‘The most difficult rape myth for people to grasp’ spelled out at trial

by Melinda Henneberger

What you think you know about how rape victims act is probably wrong, and there’s a reason for that: It seems intuitive that anyone violated in that way would scream, run and only ever see the perp again in court.

Only, not one of those responses is common.

In the decade that I’ve been writing about rape and sexual assault, I’m not sure I’ve covered a single victim who either screamed or ran. The only one who never saw the perp again completed suicide 10 days later.

Dr. Barbara Ziv, a forensic psychiatrist in Pennsylvania since 1997, testified last Tuesday at Harvey Weinstein’s Los Angeles rape trial about some of the most widely accepted misapprehensions about a crime that leads to a conviction only seven times out of 1,000.

And can we at least agree that it’s not because the other 993 victims were lying or mistaken?

Ziv was not in court to testify against the convicted former film producer, who as in his New York trial has again pleaded not guilty. Instead, she was there to explain what researchers and clinicians have found, over many years’ time, about how victims usually do and do not react.

“Sexual assault is one of the crimes that people sort of intuitively believe they have an understanding of,” and yet do not, she told the court. Here are some of the most prevalent misconceptions:

1. Real victims of sexual assault fight their assailants.

Instead, a far more common reaction is to freeze. Ziv told the court, “Even aggressive verbal shouting — screaming — is not as common as we would think. It’s more common than physical resistance, but a minority of people have physical resistance, even in the case of stranger rape.”

Then, because victims “are programmed by cultural myths,” too, many blame themselves for having been unable to move or scream.

2. Real victims naturally report the event promptly.

Most don’t report it at all, and if you’ve ever attended or paid attention to a rape trial, you know why that is. In an understandable Freudian slip, a pool report from the Weinstein trial last week referred to one of his eight accusers as the defendant.

Still ubiquitous among victims, Ziv said, is “shame, and self blame.”

Here, though, is the Everest of rape myths:

3. Victims of sexual assault do not have subsequent contact with the perpetrator.

“This is probably the most difficult rape myth for people to grasp: that it is not uncommon for individuals to have subsequent contact with the perpetrator,” Ziv said.

“Some people have continued contact because they want to decrease collateral damage,” if, as is often the case, the attacker is someone with the power to hurt his victim professionally or personally.

Ziv said it’s not uncommon, either, for victims to have consensual sex with their attacker later on, to try to reframe what happened and regain control.

Take the woman who accused then-Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens of, during their first-ever moments alone together, taking away her clothes and keys and blindfolding and duct-taping her to an exercise machine in his basement before sexually assaulting her.

Every single member of the bipartisan Missouri House committee that heard her sworn testimony believed her account. Greitens, who denied that he was ever violent, refused to testify. Yet his accuser is still routinely referred to as Greitens’ “mistress,” and someone with whom he had an affair because she later had consensual sex with him.

4. We can tell whether someone has really been sexually assaulted by the way they behave.

Initially, denial helps victims get through what has happened to them. Yet victims who don’t cry or otherwise seem upset are doubted: If that really happened, how could she seem so calm?

Ziv noted in court that sexual assault is the only crime where the demeanor of the victim determines our view of whether a crime occurred at all.

5. If you were really attacked, you’d remember exactly what happened.

Our brains on trauma don’t work like that; under extreme stress, events are often recalled out of order.

One more myth Ziv didn’t mention that I will is the idea that victims often come forward for money or attention — to get in on “the gravy train,” as one of my friends put it.

On the contrary, when victims try to do the right thing by testifying, their reward is usually being humiliated all over again. During opening statements, Weinstein defense attorney Mark Werksman accused all of Weinstein’s accusers of lying.

But he singled out Jennifer Siebel Newsom for extra insults, saying she would be “just another bimbo who slept with Harvey Weinstein to get ahead in Hollywood” if she hadn’t married California Gov. Gavin Newsom. I don’t think I’ve heard that odious word since Bill Clinton’s team wrote off his affairs and predations as “bimbo eruptions.”

Here’s what the “gravy train” really looks like: At Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky’s rape trial, I saw the young men he’d preyed on characterized as money grubbers, while the defense attorney joked that the whole thing was a soap opera.

Then there was the Article 32 hearing — the military equivalent of a probable cause hearing — that I covered for three Naval Academy midshipmen accused of rape by a classmate. The woman, who had to be forced to testify, because she knew very well how this was going to go, was asked by defense attorneys whether she’d worn a bra that night, and “were you wearing underwear?”

When I walked across campus with her one day, no one so much as looked her way. When the men went free, other Naval Academy students who said they, too, had been raped marveled that she’d even gotten the hearing that she would rather have skipped.

As I’ve written before, Weinstein deserves due process just like anyone else. But it’s still depressing watching victims of this one crime be systematically destroyed.

Melinda Henneberger is The Sacramento Bee’s local columnist. She has covered crime, local and state government, hospitals, social services, prisons and national politics.