Rape Myths and the Criminal Justice System

Law does violence to women, compounding the physical and emotional harms women experience from sexual harm. Masculinity pervades our courts.”

Against the backdrop of a meagre 7.2% conviction rate for rape across the UK and criticism and reduced trust in the police in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard by a police officer; rape myths permeate the entire criminal justice system and victims are often faced with these from the moment they report the rape to the police, all the way through to the trial stage. This article seeks to interrogate the perception of women as rape victims as they engage with police officers and legal actors in their pursuit of justice.

What are rape myths?

Rape myths are highly gendered and widely accepted prejudicial fallacies about rape victims and perpetrators. These include, for example, notions on how a victim of rape presents and how this speaks to their credibility; that a rape victim may in some cases bear a responsibility for the rape; that rapists are generally ‘strangers in dark alleyways’; that there’s a correlation between a woman’s clothing and her consent; and many more.

The Crown Prosecution Service defines rape myths as “beliefs and attitudes people have specifically about rape and sexual violence that are commonly and persistently held yet, may be factually inaccurate.”

These fallacies perpetuate wider “gender norms and sexual scripts that naturalise male sexual aggression and position women as sexual gatekeepers responsible for evading and/or rejecting unwanted sexual advances

Rape Myths within the Police Force

The perpetuation of rape myths by police officers is particularly concerning since, as the first port of call for victims, officers “serve as gatekeepers to the criminal justice system” and play a pivotal role in directing investigations.

A 2019 survey of 808 UK police officers, who exhibited high levels of acceptance of rape myths indicated that many officers “judged victims as more responsible for their rape, perpetrators as less responsible and were more likely to make negative judgements regarding authenticity when presented with a hypothetical rape

A more recent study by the University of Suffolk explored the presence of rape myths in UK police forces, and the impact of these on investigations and prosecutions. The study highlighted that detectives on rape and serious sexual offences cases do not receive specialist training. One officer remarked “I was very surprised that I wasn’t going to get any training, because it is so different. And trying to adapt to that, I know for me and a lot of my colleagues . . . was very challenging. So why the detectives don’t get training is something of a mystery to me.”

The study explored the most common and impactful rape myths that police officers accept. These were divided into two general categories: (1) victim fabrication, whereby officers doubt the veracity of the allegation, and (2) victim precipitation, whereby officers esteems that the behaviour or traits of the victim were somehow precipitating factors to the rape.

Victim Fabrication

  • False allegations ‘victims lie’: The study found that police officers over-estimate the number of false allegations. Despite these being very rare, (only around 3% of allegations are malicious allegations), police officers tend to view victims as lying or no telling the whole truth. One officer recounted a particularly concerning incident: “One case was NFA’d saying it was a provable lie. The victim said she was picked up by an Uber at X spot – she actually got in the car 50 yards down the way, so the officers said it was a provable lie that she’s got in the car a different place”.
  • Repeat / Serial Allegers: The study found police officers tend to believe that victims lie repeatedly “often making not just one, but numerous, false allegations across time”. A number of police officers “took repeat allegations as a priori evidence of falsity” and will routinely inform the CPS whether a victim has or hasn’t reported a previous rape, even though this would be irrelevant to any present rape.

Police officers tend to more readily believe the victim is inventing the rape, than that it could have reasonably happened. This will necessarily impact their investigative practice, as they are more likely to take an approach seeking to disprove the allegations, as opposed to proving them.

The victim’s account is thus picked apart and officers questioning things like ‘Why didn’t you scream?’ ‘Why didn’t you resist?’ ‘Why didn’t you report it immediately?’

Victim Precipitation

  • Sexual behaviour of victims: A highly prevalent rape myth within the police is that a potential victims sexual; behaviour prior to, during, and after the assault is relevant to their victimisation and credibility. Police officers may even view the actual rape as “almost incidental in comparison with the victim’s sexual history”.
  • Non-sexual behaviour of victims - peripheral details about the victim and the incident also tend to inform police officer’s perception of the veracity of the allegation. Notably, officers view allegations from intoxicated victims as “ambiguous, less legitimate or false” with the victim’s memory of events often coming under scrutiny.

The notion that a victim’s history, character, or behaviour impacts the veracity of an allegation of rape is a myth that is reflective of how society views women as a whole. Rape is unique in the sense that it is the only crime where the victim is just as much, if not more on trial than the perpetrator. It is the only crime where a victim’s digital records, medical records, and entire life are scrutinised and investigated to find any shred of information that might undermine their credibility. Indeed, many victims are left feeling blamed by the police

One police officer notes “Their [victims’] sexual history would be questioned, their morals will be questioned, the intimate details of their relationship – not the one in question, but other relationships as well – could be brought into that courtroom

Rape Myths Perpetuated in the Courtroom

After taking the difficult step of reporting the rape, and often being faced with a police force determined to undermine their credibility, many victims go through an additional harrowing experience: the trial.

At a given trial, the defence is seeking to counter the allegation of rape by either (1) denying any sexual intercourse occurred or (2) asserting that if there was sexual intercourse, the victim consented to the sex, and the defendant reasonably believed she consented.

Victims of rape are often subjected to ruthless cross examination by defence barristers who attack their character, recollection, and credibility. Particularly shocking rhetoric was deployed during an Irish case where the defence lawyer told the jury “You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front.”

Other rape myths are rife in the court room, with defence barristers alleging that the victim was flirtatious, intoxicated, or she consented at the time and later regretted it and this being her motivation for reporting it to the police. Her behaviour and presentation after the rape are scrutinised as well, with a lawyers drawing on the victim’s immediate actions after the rape, delays in reporting, and her demeanour in court to allege that her behaviour was somehow inconsistent with that of a victim of rape.

Such trial experiences lead to many women becoming retraumatised. As Dame Vera Baird QC notes regarding rape victims that “not only are they denied justice, but they feel actively re-victimised by the criminal justice system”.  Additionally, the entire process serves to disincentivise victims of rape from coming forward and reporting, with many providing the reason for non-reporting as they didn’t think they would be believed.

The criminal justice system as a whole continues to fail women who are victims of rape by subjecting them to a long and arduous process, with the odds stacked against them.

There needs to be significant cultural and institutional change to give rape victims a chance at securing justice and to ensure perpetrators are held accountable for their crimes.


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