Who is to say that rape that doesn't involve physical violence is any less 'real' than one that does?

Dr Sam Lundrigan

Misconceptions about rape and the characteristics of ‘typical’ victims and offenders mean that the criminal justice process often lets victims down, says Sam Lundrigan.

Here is the challenge: it is well known that conviction rates for rape cases are low: for example, in 2004, only 31% of defendants who were charged with rape in England and Wales, tried by jury and pleaded not guilty, were convicted. There was a similar proportion (36.2%) in the USA.

The impact of a not-guilty verdict on victims can, of course, be quite devastating. The victim will have had to endure the trauma of a trial, at the end of which they won’t have obtained the justice they seek. What’s more these experiences may put off other victims proceeding to a trial. Indeed, many cases never even get as far as the courtroom: currently only one in seven rape cases make it through the criminal justice system to the final hurdle – trial by jury. It is this last stage of the process that I am currently focusing on. With a specific focus on jury decision making, I am trying to understand some of the extra-legal factors that may help explain why juries convict some cases and not others. Our focus so far has been on the influence of stereotypical beliefs about rape on jurors’ verdicts.

We know that when people are asked to describe a typical rape situation, many will describe a stranger wielding a weapon, violently attacking a woman down a dark alley. This has become known as the ‘real’ rape stereotype. The problem is that this description is at odds with reality. Rape is much more likely to be committed by someone known to the victim, and will often not involve a weapon or the use of overt violence.

In many cases violence or a weapon are simply not necessary for a perpetrator to carry out an assault. So the problem is that these types of misconceptions can influence a juror’s judgement as to the ‘genuineness’ of a rape case with only those cases that conform to the ‘real’ rape stereotype being believed and consequently convicted.

The ‘real’ rape stereotype is at odds with reality. Rape is much more likely to be committed by someone known to the victim.

On top of the ‘real’ rape stereotype are stereotypes about ‘real’ victims of rape. These typically revolve around expectations about ‘appropriate’ victim behaviour. For example, past research has shown that cases involving victims who had been drinking prior to an assault, who did not physically resist, who did not report to the police immediately, and who did not appear distressed may be viewed by mock-jurors as more blameworthy than cases involving nondrinking, resisting, promptly reporting and emotionally-distressed victims.

It follows that in cases like the latter, jurors who hold stereotypical beliefs about rape victims may therefore respond more leniently to a defendant.

Of all the stereotypes about rape, arguably the one that we have the clearest evidence for, in terms of its impact on criminal justice decisions, is the ‘stranger as rapist’ stereotype. In fact, there is substantial evidence that rapes involving a stranger perpetrator (once apprehended) are easier to convict than those involving someone known to a victim. Of course, in reality it is not as simple as this, as not all rape cases with a stranger as perpetrator lead to conviction, and not all rape cases with someone known as perpetrator to acquittal.

This leaves us with an open question as to what other factors, stereotypical or otherwise, might help explain jury conviction in each of these types of rape?

To answer this we took the approach of separating the two types of rape so as to disentangle the effect of different stereotypes on conviction for each type.

Our first study focused on stranger rape specifically. We looked at 308 stranger rapes in the Metropolitan Police area from 2001 to today, and compared the characteristics of cases resulting in conviction with those resulting in acquittals.

In line with our expectations, we found evidence for the operation of the ‘real’ rape stereotype in jury decision-making – cases which involved a surprise attack, committed outdoors, with violence or a weapon were more likely to be convicted than those that did not feature those factors. However, we actually found no evidence for the ‘real’ victim stereotypes we examined. Specifically, convicted cases were no more or less likely than acquitted cases to feature victims who had been drinking or who took time to report the crime.

In terms of practical benefit, this research helps clarify the role of stereotypes in jury decision-making in stranger rape trials and contributes to the on-going discourse on how best to address these issues in the criminal justice system. Our research suggests that, in the courtroom, the ‘real’ rape stereotype is alive and well and strategies are needed to challenge this stereotype.

What motivates you?

The challenge of uncovering patterns and finding meaning in behaviour – whether that be the actions of a rapist, the locations of a murder series or the decisions of a juror – and finding ways to apply this knowledge in an investigative setting.

Any surprises?

I’m often surprised at just how predictable human behaviour can be and how it is possible to find an underlying meaning/explanation for even the bizarrest of crimes.

Why does this research matter?

Serious crime poses many challenges for investigators and to those tasked with responding to its victims. The type of research I do is inherently applied and hopefully can contribute to providing evidence-based responses to crime and its investigation.

How it all started

After my first degree, I got a job in a PR agency where one of my responsibilities was doing the newspaper clippings. While scanning The Telegraph one day, a piece headlined ‘No room for amateur sleuths’ caught my eye. It described a new Masters course at the University of Surrey in the burgeoning field of Investigative Psychology. That was the end of my career in PR! I called them that day, got an interview, was offered a place and moved to Guildford (all in about two months). From there I continued onto a PhD looking at serial murder. Do the sorts of things you study affect you in any way? Of course, especially in the areas of my  ork which involves dealing with the smallest details of crimes such as rape and murder. It’s difficult not to be affected and actually I think it’s important to always stay mindful of the human story behind the ‘data’. If I’m honest, this work also means I can have some unusual thought patterns at times! Sometimes when I go running I find myself scanning the countryside around me for ‘suitable’ body disposal locations for a murderer. Does that make me sound odd?

Dr Samantha Lundrigan is a Senior Lecturer and Course Leader in Criminology at our Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Sam is interested in the interface between psychology and crime, and how psychology may be applied to the understanding and investigation of stranger sexual crime. Sam has also conducted a range of research projects into geographic profiling systems, the spatial behaviour of serial rapists and the behavioural consistency of serial offenders; offender profiling; male sexual violation; geographic profiling; jury decision making and rape.

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