Good girls and bad girls: Looking more closely at one rape myth

“That’s just a myth.”
Oh really. Just a myth? Just a myth? How many times have I heard those words used to dismiss an idea, opinion, story or concern?
I’m not going to actually answer that. But I am going to take a slightly closer look at how rape myths influence attitudes toward sexual violence.

The Oxford English Dictionary offers several definitions for the word myth, which include:
1. “A traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events…
2. A widely held but false belief or idea…
3. An exaggerated or idealized conception of a person or thing…”

How easily we use that 2nd definition to dismiss a statement or a story, without fully realizing the power of the 1st and 3rd definitions of myth. Let me give you an example from the world of sexual assault. One “rape myth” we consider “a widely held but false belief or idea” is the idea that “certain kinds of women tend to get raped.” Once labeled a myth, the idea is dismissed. Now, don’t get me wrong. It is a myth. The statement is a widely held false idea. Yet, is it enough to say “Oh, that’s just a myth.”? I think we need to go a step further, and acknowledge that, being a myth, this story may also be part of a traditional story, and it may contain an “exaggerated or idealized conception of a person or a thing.” Why acknowledge this? Because if we simply dismiss the statement as untrue without looking at its underpinnings, we may leave deeper roots of this story unchallenged somewhere deep within ourselves. And if we do that, we may eventually meet and slightly discredit a rape survivor who appears to be “a certain kind of woman.”

A popular mythology in our culture… and in many cultures… is a “good girl/bad girl” dichotomy whose dividing line is usually sexuality. In our folklore— our stories, songs, movies, etc.— we often associate good girls with passivity, sweetness, and sexual chasteness. The good girls of Disney don’t chase their men; or if they do, they do so with severe handicaps that render them vulnerable and powerless (think of voiceless Ariel, sweetly, not assertively, trying to win Prince Eric’s love). The bad girls, on the other hand, speak out, wield their power, and shamelessly chase the object of their sexual desire. When a woman is sexually assaulted, the first thing many people wonder (including the survivor who was raised with the “good girl/bad girl” mythology) is “What kind of woman is she?” which tends to lead to the next question, “What did she do to prompt/encourage/deserve to be raped?” Say the questions race through our minds, but we don’t say them out loud. No, that would be victim-blaming, and none of us want to do that! But did we think them? At some level?

Let’s assume for a moment that the survivor thought them. Or that she thought someone in her world might think them. If a survivor worries that someone will view her as the “bad girl” who might have somehow invited or encouraged the assault, how likely is she to report or seek help? How many obstacles must she overcome, how much courage must she muster, to report a rape, tell her family and friends, and seek support? The stakes are pretty high here. Survivors who feel heard, believed, loved and supported following a sexual assault are less likely to develop PTSD and other mental disorders down the road, such as depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, a survivor living with this type of a “good girl/bad girl” mythology must overcome a lot to access this support.

There are cultures and subcultures where the “good girl/bad girl” ideology is taken to more extreme levels. Sometimes referred to as the “Madonna and the whore” split, there are belief systems that tend to define/categorize women and girls as pure or spoiled, according to their sexual experiences. “Pure” and “spoiled” seem somehow like more enduring traits than “good” and “bad”, and once a girl’s “purity” is “lost”, she may be forever deemed “spoiled goods”.

The “Madonna/whore” mythology can seal the lips of sexually abused children and their caregivers, who consider the social stigma, the label of “ruined” worse than the abuse itself. This silence can prevent survivors from telling, seeking help, and asking for justice. It can reassure the abusers that their victims are unlikely to tell, because the cost of telling is so high. In some subcultures, there is even a belief that a girl who has already been raped cannot be raped again. In extreme cases, the girl or woman who has already been abused, categorized as “spoiled”, may be considered by others as deserving of more abuse.

So, while we may refrain from victim-blaming and spreading of rape myths, we need to go further, and consume/create our “mythology” thoughtfully. When we consume and promote the “good girl/bad girl” dichotomy without questioning, we strengthen a culture in which survivors feel unsafe seeking help, and perpetrators feel justified and immune. On the other hand, when we promote images of women that defy that dichotomy, we create just that much more space for women to believe “this was not my fault, and I deserve support.”

So think for a moment about the archetypical women and girls you want to surround yourselves (and your daughters) with. Which images will you promote, and which will you question? As a “gringa” counselor who works with many Latina clients, I have witnessed a very common myth among many of my clients who were raised in Mexico. There are 2 women who figure prominently in many Mexican stories, whose archetypal images inform norms about femininity.

The first is La Malinche… also known as Malinalli, the mistress of Hernan Cortez and mother of the first mestizo (part Indian, part Spanish) born in Mexico. La Malinche has figured so strongly into the story of the Mexican conquest, and she is so widely viewed as a traitor who assisted Cortez in conquering Mexico, that there is a synonym for “traitor” in Mexico, called “malinchista”. La Malinche was transferred repeatedly during her early life as a slave, and finally became the… what’s the right word, the assistant? companion? slave? mistress? to Hernan Cortez. Through her brilliant linguistic and diplomatic skills, she probably was key to assisting the Spanish conquest of the powerful Aztec Empire.

Today she is viewed by many as a very bad woman. A traitor, a sexualized, promiscuous and dangerous woman who failed to protect her people. She was raped by Cortez, as the entire people were metaphorically raped by the Spanish people, and she symbolizes to many “a certain type of woman.” The type who gets raped.

The second woman is “La Virgen de Guadalupe.” The Virgin Mary, who through no sexual act of her own, bore a deity-son who offered his people salvation. La Virgin is widely viewed in Mexico as a source of strength and spirituality. She symbolizes purity, wifeliness, and motherhood. She is not the type of woman who could be raped.

Now, what happens when a culture of people being to identify women with either la Malinche or la Virgin? Sexuality can become a significant dividing line among women, defining what kind of woman they are… or people see them to be. Little girls are often brought up to resemble, as closely as possible, La Virgen, and deviations from this archetype could mean shame for a girl’s family, “stained” reputations, and potential reductions in chances at marriage and financial stability. The stakes are high. When the stakes are this high, consider the plight of the survivor or rape or sexual abuse. Will she tell? Will she seek support?

Archetypes are the unknowable basic forms personified or concretized in recurring images, symbols, or patterns which may include motifs such as the quest or the heavenly ascent, recognizable character types such as the trickster or the hero, symbols such as the apple or snake, or images such as crucifixion…all laden with meaning already when employed in a particular work. (Delahoide, M. accessed 9/13/16 at http://public.wsu.edu/~delahoyd/archetypal.crit.html