stronger motivator than rationality, so my efforts to explain that these messages are phoney have almost always been ignored. :( I don't mean to criticize those who forward the messages either, but my heart genuinely breaks for my friends who live in fear because of these urban legends, and I feel powerless to help them! I will have to share your insightful and well-written post with them next time.

Your points regarding the rape issue aren't lost on me: that's just a subject that I have trouble addressing (not because of personal experience, just some weird thing in my brain), hence my lack of response to that aspect of your post. :) I'm going to look at I Can Haz Cheezeburger now. ;-D

Sabayon said...

I understand what you mean (on both counts). It is strange how sometimes the fact that something is demonstrably untrue can have no effect on whether or not someone believes it, and it is quite frustrating to try to talk people out of clearly un-true beliefs. I always wonder about the origins of these stories and why someone decides to start a rumor like this. I understand (to some extent) the people who embroider these stories claiming, as they pass it on, that this "happened in their town" or to a friend of a friend even though that is a lie, partially it is attention-seeking and partially it is so others will believe something they consider true and important, but somewhere down the line someone had to have intentionally spread a flat out lie with only sadistic intent. That is the part that I really can't understand.

Sarahbelle said...

"this had the familiar whiff of legend:"

I have taught you well, my little Grasshopper.
Very thought-provoking. These, are, in fact, things I have wondered over, myself.

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