By Ellie Daley
The trope centred around ‘a stranger lurking in a dark alley’ has dominated the discourse surrounding sexual violence for decades. One of the most recent cases was the rape and murder of Sarah Everard in March 2021, who was walking home alone from a friend’s house at 9pm before being kidnapped by a police officer (1). Such a high-profile case only heightened the pre-existing conversations regarding whether women should or shouldn’t walk alone in the dark, contributing to the stigmas that not only is it is a woman’s responsibility to not get raped, but that it’s the strangers in the dark we should watch out for.
In reality, it’s the familiar faces who can be even more dangerous.
‘The stranger lurking in a dark alley’ trope is a myth society relies too heavily upon. And it’s not to say this trope isn’t rooted in some aspects of reality, the Sarah Everard case being example enough, but by stigmatising that most rapists are strangers, it fails to recognise that the majority of rapists are, in fact, the people we know. According to Rape Crisis, 86% of rape victims are raped by someone they know (2), while the BBC claims this statistic to be over 90% (3). Despite the slight difference in data, these percentages are still alarmingly high. While a rape victim under the pseudonym Lorna who was interviewed by the BBC quoted, “These days, people just hear on the news that this person 'came out of nowhere' and it was a stranger […] In reality it's not.” (4)
The evidence debunking such a prominent stigma is right there, so why are we more likely to believe rapists are strangers rather than a familiar face?
We grasp onto this misconception because the truth is a daunting pill to swallow. The anonymity of the trope, of a faceless and unidentifiable assailant attacking us in the middle of the night, allows us to distance ourselves from the reality of the sexual violence women face every day. The rhetoric surrounding the trope usually consists of the idea that being raped by a stranger in the dark happens to other women, but never you. And as women, we anticipate violence wherever we go and it’s exhausting. So, I think it’s natural for us to want to distance ourselves from the realities of sexual violence and the ‘stranger in the dark trope’ functions as the ideal reprieve when it comes to society's perceptions of sexual violence, however misinformed it may be.
A rapist being a stranger in the dark is easier to believe than the idea that someone close to you would actively choose to hurt you. Realising a person you trust, admire, respect and care for is capable of something so heinous, potentially under the guise of loving you, is unfathomable. And it changes a fundamental part of who you are. Everything you thought was true, suddenly isn’t. Therefore, trying to decipher who you can and can’t trust is now a mental mind-game that’s difficult to escape from.
Despite these distressing statistics, we need to be aware of our reality. Being educated in the realities of rape culture allows us to start conversations about where things need to change. But the ultimate question isn’t just what needs to change, but what action can we take to propel that change?
This first answer might sound simple, albeit a bit vague too, but unity amongst women matters. Whether this is checking on girl who is alone at a club, for example, and asking if she has a safe way to get home. Or listening to your friends make fun of a girl for the way she looks and calling out their unnecessary behaviour. Just by letting the women around you know that they don’t have to stand alone, is a small but mighty gesture.
And while it’s not a woman’s job to educate a man about rape culture, but if you can, don’t let them get away with those offhanded, misogynistic comments. If a family member or friend makes a misogynistic comment, try to ask them what they mean by that. Even feign ignorance that you don’t understand to further push them for an explanation. By doing so, you’re turning their language back around onto them. You’re giving them the time to really reflect on the words they have said by putting their language into perspective. For example, if someone were to say: “Her skirt is too short to wear during that interview. It’s distracting”, try to then ask: “What do you mean by that?” and see what they say… Or if they can even give a response at all.
Unfortunately, this technique is highly unlikely to change that person’s entire outlook, but hopefully, by questioning them, you’ve motivated them to think more deeply about their words and how what they say can be damaging. Starting conversations is vital in tackling the many stigmas of rape culture. Staying silent will never incite change. And we have to face the fact these conversations aren’t going to be easy, like acknowledging that, when it comes to sexual violence, it’s more likely someone you know than a stranger in the dark.
But knowing the facts is necessary in the contribution to end rape culture.
Tristan Kirk, ‘Sarah Everard murder: Timeline of key events one year after her death’, Evening Standard, 3rd Mar, 2022, accessed 15th June, 2022, Sarah Everard murder anniversary: A timeline of key events
Rape Crisis, ‘Myths vs Realities’, accessed 14th June, 2022, Myths vs facts | Rape Crisis England & Wales
Lucy Adams, ‘Sex attack victims usually know attacker, BBC News, 1st Mar, 2018, accessed 14th June, 2022, Sex attack victims usually know attacker - BBC News
Lucy Adams, ‘I bumped into my rapist at court’, BBC News, 1st Mar, 2018, accessed 15th June, 2022, 'I bumped into my rapist at court' - BBC News