Rape myths and stereotypes

The Crown Prosecution Service recently produced new guidance for prosecutors considering rape charges. The new guidance was said to help tackle rape myths and stereotypes, several of which were referenced.

How much of an issue are rape myths?

According to the media there are were issues with rape trials and jurors do not like to convict defendants accused of rape. There have been calls for jury trials for rape cases to be abolished amidst suggestions that jurors were biased against complainants based on their belief of these myths.

A petition in Parliament in 2018 called for jurors in rape trials to undertake compulsory training on rape myths. There was no cited research to back up the claims that “jurors accept commonly held rape myths” and “thus acquit rapists who are in fact guilty”. The petition went on to claim that the conviction rate for rape was 21% lower than other crimes and that 66% of jurors did not understand the judge’s legal directions which attempted to dispel rape myths. The claims did not come from actual research with juries but appear to have been based on opinion polls and anecdotal evidence from those involved in the system.

In direct contradiction to the claims in the petition, there had been detailed research on conviction rates which had shown that a jury was more likely to convict in a rape trial than acquit. The research also showed that the conviction rate was higher for rape than it was for other serious offences such as making threats to kill, causing grievous bodily harm and attempted murder.

The government was required to respond to the petition as it had gained the requisite number of signatures. The response set out how appropriate research was needed rather than reliance on anecdote.

What guidance is given?

Judges provide directions to juries about rape myths and have done so for some time. Judges in the Crown Court are provided with a book containing detailed guidance on dealing with directions to juries. The book, known as the Crown Court Compendium, deals with issues such as previous relationship/contact between the complainant and defendant, sexual experience of the defendant, inconsistent accounts, emotion on giving evidence, intoxication and clothing. A judge can give such directions at any stage of the trial he considers appropriate.

What actual research has been done?

In 2018-2019 the UCL Jury Project carried out research with real juries. Two key questions were where whether judges should provide any additional guidance and if actual jurors did believe in rape myths and stereotypes.

The jurors were asked about common rape myths such as bruises or marks being needed, that a person had to fight back, and wearing provocative clothing. The vast majority did not believe them. For the most part, those who did amounted to less than one person on a jury.

An issue was identified where jurors were unsure was stranger rape versus acquaintance rape. Most rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, but 31% of jurors were unsure which was more common.

A second issue was in respect of the emotions of a complainant giving evidence. The amount of emotion shown can vary widely, but nearly half of jurors thought a complainant would be very emotional, 22% believed the opposite and 35% were uncertain.

There was a great deal of uncertainty with jurors about questions relating to; whether the police often don’t believe victims; whether some people make up allegations about famous people; whether it is hard to know if rape occurred if both parties were drunk; and if some women said they were raped when they had regretted consensual sex.

How does the research compare to the petition?

The research demonstrates that the assertion in the petition that jurors accept commonly held rape myths is incorrect, as is the claim of widespread juror bias.

There appears to be a difference between the answers of real jurors and those from mock jurors or opinion polls. It suggests that the experience of real jurors cannot be replicated. The research by the UCL Jury Project involved 1175 jurors out of a possible 1177; the project says this means it presents a reliable source of information.

What should be done?

The research with real jurors indicates that additional guidance in the two specific areas above would be beneficial. The UCL Jury Project is to continue with its research in order to determine the best way to direct juries on these issues. The research will be directed to seeing if there are new tools which could help reduce the number of jurors who were uncertain about these issues, and those who hold incorrect beliefs.

As a firm we continue to monitor research in this field to ensure the very best representation for our clients.

How can we help? 

If you would like to discuss any aspect of your case, please contact our team of criminal defence solicitors on 0207 837 3456 .

[Image credit: “The Royal Courts of Justice” by R/DV/RS is licensed under CC BY 2.0)