Rape Myths among Appalachian College Students

Article excerpt

Rape myths regularly admonish victims for supposedly provoking the violence done against them. While rape attitudes have been studied in national and urban samples, the support of rape myths in rural populations is seldom investigated. Furthermore, the few empirical studies on sexual coercion in Appalachia are mostly descriptive and rarely compare the sentiments of Appalachians and non-Appalachians. To address this gap, this study surveyed 512 college students at a public university in Eastern Kentucky. In testing an Appalachian distinctiveness question, this study revealed that Appalachian students were less likely to criticize rape victims. Students were also less inclined to condemn rape victims when they were victims themselves, came from egalitarian families, stayed in college longer, rejected modern sexism, and felt little animosity toward women.

Keywords: rape myths; victim blame; attitudes toward women; Appalachian status; traditional gender roles; modern sexism

It is estimated that one in every four women will be the victim of rape in their lifetime, and up to 45% of collegiate women have endured some form of sexual assault since leaving high school (Dekeseredy & Kelly, 1993). Victims of rape not only suffer from direct physical and psychological hardships of such violence but must deal with societal interpretations that blame them for their misery. This constellation of beliefs have come to be known as rape myths, or the "set of beliefs and narratives that explain why rapes occur in a fashion that absolves the perpetrator of guilt and rests the source of the problem on the victim" (Ward, 1988, p. 129). In essence, this narrative contends that rape can be traced to lapses in female judgments and morality. With a fixation on the victim's demeanor, these accounts insist that women trigger stranger and date rapes by being too alluring, naïve, or dishonest. To adherents of this worldview, the solution to this problem is victim based; if women conform to a long list of proscribed rules, then rape would disappear.

In addressing the issue of rape myths, this work primarily focuses on the "she deserved it" rationale. While national studies discover rape throughout the country, some works highlight apparent regional differences within the United States (Gagné, 1992 ; Shwaner & Keil, 2003 ; Websdale & Johnson, 1998). While Appalachian peoples are usually ignored by academic studies, the characterizations in movies, books, and cartoons regularly chide Appalachians for being simple-minded fools who are inarticulate, prone to violence, incestuous, bucktoothed, and lazy (historian Phyllis Wilson Moore coined the acronym PIWASH-poor, ignorant, White, Anglo-shoeless, hillbilly). In fact the prominent Appalachian scholar Dwight Billings (1999) contends, "While the peoples and cultures in the Appalachian mountains are decidedly plural, outside the region in the arts, the academy and popular culture, many representations of them now, as for the past one hundred years, are often monolithic, pejorative and unquestioned" (p. 3).


Rape Myths and Appalachian Status

Some empirical studies on sexual aggression repeat the "Appalachian distinctiveness" characterization. In doing so, they assert that the cultural, economic, and geographic milieus of Appalachia breed greater violence against women (Denham, 2003; Dye, Tolliver, Lee, & Kinney, 1995; Fiene, 1995; Gagné, 1992 ; Willis, 1998). In exemplifying this argument, Patricia Gagné (1992) claims that the structural settings of central Appalachia foster greater gender violence because women often live in geographically isolated homes, have little surplus income, and lack access to competent human service agencies. Likewise, Gagné suggests that the overarching mores devalue female worth, endorse sexual double standards, and demand greater passivity in wives. Much like Gagné, Websdale (1995) sees the same patterns but adds that Appalachians show a greater fondness toward the "disciplinary violence" that keeps women, children, and others fearful and compliant. …