How rape myths and unconscious biases prejudice the judicial system against women – and rape survivors in particular

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It is well documented that women who are sexually assaulted, or raped, rarely report the crime to the police. The US charity, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, has shown that one in six women in the US has been the victim of rape or attempted rape, yet two in three rapes go unreported. For women under 25, that figure drops to one in five.

In the UK, these figures are similarly bleak. The Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales notes that, in the year to December 2021, the police recorded 67,125 rape offences. And yet the charity Rape Crisis says five in six women who are raped don’t report it.

Many factors feed into why women do not report such crimes. The primary reason, however, is the lack of trust many express in the policing and legal systems.

My research looks at how social inequalities and implicit biases impact legal decisions. Even when jury members and police officers believe they are acting without prejudice, which is more overt and forceful, they cannot avoid their implicit biases.

Why victims of sexual assault do not trust the judicial system

Data from the UK criminal justice system shows that even when a survivor reports a rape and a person is charged, it is unlikely to see them found guilty. Rape Crisis figures show that less than two in 100 rapes recorded by the police in 2022 ended in a charge, or a conviction.

The End Violence Against Women Coalition, a feminist anti-violence charity, has shown that, since the rape and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer in 2021, one in ten women across the UK were even less likely to report sexual assault to police than they were before. A poll by Savanta ComRes in February 2023 found that 26% of women said that they had “no trust in the police at all”.

In court, sexual assault cases are defined by legal precedents, in which gender stereotypes and rape myths have been found to play a significant role. These stereotypes are often rooted in misconceptions and in morality judgements – about what the victim was wearing, whether they had been drinking, whether they knew the rapist or had been flirting with them – affect how a case is prosecuted and how a jury then deliberates it.

My ongoing research shows that there is also a tendency in jury trials, even those with jurors who score low on prejudicial attitudes towards women, that if a woman was intoxicated or did not run away or scream during a rape, then she had “asked for it”.

These biased views are grounded in gender stereotypes and norms. They are also based on a lack of understanding around psychological reactions to assault and rape, where some people freeze due to fear.

Further enduring rape myths concern domestic rape. There is a persistent assumption that rape and assault does not happen within marriage or long-term relationships. This, along with the idea that men have higher sex drive and that women are a “tease”, hinge on mistaken understandings around consent and rooted in masculine/feminine stereotypes.


For the full article visit the Conversation.