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Too much blame placed on popular prejudices against rape victims for low conviction rates

Rape law reformers who have failed in their efforts to significantly increase the number of convictions are placing too much blame on the role of popular prejudices against rape victims, according to new research from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Helen Reece, an expert in violence against women of LSE's Law Department, says the influence of “rape myths”, the preconceptions and stereotypes about women which are said to negatively affect the way police and jurors consider evidence, has been overstated.

She also argues that the broad consensus regarding the low conviction rate as a terrible blot on the legal landscape is unjustified when rates are compared with those of other serious crimes.

The article, Is Elite Opinion Right and Popular Opinion Wrong? is due to be published in The Oxford Journal of Legal Studies today.Justice

Despite extensive rape law reform in recent years and a substantial rise in rape reporting, the number of convictions has not kept pace. This has led many law reformers to turn their attention to attitudes to rape. Ms Reece says: “In essence, the argument is that reform has proved relatively ineffective because a range of agents, from judges through to the general public, hold ‘rape myths’ or ‘rape supportive attitudes’, meaning that the number of rape convictions will not substantially increase until these agents are either educated out of their unhelpful attitudes or removed from the criminal justice process. The nub of this argument has achieved broad consensus, as a result of which the approach has achieved some success in shaping public policy.”

Ms Reece adds: “Without a shadow of a doubt, historically attitudes to rape both reinforced and reflected women’s subordinate societal role. Nor is there any question that some people still have misogynistic attitudes while some others labour under misapprehensions about rape, and these attitudes and misapprehensions may impair assessment of rape trials and rape victims. However…I argue that the regressiveness of current public attitudes towards rape has been overstated.”

She explains that the claim that rape myths can be challenged on three grounds:

1. Some of the attitudes are not myths - they are based on opinion and facts.

2. Not all the myths are about rape – they are based on how people negotiate sex.

3. There is little evidence that the rape myths are widespread.

The proportion of recorded rapes that result in a conviction currently stands at about seven per cent. However, when compared to conviction rates of other serious crimes, this is not such a shock, she argues.

Ms Reece comments: “Although this statistic is often cited as proof that there is a particularly stark justice gap in relation to rap, a couple of points should be noted. First, the figure rises to about 12 per cent when convictions for other sexual offences are included, and convictions for lesser offences generally play a well-established role in the criminal justice system.

“Secondly, deciding whether or not the attrition rate for rape is out of line with that of other crimes depends on the comparator: for example, the rate for burglary is similar, also standing at about seven per cent in 2011/12.”

Rape myths have been defined and categorised by researchers, for reports such as the Sentencing Advisory Panel which has resulted in prosecutors and detectives being trained to challenge these stereotypes. These include, the ‘coffee myth’ where people are said to wrongly believe that if a woman invites a man home for coffee after a night out, it generally means an invitation to have sex with her. Ms Reece comments: “Most participants probably mean that an invitation for coffee is by convention a signal of consent and/or that women tend to signal consent in this way. Interestingly, rather than providing evidence of the prevalence of rape myths, those who agree with this statement are providing evidence of its truth…the best evidence we have of how women show consent to sex is how people say women show consent to sex.”

Ms Reece argues that the surveys used to explore rape myth attitudes are designed to "catch people out". One example, she says, is when respondents agree that being drunk makes the woman responsible for being raped. Ms Reece points out that this is interpreted by researchers as blame, when it "may have meant that her drunkenness was causally implicated in the rape, in the sense that she might not have been raped if she had been sober, that being drunk increased the risk of being raped."

Those who want to educate the public have gone too far, she argues. “If jurors mistakenly believe that physical injuries must accompany rape, or that a woman’s delayed complaint means that she was not raped, then certainly information will help their decision-making. However, this is not true of the training programmes aimed at dispelling stereotypes, let alone the ‘wider educational initiatives designed to target social attitudes.’

“As we have seen, these involve persuading people to believe that they believe the most perverse rape myths, by labeling as myths what are actually a mixture of fact and opinion, depicting the occasionally held sex myth as rampant rape myth, and putting the worst possible interpretation on ambiguous and complex statements. The message of these initiatives – that those attitudes which are disapproved of are rape-supportive, and those views which are not shared are rape myths – functions to close down, not open up, the possibilities of a productive public conversation about these important and at times vexed questions.”

Posted 25 March 2013

Helen Reece is a qualified Barrister and Reader in Law at LSE. The School’s Law Department plays a major role in policy debates and policy-making, and in the education of lawyers and law teachers from around the world. 

Ms Reece’s current research is concerned with the regulation of intimacy. The main research project at present, Violence to Feminism, is a theoretical probing of the contemporary feminist approach to violence against women. The two main research questions are first, why contemporary feminist theory has celebrated ever-widening conceptions of violence and secondly, why the contemporary feminist approach to violence against women has permeated legal development.

For a copy of the article, please email Joanna Bale, LSE press office, on j.m.bale@lse.ac.uk

To interview Helen Reece, please email h.reece@lse.ac.uk