Ellen Daly is a PhD candidate at Anglia Ruskin University. Her research explores the use of rape myths and other narratives in rape and sexual assault trials in England and Wales.
In recent years there has been a great deal of media attention paid to the prosecution of rape. Most recently criticisms have frequently centred around the falling prosecution rate in England and Wales. Although reports of rape are increasing, the number of prosecutions continues to fall. This means that many victims are not getting the justice they are seeking through reporting to the criminal justice system. Only a tiny portion see justice, and for victim-survivors from minoritised or marginalised groups the chances of seeing a conviction are even slimmer. This begs the question “why?” – why does it seem that victim-survivors from particular groups are more likely to find justice through the criminal justice system?
Evidence suggests that victim-survivors from particular backgrounds have limited access to justice as a result of structural inequalities and various aspects of their perceived identity (see for example Lovett et al 2007 and Hester 2013). There is little contemporary research that addresses these issues, particularly in the context of criminal court. Criticisms of Crown Court responses to rape and sexual assault often focus on the influence of rape myths on trial practices and outcomes, but very little has been done to explore the links between what goes on in the courtroom and the differences in attrition rates for women from minoritised or marginalised groups. This is what my PhD research seeks to explore.
Rape myths are frequently pointed to as offering an explanation for the lack of justice for rape and sexual assault victim-survivors as a whole, and with good reason. It is well established, through a strong body of research from a range of disciplines, that rape myths are commonly accepted among the general population, including by those involved (or potentially involved) in the administration of criminal justice. This includes research that evidences the existence of rape myths at trial and their influence on jurors.
Rape myths have featured in every rape and sexual assault trial I have observed so far and have usually had the function of either blaming the victim or excusing the defendant’s alleged actions. They are utilised as a tool for casting doubt on victim-survivor testimony and to bolster the defence of the accused.
In my observations I have heard the behaviour of victim-survivors being questioned, implying that but for their actions the incident would not have occurred. I heard a victim-survivor being questioned on her drinking habits and binge-drinking, even though a central argument to the defence case was that she was not drunk on the night in question. These arguments draw on rape myths that seek to minimise the behaviour of the accused by positioning the victim-survivors as bearing responsibility for what happened to them.
I have heard victim-survivors being positioned as liars who are seeking revenge or are embarrassed and regretful. In the courtroom, these myths that position women as liars rely on the misconception that false allegations of rape are common, when actually we know that not to be true. These lines of argument may be particularly pertinent to juror decision-making when considered against the backdrop of mass media coverage regarding collapsed cases.
These myths can be applied to all victim-survivors though, so their presence doesn’t necessarily answer what could be happening to impact specifically on those from minortised and marginalised groups. Provisional findings from my research indicate that one possibility is that narratives around social class are used in trial and that they intersect with the gendered rape myths that are already known to exist in the courtroom.
There are no direct references to social class, it is more subtly implied through small seeds sown throughout the trial. There are frequent references to victim-survivors and defendants being uneducated and unintelligent, which come against the context of evidence which establishes that they live in an impoverished town, on a council estate, that they receive state benefits, are unemployed or are in insecure work. All of which are things that are reflective of working-class stereotypes in our society. The work of Charles Murray in the 1990s on the so-called ‘underclass’ in Britain and its subsequent and continued uptake by the media and politicians, provides a starting point for arguing that stereotypes often portray working-class people as poorly educated or of lower intelligence compared to those deemed middle- and upper-class.
In my observations, defendants being of low intelligence was being presented by the defence as an inability to lie or pretend, positioning them as the credible party the juries should believe above the victim-survivors. To illustrate, two trials included text message evidence of what could be read as confessions to the events in question. In these trials the specific wording used by the defendants was thoroughly picked apart by both prosecution and defence, with the prosecution proclaiming that the defendants’ explanations were ridiculous. Whilst on the other hand, the defence in both cases rationalised the choice of words as being because the defendants are uneducated or unintelligent, that his words were not intended as a confession to rape or sexual assault and can simply be explained by his poor grasp of English grammar and vocabulary. These narratives are taking the counter-side of the ‘women lie’ rape myth, by suggesting that these ‘unintelligent’ working-class men are too stupid to lie convincingly and therefore must be believed.
Other narratives related to social class draw on middle-class ideals of respectability. Victim-survivors are portrayed as not conforming to these standards of respectability, whether that be through their drinking habits or the way they present themselves. We needn’t look much further than reality TV to evidence how young women, particularly those from working-class backgrounds, have been portrayed as heavy drinkers whose behaviour and ways of dressing are used to depict them as ‘easy’ and ‘up for anything’ (recent examples include Geordie Shore and TOWIE). This of course links to gendered rape myths around respectability, which are based on middle-class ideals.
The findings I’ve outlined here perhaps begin to answer how some groups of victim-survivors appear to have a lower chance of seeing a conviction in their cases. Narratives drawing on victim-survivors’ and defendants’ perceived identity or membership to a particular group, which in the examples outlined here related to social class, intersect with gendered rape myth narratives. Therefore it is not only rape myths that play a role in undermining the credibility of victim-survivors and bolstering the presumed innocence of defendants. The reality inside the courtroom is much more nuanced than that. Myth-busting measures are unlikely to have the desired effect without taking account of broader structural inequalities. Fair justice cannot come from a system where convictions and acquittals can be made based on myths and stereotypes.
Ellen Daly, Anglia Ruskin University
Copyright free images courtesy of the author