The False Tropes About Rape We Must Destroy

Update May 9, 2023, at 12:22 p.m. PT: The jury has returned a verdict in the E. Jean Carroll / Donald Trump battery (rape) and defamation case: The jury found Trump liable for sexual abuse of Carroll, as well as defamation, but not for rape. In total, Trump is ordered to pay Carroll about $5 million.

E. Jean Carroll arrives for her civil trial against former President Donald Trump at Manhattan Federal Court on May 9, 2023, in New York City. Carroll has testified that she was raped by Trump, giving details about the alleged attack in the mid-1990s. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

E. Jean Carroll is technically the plaintiff in her civil rape trial against Donald J. Trump. But in terms of spectacle, she has arguably been forced into the role of defendant: Every thought, every choice she makes, and has made, over decades has been parsed for intentionality, for hidden meanings and veiled beliefs. Carroll has been asked to defend her existence existentially—given that her reality as a functioning human being has been so broadly called into question.

Carroll is being put through all that for a crime she did not commit, but which was committed upon her. Her painful, and now painfully public, memories of being raped are as difficult to hear and read about as every other rape case. This never gets easier, even after woeful repetitions throughout the #MeToo era.

It is absolutely past time to bury, once and for all, the false tropes about rape that still color judicial proceedings and certain courts of public opinion. Three tropes in particular stand out in the Carroll trial.

The first is that there is a script for how women are expected to respond physically to rape, and anything reported that’s not in the script somehow doesn’t count. Carroll physically fought her rapist by kneeing him, among other things. But that doesn’t let her off the hook of responsibility. No, we cannot call “scene” until the woman has screamed. Not a quiet, strangled scream, but a loud, blood-curdling one that surely would be heard for miles.

As Carroll said, in an instantly classic line, “You can’t beat up on me for not screaming.” Oh, but we can. The script calls for it.

Women scream when they’re frightened or threatened. Don’t they all do that? And if they don’t, how much trouble could they really be in?

How and why did this become so? Blame it on the movies—nearly all of which were written, directed and filmed by men. Exhibit A is the movie-scream reel compiled by the Criterion Collection, which shows clips of women in peril screaming in film classics ranging from The Blob, to Carnival of Souls, to Rosemary’s Baby. In many of the clips, a woman is alone with a man—or a grotesque male creature—who poses a threat. She is compelled to scream like a high soprano and to keep at it for many seconds.

Through countless repetitions over the years, the woman-in-trouble-screaming gelled into conventional wisdom for the male gaze. Of course, women scream when they’re frightened or threatened. Don’t they all do that? And if they don’t, how much trouble could they really be in?

The second trope that needs to die is the notion that a woman who’s been raped who remains silent—whether for an hour or three decades—has decided (a) nothing bad happened; or (b) he didn’t mean to hurt me; or (c) if I keep it to myself, I’ll forget it ever happened.

This is all very convenient logic and for the most part, totally baseless. Countless studies and books by Alexandra Brodsky and others highlight many more honest reasons why women do not report sexual assault or rape. A traumatic experience like rape affects memory and the brain in ways non-victims may not understand or be able to anticipate.

But I especially want to call your attention to a federal research study conducted in the dark ages of rape culture—1979. The U.S. Department of Justice conducted a study on why women do not report sexual assault. The reason reported over and over was fear: of police and the court system; of retaliation; of not being believed; of being blamed; of becoming isolated, and more.

Fast-forward nearly half a century, and fear is still a dominant reason women keep silent about being raped. 

“It is no secret why many survivors do not come forward,” said New York state legislator Linda B. Rosenthal, who sponsored the state’s Adult Survivors Act. “They fear retaliation. They harbor shame. They worry about the consequences to them and their loved ones. Or they feel that no one will believe them.”

It has ever been thus. The appeasement school of thought (the guy didn’t mean any harm) is morally bankrupt. Women are terrified of reprisals of all sorts—all the bad boomerangs that will swing around and smack them in the face, adding insult to injury.

“I do not want anyone to know that I suffered,” Carroll said during the trial. Exercising this prerogative—a hedge against pity, the preservation of personal dignity, at the very least—is not tantamount to saying that what happened had stopped mattering, or never mattered in the first place.

A traumatic experience like rape affects memory and the brain in ways non-victims may not understand or be able to anticipate.

The third trope that’s demonstrably harmful is the idea that police officers are knights in shining armor, itching to rescue any damsel in distress. According to the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, one in five cases reported to police are deemed baseless (by police) and therefore coded as “unfounded.” No wonder, then, that hundreds of thousands of rape kits sit untested in police department and crime lab storage facilities across the country.

What we have here is a tragic chicken-and-egg situation. Women vastly underreport sexual assaults and rapes to police because they are convinced they will not be believed. And police, for their part, are chronically skeptical of women who do report, or try to. More training may help, but cultural tropes are notoriously hard to kill.

In the famous tale of The Rape of Lucrece, recounted in various forms by Ovid, Shakespeare and others, an honorable woman, Lucrece, is raped by Tarquin, a soldier acquaintance of her absent husband. Afterwards, Lucrece confesses to her husband what has happened and begs for vengeance. But vengeance alone cannot remove the stain from her psyche. Lucrece stabs herself to death.

To this day, women like E. Jean Carroll still endure a death of sorts with every question that seeks to put them in the wrong, for years on end, stretching into forever. 

We’ve got to stop behaving like this.

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


Amy L. Bernstein is a writer and former journalist in Baltimore.