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Myths about rape myths

By Helen Reece

In recent decades, England and Wales have experienced extensive rape law reform and a substantial rise in rape reporting, but the number of rape convictions has not kept pace, leading to a galloping attrition rate: the current proportion of recorded rapes that result in a rape conviction is about 7%. To the extent that rape law reform aimed at convicting more men of rape, it has not been an unqualified success.

This has led many erstwhile law reformers to turn their attention to attitudes to rape. Their argument is that reform has proved ineffective because so many people, particularly those involved in the criminal justice system, hold ‘rape myths’. This argument has achieved broad consensus; perhaps perplexingly, most people believe that most people believe rape myths. But I suggest that popular belief in rape myths has been exaggerated. We are creating myths about myths, or myth myths.

Myth Myth No. 1

There is a particularly stark justice gap in relation to rape — many rapes aren’t acknowledged as such by the victim, most acknowledged rapes aren’t reported, and most reported rapes don’t result in a conviction — so a particularly high proportion of rape complainants will not see the perpetrator convicted.

Throughout the criminal justice system, the proportion of offenders who end up convicted is tiny — higher than rape for some crimes, lower than rape for other crimes. Burglary has about the same attrition rate (from recorded crime to conviction). There is not good evidence that people are less likely to acknowledge or report rape than other crimes.

Myth Myth No. 2

Evidence from rape myth attitude surveys proves that people hold rape myths.

Current rape myth survey research tends to define rape myths as ethically wrong rather than factually false. What’s more, your view can be factually correct but still classed as ethically wrong and therefore a rape myth. So what these rape myth researchers are actually proving is that lots of people have views that are accurate but different from the researchers. We now have the oxymoronic ‘true myth’.

Next, rape myth researchers designed their questions to catch people, adjusting these questions until they managed to produce a bell curve. Bell curves have their uses, but they can’t be used to show that people have awful attitudes. This is just like making the driving test practically impossible to pass, then treating the resulting fail rate as evidence of appalling driving.

Myth Myth No. 3

People believe in ‘real rape’ – a very violent attack by an armed stranger on a woman who ends up physically injured.

What does this even mean? Does it mean that people believe ‘real rape’ is the only sort of rape, the most common sort of rape, or the most serious type of rape? The only strong evidence for any of these propositions is that ‘real rape’ is more likely to lead to a conviction at the end of a trial. But this doesn’t mean that jurors believe the ‘real rape’ myth — they might just find it easier to convict when the evidence doesn’t boil down to whose story they believe.

Myth Myth No. 4

People believe that women cry rape, but they don’t.

There isn’t good evidence that people are less believing of rape complainants than other complainants. Mumsnet’s recently launched rape awareness campaign is called simply ‘We Believe You’. There also isn’t good evidence as to the proportion of women who do cry rape. To achieve justice, it is important to be both sympathetic and questioning towards all complainants, including rape complainants.

Myth Myth No. 5

People believe that women show consent to sex through their behaviour, such as inviting a man back for coffee, but this isn’t the case.

It may be messy, but people do tend to show sexual consent with roundabout signs; there is no formula. If people tell the researchers that coffee is one of those signs then it probably is. Sometimes rape myth reformers’ real objection seems to be to a traditional construction of heterosexuality in which men pursue women. There are many good reasons to challenge this gendered binary, but it can’t be done by creating a code cracker for sexual consent. A different sexual vision needs to be argued for openly, not smuggled in as opposition to rape myths.

Myth Myth No. 6

Jurors scrutinise rape complainants’ behaviour: why she was there, what she was wearing, etc. This is wrong.

It’s not wrong: jurors have to work out if the woman was consenting. This can only be done by looking at her behaviour, and of course the defendant’s response to it.

Myth Myth No. 7

People blame rape victims, even when they believe them.

There isn’t good evidence that people blame rape victims more than other crime victims. Public opinion surveys such as the Amnesty survey ask people if they think rape victims are ‘responsible’ and then treat responsibility as equivalent to blame. It isn’t. In fact, there is evidence that people tend to blame rape victims less than other crime victims; witness the vitriol heaped on the McCanns.

Helen Reece joined LSE as a Reader in Law in September 2009. Her main teaching responsibilities and research interests lie in Family Law. She is the author of “Rape Myths: Is Elite Opinion Right and Popular Opinion Wrong?” (available to read for free for a limited time) in the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies.

The Oxford Journal of Legal Studies is published on behalf of the Faculty of Law in the University of Oxford. It is designed to encourage interest in all matters relating to law, with an emphasis on matters of theory and on broad issues arising from the relationship of law to other disciplines.

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Recent Comments

  1. Serena

    Oh dear. What is this woman trying to achieve? She is woefully mis-stating just about every rape myth there is, and forming each one very neatly into a straw man.

    This article is so wrong on every point, she is either being grossly disingenuous, or just unbelievably ignorant.

    I don’t have the energy to pick her up on every argument (they’re all flawed), but I do wonder, what is this esteemed journal doing publishing such flimsy, wrong, and harmful rubbish?

  2. Scott

    In the US, law enforcement are now using protocol perversions and semantics games to manufacture the untruth that only 2% of rape accusations are false, when in reality its much higher. This manufactured statistic Inflames a jury prejudice against any guy facing a false rape accusation, and may very well be unconstitutional.

  3. gwallan

    The biggest rape myth of all is perpetuated here just as it is everywhere else.

  4. Sarah

    Scott, I have been frustrated with the US playing the “semantics game”! Whenever the population rises up against a current policy, that just change the terms or words, to make it more palatable! Notice the “absolute” words in gwallan and Serena’s posts: “wrong on EVERY point”. “They’re ALL flawed” “all” “everywhere else”, and the name calling…”wrong….every point” disingenuous” “ignorant” “flimsy” “rubbish” “harmful”.

    These words intentionally try to suppress legitimate, intelligent discussion on this matter! As you wrote : “This manufactured statistic inflames a jury prejudice against any guy facing a false rape accusation, and may very well be unconstitutional.” My son is in prison, in a horrible state, for a rape he did not commit, because of these overt semantics game playing. Mostly to avoid taking responsibility, I believe!

  5. Brendan

    If you want to argue in favour of thoroughly debunked rape myths you should try bringing research to the table that supports your position. All your current argument boils down to is “The results of decades of research into the social and legal causes and effects of rape don’t fit into my world view, so, rather than accepting the possibility that my world view is wrong, I instead refuse to accept the validity of the evidence.” If the closest you can come to for a supporting argument is a comparison to the conviction rates of burglary cases (a crime which is, for the most part, committed anonymously, making it notoriously difficult to identify perpetrators) and rape cases (a crime in which the majority of attackers are known to their victim) then you really need to stop speaking on this subject and start listening. Until you do that all you’re doing is perpetuating a social attitude that makes it easy for rapists to get away with their crimes.

  6. Chris

    While Brendan makes a good point about citing your sources when speaking about such a controversial matter (or even if it’s not – massive injustices can slip by if politically correct) the conclusion he leaps to – dismissing the assertions out-of-hand – is just as hazardous.

    A “social attitude that makes it easy for rapists to get away with their crimes” huh? I see due process. Or, the principle that will let a potential perp go if there’s reasonable doubt on how things actually happened. This should apply both to potential rapists and potential false accusers. But, more and more often (don’t take my word for it, check out places like A Voice for Men and the YouTube channels “girlwriteswhat” and “manwomanmyth” that talk about this far better than I ever could) this is being subverted so hard that the accusation itself (when, and ONLY when being wielded by a woman against a man) is an effective weapon of coersion.

    I could go further, but as I said, my sources are far better at this whole “gender equality statistics” thing than me.

  7. A. Lowery

    Once again the main problem has been conveniently ignored………CASH for CLAIMS equals massive false allegations ……further prostituting actual rape figures which are already being massaged according to viewpoints by interested parties.
    STOP paying cash compensation to everyone who see’s a quick buck to be made and provide a more efficient and beneficial means to assist actual victims and we will then get accurate sex offence figures and be more ably equipped to help victims and punish/control the real perpetrators. CASH for claims equals corruption, you cannot compensate for the real crime of rape or sex offence with cash.

  8. Serket

    1) Burglary doesn’t generally have witnesses. Perhaps you should compare like with like? What’s the attrition rate on violent assault?

    2) Doesn’t make sense and wasn’t a useful thing to say. While I’m here, calling things “myth myths” is just pointlessly confusing.

    3) “Does it mean that people believe ‘real rape’ is the only sort of rape, the most common sort of rape, or the most serious type of rape?”

    Yes to all of the above, and five minutes of research would have answered this “question” for you. Public figures frequently talk about “real rape” or “rape rape” as though there is or ought to be a legal difference between “violent stranger rape” and “supposed friend with threat of violence rape”.
    I suggest you research articles before publishing. It might help you.

    4) “There isn’t good evidence that people are less believing of rape complainants than other complainants.”

    You mean apart from the hosts of people that come out to support the accused (without evidence) in every high profile rape case? Or the prevalence of the “it was consensual” defence, which wouldn’t work if people believed the complainants? Or the treatment rape victims get when they do report, and which they frequently write about?

    If rape victims telling you that they were not believed is not good evidence, then perhaps you should push for research that you will consider good evidence, rather than calling them liars?

    5) People show consent through saying “Yes I would like to have sex with you”, or some variant thereof. Nothing else is consent because that’s what consent is.

    6) What someone wears is not relevant to consent. Clothing is not consent. Even if clothing constitutes an invitation to be approached, it doesn’t constitute consent. If you wear a nice dress because you’re on the pull that doesn’t mean you said yes to everyone. And it doesn’t mean you said yes to your rapist.

    7) See 6). The usual things that come up in rape cases – clothes, activity, sexual history – none of them are actually relevant to whether the victim said yes at the time. So why do they come up? Because people are trying to blame the victims.

    Anecdotally, have you ever heard anyone say “Well she was asking for it, going out like that” about a rape case. I have. Everyone I know has. It’s a common trope. And it is blaming the victim. But strangely enough you don’t hear it in criminal assault cases.

    As for the amnesty survery, naturally people don’t acknowledge their blaming habits when asked directly. They also don’t generally examine their actions to check whether their victim-blaming is a subconscious response either.

  9. Barbara

    Reece’s critique of rape myths research disregards a large body of psychological evidence showing that many rape myths are, in fact, false beliefs that can be refuted on the basis of empirical research.

    Her attack on established and psychometrically sound measures of rape myth acceptance and on research linking these measures to perceptions of victim and perpetrator blame is made without an understanding of the basic principles of reliability and validity in psychological measurement. Therefore, her claim that there is little evidence that rape myths play a role in low conviction rates for rape must be rejected on the basis of the available evidence.

    For a more detailed critique see: http://www.uni-potsdam.de/fileadmin/projects/sozialpsychologie/assets/Comment_Reece_Paper.pdf

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  15. Joy

    First off, using the rhetoric of ‘myth myth’ further confuses the matter. There ARE rape myths and as Serket and Barbara pointed out, it doesn’t take very long for anyone who lives in Western culture to figure it out.

    How many times is a woman or girl blamed for drinking alcohol?
    How many times is a woman or girl blamed for her clothing?
    How many women and girls are told to ‘not go out in the dark?’

    These are simple questions and they have simple answers and all the answers to these questions are myths because they take the responsibility for the rape OFF the rapist and put it onto the victim.

    We don’t look at mugging victims and say ‘but you were walking in THAT neighbourhood!’ Do we? No, we don’t. The mugger gets the full weight of the law and blame upon him.

    This entire ‘myth myth’ nonsense belongs on a misogynist Men’s Rights website, where incidentally, it’s wound up.

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