How Rape Culture Relies On Imposter Syndrome

Illustration by Emma Drake

Ever feel like your achievements in life have all been a fluke and that one day it would all catch-up on you? That’s imposter syndrome. It can affect a wide variety of people, such as soloists and perfectionists, but it essentially means that no matter how much work you do, whether it be to a perfect standard or not, you feel like a fraud. Although usually assumed to be mainly be applicable in work scenarios, imposter syndrome has a huge impact on victims of sexual assault. The two go together as sexual assault survivors often minimise their experiences, trying to underplay the severity of the situation. Imposter Syndrome can also cause survivors to claim their reaction to rape as excessive or unnecessary. In addition to this, a lot of rape survivors can sometimes doubt and question whether whatever happened was actually rape at all.

Why do rape survivors often feel like frauds when they have experienced horrific traumas? It is because of the rape culture embedded in and upheld by our society.

The amount of toxic opinion which can be found on social media and the vicious cycle this creates nurtures a hostile environment for survivors and can lead to self doubt and blame. How can a survivor trust their feelings and grievances in the aftermath of a sexual assault if people online invalidate their experience, targeting their vulnerability?

A perfect example of this is a personal interaction I had with a 17-year-old boy, who took relish in stating ‘those falsely accused of sexual assault have it worse that victims of sexual assault’.

The first issue with this statement is that it creates a comparison between the two. I don’t deny that being falsely accused can have a detrimental effect on the lives and the mental health of the accused, as they can be ostracised. However, this tends to be a reactive stance instead of a proactive one, used as a way to silence survivors instead of aiding those falsely accused. The argument only seems to be whipped out when survivors come forward as an attempt to discredit them. It is also a dangerous narrative - especially coming from a young boy - because false allegations are incredibly rare. By arguing about which is worse, it’s assumed that the two happen as frequently as the other, but that is not the case. A study by the UK Home Office demonstrated that 4% of rapes reported are believed to be false. And those who use that argument are rarely those who have been falsely accused, instead using the argument to distract from the truth.

I didn’t want to be deemed as ‘emotional’, so used these stone-cold facts instead of my own experience with rape to demonstrate my point to the boy. He came back immediately with ‘it’s a false statistic, it can’t be proved’.

To a certain extent he is right. These statistics don’t consider how may victims of rape report their rape or sexual assault in the first place.

Why don’t survivors come forward? Because we’re constantly reminded that we must be careful to not dirty someone’s name or ruin their career, leaving us to bare the burden of the assault. There are a variety of other reasons why victims decide not to come forward, but in my case I didn’t report for two main reasons. The first being that I didn’t even know that I had been assaulted until six months later after my therapist explained to me. The second was that I was told I wouldn’t have a case; I had decided to go to his flat, there was no proof it wasn’t consensual, and I had been drinking so I could have recounted things wrong.

So how do I stop feeling like a fraud, like I’ve made up my story? How do I know that I’m not 'over exaggerating' what happened? I don’t have the answer to that – no one does, but there are some things that can help you along with the process. Some days, I’m super proud of everything I’ve done in relation to my sexual assault and want to demonstrate what I learnt from it to help other survivors. Other days, I believe that I’m lying; he didn’t rape me, I gave up saying no, I went to his flat so what did I expect? To combat these thoughts I simply ask someone I’m close to, such as my parents, to simply state, and reaffirm that ‘he assaulted you and it wasn’t your fault’. Something simple but hearing it from someone else can help minimise that voice in your head. We all listen so much to the opinion of others, we need affirmation that someone is on our side.

My other recommendation is seeing a therapist. Easier said than done, as there are many reasons why people won’t or don’t have access to a therapist, such as waiting lists or fitting it around other responsibilities. This recommendation also highlights the difficulty of BAME survivors obtaining help for sexual assault. I’m a white, cis-gendered survivor, so even though this recovery process is difficult, I’m privileged to not have it worsened by racism.

It’s been a month since George Floyd was murdered and many white people taking to social media, committing themselves to change and to recognise their privilege, but this behaviour needs to be sustained. For that to work, we need to acknowledge that every element of life is affected by race and it is no different for sexual assault recovery. This is something we have to unite against and change.

Although I may not have the answer, affirming that your experience is as true and traumatic as you believe - and that other people believe that too - is a huge step towards recovery. That invasive thought of feeling like you lied about your sexual assault, or it wasn’t as bad as you remember it, can be incredibly hard to manage whilst being constantly reminded that false allegation happen too and that the legal system may not be able to help either. Imposter syndrome works in the favour of the abuser and acts as a silencer of victims. But as time goes on you’ll be more assured that you’re telling your truth. You’re not a fraud. You are someone who’s surviving a traumatic experience, and kicking arse whilst doing it.

Written by Rebekah Cheung