Was it Rape? The Trouble with Scripts

Scripts are a shorthand way to think about our lives and to remember things that have happened. We use scripts to group memories so we do not have to remember each event by itself.

We use scripts every day

Say the word for almost any activity, and a stereotypical script plays out in your mind. We only have to fill in the details to understand exactly what we think happened. Baking cookies, for example, elicits images of a mixer, cups measuring flour, and a spatula lifting hot cookies off a baking sheet. Say riding a bike, and there are images of feet pushing peddles, sidewalk and trees flying by, and wind in your face. Say rape, and we tend to visualize an ugly stranger tearing clothes off a screaming girl.

Scripts can be wrong or incomplete

Sometimes our scripts are faulty. The legal definition of rape, for example, does not mention strangers, ugly, or screaming. By definition rape is intercourse by force, fear, or fraud, or alternatively, penetration of a woman’s vagina, mouth, or anus (or a man’s mouth or anus) without her permission. Coerced sex is rape because a woman or man who is being coerced cannot meaningfully give permission for anything. Sex with a woman or man who is intoxicated or under the influence of drugs may also be rape because the woman or man is incapable of giving her or his consent. All of these can occur independent of our stereotypical script of rape.

We like to use our scripts to avoid unpleasant thoughts

Despite these legal definitions written in the relative calm of legislative chambers, we tend to fall back on our stereotypical scripts when we hear about rape. The more a sequence of events deviates from our personal script for what we consider rape, the less we are willing to say that rape has occurred. This applies to victims who do not report their rape, rapists who claim they have nothing wrong, and persons who hear the story later and doubt that “real rape” occurred.

Scripts cause women to be uncertain

Women and men are often uncertain whether to call their experience rape because it did not match society’s stereotypical script, and they may be reluctant to label an experience as a rape because labeling itself creates secondary stress. If they knew the perpetrator, it could not have been the stranger in their script. In fact, the more a woman is acquainted with a man, the less she is likely to think of sexual assault by him as rape. If she or the rapist had consumed alcohol or used drugs, she is more likely to accept it as a misunderstanding. If she did not physically fight her assailant, she is less likely to think of it as rape. But, the definition of rape does not excuse a friend, require the victim to be totally sober, or require the victim to die fighting. Sex without permission is rape.

Researchers work around Scripts by asking Questions Indirectly

Because of this reluctance, researchers sometimes ask women about the kinds of sexual experiences they have had rather than asking if they have been raped. By asking college freshmen women about their sexual experiences – rather than using the word rape which elicits stereotypical beliefs—Orchowsky and Gidycz found that 6 percent were victims of sexual penetration against their wishes—a completed rape by definition – during the first 7 months of college. An additional 3 percent experienced attempted rape. Only half of these rapes were disclosed to friends, and only two women reported it to the police.

Rape is Common when we Rethink the Script we are Using.

Rape is common. Twenty percent of teenagers between the age of 14 and 20 experience completed rape at least once. Up to 80 percent do not report the rape. This means that about one in six college graduates has had a sexual experience that meets the legal definition of rape – and never told anyone.

Faulty Scripts make Rape Hurt More

Faulty scripts lead women and men to blame themselves for sexual assault. Faulty scripts allow men to excuse their sexually aggressive behavior. Faulty scripts perpetuate the pain and make persons who hear about the rape less likely to support the victim.

It is time for all of us to rethink the scripts we use.

It is up to all of us to rethink how we use scripts every day. Part of this obligation is to support women who have been hurt by the very real rape that can differ from the worst stereotypical rape. These victims hurt just as much, and they tend to hide what has happened to them even though they are the victim.

The Coldline Project reaches out to the many women and men who have been hurt a second time because they feared society would use faulty scripts to judge them. Healing begins by telling your story and realizing that you did nothing wrong.

The Coldline Project offers you a safe place to tell your story of unwanted sexual experience no matter how long ago or how recently it happened.