Rape Myths and ‘Rational’ Ideals in Sex Offence Trials

  • Olivia Smith


Having addressed one of the least discussed aspects of trial in the previous chapter, I now turn to one of the most widely discussed: rape myths. Beliefs about what rape is, how it happens, who is involved, and what happens afterwards are often used to explain poor responses to sexual violence internationally (Stern, 2010). Rape myths are therefore the most commonly examined aspect of rape trials, both in the UK and elsewhere, yet there remain some areas of comparative neglect. For example, why are these myths so pervasive at trial despite training to tackle stereotypical beliefs? Hudson (2002) argued that rape myths were persistent because they fit with legal logic, but little is known about how this occurs. This chapter therefore examines the use of and resistance to rape myths in relation to underlying legal cultures. I argue that women’s normal and rational responses to rape are repackaged within trial as untrue because they are ‘abnormal’ and ‘irrational’. To demonstrate this, I will draw upon my observations of rape trials, as well as Smart’s (1989) and Lees’ (1997) critiques of gendered approaches to establishing truth. Ultimately, then, rape myths are resistant to policy intervention because they are reinforced by a legal cultural scaffolding that genders the notion of truth and undermines survivors’ experiences. This means that it is not enough to tinker at the edges of criminal justice reform, although there are some shorter term recommendations for improving survivors’ experiences, because fundamental change is required before justice for rape survivors is possible.


  1. Amnesty International UK. (2005). Sexual assault research summary report. Retrieved from
  2. Baillot, H., Cowan, S., & Munro, V. (2013). Second-hand emotion? Exploring the contagion and impact of trauma and distress in the asylum law context. Journal of Law & Society, 40(4), 509–540.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Baird, V. (2012). “Every woman safe everywhere”: Labour Commission on Women’s Safety (First Interim Report). London: Labour Commission on Women’s Safety.Google Scholar
  4. Bar Standards Board. (2017). Bar Standards Board handbook: Including 9th edition of the code of conduct. London: Bar Standards Board.Google Scholar
  5. Basow, S., & Minieri, A. (2011). ‘You owe me’: Effects of date cost, who pays participant gender and rape myth beliefs on perceptions of rape. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 26(3), 479–497.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Baverstock, J. (2016). Process evaluation of pre-recorded cross-examination scheme (Section 28). London: Ministry of Justice.Google Scholar
  7. Bieneck, S., & Krahé, B. (2011). Blaming the victim and exonerating the perpetrator in cases of rape and robbery: Is there a double standard? Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 26(9), 1785–1797.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Block, S. (2006). Rape and sexual power in early America. Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press.Google Scholar
  9. Bohner, G., Reinhard, M. A., Rutz, S., Sturm, S., Kerschbaum, B., & Effler, D. (1998). Rape myths as neutralising cognitions: Evidence for a causal impact of anti-victim attitudes on men’s self-reported likelihood of raping. European Journal of Social Psychology, 28(2), 257–268.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bohner, G., Eyssel, F., Pina, A., Siebler, F., & Viki, G. T. (2009). Rape myth acceptance: Cognitive, affective and behavioural effects of beliefs that blame the victim and exonerate the perpetrator. In M. A. H. Horvath & J. Brown (Eds.), Rape: Challenging contemporary thinking (pp. 17–45). Cullompton: Willan Publishing.Google Scholar
  11. Boyle, C. (2009). Reasonable doubt in credibility contests: Sexual assault and sexual equality. International Journal of Evidence & Proof, 13(4), 269–292.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Brown, J., Horvath, M., Kelly, L., & Westmarland, N. (2010). Connections and disconnections: Assessing evidence, knowledge and practice in responses to rape. London: Government Equalities Office.Google Scholar
  13. Brownmiller, S. (1975). Against our will: Men, women and rape. New York: Bantam Books.Google Scholar
  14. Burrowes, N. (2013). Responding to the challenge of rape myths in court: A guide for prosecutors. London: NB Research.Google Scholar
  15. Burt, M. (1980). Cultural myths and supports for rape. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 38(2), 217–230.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Carline, A., & Easteal, P. (2014). Shades of grey—Domestic and sexual violence against women: Law reform and society. Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  17. Carline, A., & Gunby, C. (2011). How an ordinary jury makes sense of it is a mystery: Barristers’ perspectives on rape, consent and the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Liverpool Law Review, 32(3), 237–250.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Carr, M., Thomas, A. J., Atwood, D., Muhar, A., Jarvis, K., & Wewerka, S. S. (2014). Debunking three rape myths. Journal of Forensic Nursing, 10(4), 217–225.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Chapleau, K. M., & Oswald, D. L. (2014). A system justification view of sexual violence: Legitimising gender inequality and reduced moral outrage are connected to greater rape myths acceptance. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 15(2), 204–218.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Cixious, H. (1986). The newly born woman. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  21. Conaghan, J., & Russell, Y. (2014). Rape myths, law, and feminist research: Myths about myths? Feminist Legal Studies, 22(1), 25–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Courts of Saskatchewan. (2012). Court watching. Retrieved from
  23. Coy, M., Kelly, L., Elvines, F., Garner, M., & Kanyeredzi, A. (2013). ‘Sex without consent, I suppose that is rape’: How young people in England understand sexual consent. London: Office of the Children’s Commissioner.Google Scholar
  24. Crown Prosecution Service. (2013). Charging perverting the course of justice and wasting police time in cases involving allegedly false rape and domestic violence allegations. London: Crown Prosecution Service Equality & Diversity Unit.Google Scholar
  25. Department of Justice South Africa. (2013). Report on the re-establishment of sexual offences courts: Ministerial advisory task team on the adjudication of sexual offence matters. Pretoria: Department of Justice & Constitutional Development.Google Scholar
  26. Dinos, S., Burrowes, N., Hammond, K., & Cunliffe, C. (2015). A systematic review of juries’ assessment of rape victims: Do rape myths impact on juror decision-making? International Journal of Law, Crime & Justice, 43(1), 36–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Doak, J. (2008). Victims’ rights, human rights and criminal justice: Reconceiving the role of third parties. Oxford: Hart Publishing.Google Scholar
  28. Dripps, D. (2009). After rape law: Will the turn to consent normalise the prosecution of sexual assault? Akron Law Review, 41, 957–980.Google Scholar
  29. Durham, R., Lawson, R., Lord, A., & Baird, V. (2016). Seeing is believing: The Northumbria Court Observers Panel Report on 30 rape trials 2015–2016. Newcastle: Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner.Google Scholar
  30. Edwards, K. M., Turchik, J. A., Dardis, C. M., Reynolds, N., & Gidycz, C. A. (2011). Rape myths: History, individual and institutional-level presence, and implications for change. Sex Roles, 65(11–12), 761–773.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Ellison, L. (2001). The adversarial process & the vulnerable witness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Ellison, L., & Munro, V. E. (2009a). Reacting to rape: Exploring mock juror’s assessments of complainant credibility. British Journal of Criminology, 49(2), 202–219.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Ellison, L., & Munro, V. E. (2009b). Turning mirrors into windows? Assessing the impact of (mock) juror education in rape trials. British Journal of Criminology, 49(3), 363–383.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Ellison, L., & Munro, V. (2010). Getting to (not) guilty: Examining jurors’ deliberative processes in and beyond the context of a mock rape trial. Legal Studies, 30(1), 74–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Ellison, L., & Munro, V. (2013). Better the devil you know? ‘Real rape’ stereotypes and the relevance of a previous relationship in (mock) juror deliberations. International Journal of Evidence & Proof, 17(4), 299–322.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Ellison, L., & Munro, V. (2015). ‘Telling tales’: Exploring narratives of life and law within the (mock) jury room. Legal Studies, 35(2), 201–225.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Estrich, S. (1976). Real rape: How the legal system victimises women who say no. London: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Fenton, Z. (1998). Domestic violence in black and white: Racialised gender stereotypes in gender violence. Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, 8(1), 1–65.Google Scholar
  39. Fischer, A. (1993). Sex differences in emotionality: Fact or stereotype? Feminism & Psychology, 3(3), 303–318.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Fox, J., & Potocki, B. (2016). Lifetime video game consumption, interpersonal aggression, hostile sexism, and rape myth acceptance: A cultural perspective. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 31(10), 1912–1931.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Gavey, N. (2005). Just sex? The cultural scaffolding of rape. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  42. Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(2), 106–116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Goodman-Delahunty, J., Cossins, A., & O’Brien, K. (2011). A comparison of expert evidence and judicial directions to counter misconceptions in child sexual abuse trials. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 44(2), 196–217.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Gurnham, D. (2016). A critique of carceral feminist arguments on rape myths and sexual scripts. New Criminal Law Review, 19(2), 141–170.Google Scholar
  45. Hansard HC vol. 621 col. 431 (8 February 2017) [Electronic version].Google Scholar
  46. Hayes, R., Lorenz, K., & Bell, K. (2013). Victim blaming others: Rape myth acceptance and the just world belief. Feminist Criminology, 8(3), 202–220.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Heenan, M. (2005). Can the criminal justice system provide a meaningful response to sexual assault? Sex laws and videotapes: Legal responses to sexual assault conference, Perth, Australia.Google Scholar
  48. Henderson, E., & Duncanson, K. (2016). A little judicial direction: Can the use of jury directions challenge traditional consent narratives in rape trials? University of New South Wales Law Journal, 39(2), 718–746.Google Scholar
  49. Herlihy, J., Robson, L., & Turner, S. (2012). Just tell us what happened to you: Autobiographical memory and seeking asylum. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 26(5), 661–676.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Hildebrande, M., & Naidowski, C. (2014). The potential impact of rape culture on juror decision-making: Implications for wrongful acquittals in sexual assault trials. Alberta Law Review, 78(2014–2015), 1059–1086.Google Scholar
  51. Hill, H. (2014). Rape myths and the use of expert psychological evidence. Victoria University Wellington Law Review, 45, 471–486.Google Scholar
  52. HM Government. (2017). Disrespect NoBody campaign. London: Home Office.Google Scholar
  53. Hohl, K., & Conway, M. A. (2017). Memory as evidence: How normal features of victim memory lead to the attrition of rape complaints. Criminology & Criminal Justice, 17(3), 248–265.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Holmes, E., Gray, N., & Young, K. (2005). Intrusive images and ‘hotspots’ of trauma memories in post-traumatic stress disorder: An exploratory investigation of emotions and cognitive themes. Journal of Behaviour Therapy & Experimental Psychiatry, 36(1), 3–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Hoyano, L. (2015). Reforming the adversarial trial for vulnerable witnesses and defendants. Criminal Law Review, 2, 107–129.Google Scholar
  56. Hudson, B. (2002). Restorative justice and gendered violence: Diversion or effective justice? British Journal of Criminology, 42(3), 616–634.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Hunter, R. (1996). Gender in evidence: Masculine norms vs feminist reforms. Harvard Women’s Law Journal, 19, 127–167.Google Scholar
  58. Javaid, A. (2015). Male rape myths: Understanding and explaining social attitudes surrounding male rape. Masculinities & Social Change, 4(3), 270–297.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Jones, S. (2015, July 22). Not just a slick TV ad: What makes a good domestic violence awareness campaign? The Conversation. Retrieved from
  60. Judicial Studies Board. (2010). Crown Court bench book: Directing the jury. London: Ministry of Justice.Google Scholar
  61. Kaufman, B. E. (1999). Emotional arousal as a source of bounded rationality. Journal of Economic Behaviour & Organization, 38(2), 135–144.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Kelly, L. (1988). Surviving sexual violence. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.Google Scholar
  63. Koelsch, L., Fuehrer, A., & Knudson, R. (2008). Rational or not? Subverting understanding through the rational/non-rational dichotomy. Feminism & Psychology, 18(2), 253–259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Korobkin, R. B., & Ulen, T. S. (2000). Law and behavioural sciences: Removing the rationality assumption from law and economics. California Law Review, 88(4), 1051–1144.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Krahé, B., Temkin, J., Bieneck, S., & Berger, A. (2008). Prospective lawyers’ rape stereotypes and schematic decision making about rape cases. Psychology, Crime & Law, 14(5), 461–479.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Education.Google Scholar
  67. Lees, S. (1997). Carnal knowledge: Rape on trial. London: Women’s Press.Google Scholar
  68. Leippe, M., Eisenstadt, D., Rauch, S., & Seib, H. (2004). Timing of eyewitness expert testimony, jurors’ need for cognition, and case strength as determinants of trial verdicts. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89(3), 524–541.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Lloyd, G. (1993). The man of reason: ‘Male and ‘female’ in Western philosophy (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  70. Lodrick, Z. (2007). Psychological trauma: What every trauma worker should know. British Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 4(2), 18–29.Google Scholar
  71. Lonsway, K., & Fitzgerald, L. (1994). Rape myths in review. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 18, 133–164.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Lovett, J., Uzelac, G., Horvath, M., & Kelly, L. (2007). Rape in the 21st century: Old behaviours, new contexts and emerging patterns. ESRC End of Award Report (RES-000-22-1679), Economic and Social Research Council, Swindon.Google Scholar
  73. McEwan, J. (2005). Proving consent in sexual cases: Legislative change and cultural evolution. International Journal of Evidence and Proof, 9(1), 1–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. McGlynn, C. (2010). Feminist activism and rape law reform in England and Wales: A Sisyphean struggle? In C. McGlynn & V. E. Munro (Eds.), Rethinking rape law: International and comparative perspectives (pp. 139–153). Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  75. Moore, S. (2014). Crime and the media. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Munro, V., & Kelly, L. (2009). A vicious cycle? Attrition and conviction patterns in contemporary rape cases in England and Wales. In M. A. H. Horvath & J. Brown (Eds.), Rape: Challenging contemporary thinking (pp. 281–300). Cullompton: Willan Publishing.Google Scholar
  77. Naffine, N. (1990). Law and the sexes. London: Unwin Hyman Ltd.Google Scholar
  78. National Sexual Violence Resource Centre. (2016). Campaign Planning. Retrieved from
  79. Nicolson, D. (2000). Gender, epistemology and ethics: Feminist perspectives on evidence theory. In M. Childs & L. Ellison (Eds.), Feminist perspectives on evidence (pp. 13–37). London: Cavendish.Google Scholar
  80. Nicolson, D. (2013). Taking epistemology seriously: ‘Truth, reason and justice’ revisited. International Journal of Evidence & Proof, 17(1), 1–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Oliver, P. (1991). What do girls know anyway? Rationality, gender and social control. Feminism & Psychology, 1(3), 339–360.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Olsen, F. (1990). Feminism and critical legal theory: An American perspective. International Journal of the Sociology of Law, 18(2), 199–215.Google Scholar
  83. Pawan, F. (2008). Content-area teachers and scaffolded instruction for English language learners. Teaching and Teacher Education, 24(6), 1450–1462.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Payne, S. (2009). Rape victim experience review. London: Home Office.Google Scholar
  85. Rape Crisis Scotland. (2008). Campaign evaluation report: “This is not an invitation to rape me” research reports. Edinburgh: Rape Crisis Scotland.Google Scholar
  86. Reece, H. (2013). Rape myths: Is elite opinion right and popular opinion wrong? Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 33(3), 445–473.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Reece, H. (2014). Debating rape myths. LSE Law, Society & Economy Working Papers, 21, 1–23.Google Scholar
  88. Robinson, A., & Cook, D. (2006). Understanding victim retraction in cases of domestic violence: Specialist courts, government policy, and victim-centred justice. Contemporary Justice Review, 9(2), 189–213.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Rock, P. (1993). The social world of an English Crown Court. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  90. Rose, M. P., Nadler, J., & Clark, J. (2006). Appropriately upset? Emotion norms and perceptions of crime victims. Law and Human Behaviour, 30(2), 203–219.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Rumney, P. N. S. (2008). Gender neutrality, rape and trial talk. International Journal of Semiotic Law, 21(2), 139–155.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Rumney, P. (2011). Judicial training and rape. Journal of Criminal Law, 75(6), 473–481.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Salomon, G., & Perkins, D. N. (1998). Individual and social aspects of learning. Review of Research in Education, 23(1), 1–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. Silver, K., Karakurt, G., & Boysen, S. (2015). Predicting prosocial behaviour toward sex-trafficked persons: The roles of empathy, belief in a just world, and attitudes toward prostitution. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 24(8), 932–954.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  95. Smart, C. (1989). Feminism and the power of law. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Smart, C. (1992). The woman of legal discourse. Social & Legal Studies, 1(1), 29–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  97. Smith, O., & Skinner, T. (2012). Observing court responses to victims of rape and sexual assault. Feminist Criminology, 7(4), 298–326.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  98. Smith, O., & Skinner, T. (2017). How rape myths are used and challenged in rape and sexual assault trials. Social & Legal Studies, 26(4), 441–466.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  99. Stern, V. (2010). The Stern review: A report by Baroness Stern CBE of an independent review into how rape complaints are handled by public authorities in England and Wales. London: Home Office.Google Scholar
  100. Taslitz, A. (1999). Rape and the culture of the courtroom. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  101. Taylor, N., & Joudo, J. (2005). The impact of pre-recorded video and closed circuit television testimony by adult sexual assault complainants on jury decision-making: An experimental study. Australian Institute of Criminology Research and Public Policy Series (No. 68), Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra.Google Scholar
  102. Temkin, J. (2010). “And always keep a-hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse”: Challenging rape myths in the courtroom. New Criminal Law Review, 13(4), 710–734.Google Scholar
  103. Temkin, J., Gray, J., & Barrett, J. (2016). Different functions of rape myth use in court: Findings from a trial observation study. Feminist Criminology.
  104. Temkin, J., & Krahé, B. (2008). Sexual assault and the justice gap: A question of attitude. Oxford: Hart Publications.Google Scholar
  105. Thomas, C. (2010). Are juries fair? Ministry of Justice Research Series 1/10. London: Ministry of Justice.Google Scholar
  106. Thornton, J. (2002). Myths of aging or ageist stereotypes. Educational Gerontology, 28, 301–312.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  107. Torrey, M. (1991). When will we be believed: Rape myths and the idea of a fair trial in rape prosecutions? University of Cambridge Davis Law Review, 24, 1013–1072.Google Scholar
  108. Twining, W. (2006). Rethinking evidence: Exploratory essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  109. Valente, T., & Kwan, P. (2013). Evaluating communication campaigns. In R. Rice & C. Atkin (Eds.), Public communication campaigns (pp. 83–97). London: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  110. Van der Bruggen, M., & Grubb, A. (2014). A review of the literature relating to rape victim blaming: An analysis of the impact of observer and victim characteristics on attribution of blame in rape cases. Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 19(5), 523–531.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  111. Walker, S., & Louw, D. (2003). The court for sexual offences. International Journal of Law & Psychiatry, 26(1), 73–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  112. Walker, S., & Louw, D. (2005). The court for sexual offences: Perceptions of the victims of sexual offences. International Journal of Law & Psychiatry, 28(3), 231–245.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  113. Walker, S., & Louw, D. (2007). The court for sexual offences: Perceptions of the professionals involved. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 30(2), 136–146.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  114. Ward, T. (2009). Usurping the role of the jury? Expert evidence and witness credibility in English criminal trials. International Journal of Evidence & Proof, 13(2), 83–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  115. Waterhouse, G. F., Reynolds, A., & Egan, V. (2016). Myths and legends: The reality of rape offences reported to a UK police force. European Journal of Psychology Applied to Legal Context, 8(1), 1–10.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  116. Wheatcroft, J. M., & Wagstaff, G. F. (2009). Revictimizing the victim? How rape victims experience the UK legal system. Victims & Offenders, 4(3), 265–284.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  117. Wilmott, D., Boduszek, D., & Booth, N. (2017). The English jury on trial. Custodial Review, 82, 12–14.Google Scholar
  118. World Bank Group. (2015). Women, business and the law 2016. Washington, DC: World Bank.Google Scholar
  119. Zander, M., & Henderson, P. (1993). The Royal Commission of Criminal Justice: Crown Court study. Research Study No. 19, HM Stationary Office, London.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Olivia Smith
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Humanities and Social SciencesAnglia Ruskin UniversityCambridgeUK

Personalised recommendations