Belief by juries in rape myths is a myth

According to the only researcher who has asked the jurors themselves

Claims that jurors believe in “rape myths” are themselves myths, according to new findings published by the UK’s leading academic expert on juries.

Professor Cheryl Thomas QC (hon), director of the Judicial Institute at UCL, University of London, was allowed to question former jurors immediately after they had delivered their verdicts. During 2018 and 2019, 65 discharged juries in four different regions of England and Wales took part in her anonymous and voluntary survey. Their participation rate was 99.7%: of the 773 jurors approached, just two declined to take part. Defendants they tried had faced a range of charges, including sexual and non-sexual offences.

Thomas found that:

hardly any jurors believe what are often referred to as widespread myths and stereotypes about rape and sexual assault. The overwhelming majority of jurors do not believe that rape must leave bruises or marks, that a person will always fight back when being raped, that dressing or acting provocatively or going out alone at night is inviting rape, that men cannot be raped or that rapes will always be reported immediately. The small proportion of jurors who do believe any of these myths or stereotypes amounts to less than one person on a jury [of 12].

This contrasts with a petition to parliament which attracted 16,445 signatures in 2018. It made a number of assertions:

Research shows that jurors accept commonly held rape myths resulting in many incorrect not guilty verdicts. Rapists are walking free from court, although evidence is robust. This ruins lives. Rape conviction in the UK is very low. Compared to other crimes conviction is 21% lower.

Research by Rape Crisis and Alison Saunders, Director of Public Prosecutions, finds that jurors often accept rape myths and thus acquit rapists who are in fact guilty. 66% of jurors do not understand judges’ legal directions which attempt to dispel rape myths, but fail. Jurors need proper rape myth training prior to and throughout trials.

Thomas is scathing about these claims in a paper published this month in Criminal Law Review:

At the time of the petition there had been no research in England and Wales with real jurors on the issue of whether they accepted commonly held rape myths or understood judges’ directions on such myths. This meant that the petition’s claim that research showed jurors accepted commonly held rape myths and did not understood judges’ directions on these myths could not have been correct.

Existing research showed that juries convict in rape cases more often than they acquit, Thomas explained. The jury conviction rate in rape cases is higher than it is for other serious crimes such as attempted murder, grievous bodily harm and threatening to kill.

Responding to the petition in 2018, ministers announced that Thomas had been commissioned by the senior judiciary to conduct research into rape myths. It is this research that she has now published, along her findings on directions given to juries when they are sworn in and the need that some jurors may have for support after their service has been completed.

Why, though, should Thomas’s findings on rape myths be so different from the results of opinion polls and mock trials? For example YouGov research commissioned by the campaign group End Violence Against Women reported in 2018 that 33% of people in Britain “think it isn’t usually rape if a woman is pressured into having sex but there is no physical violence”. By contrast, the UCL Jury Project research found that only 3% of jurors said rape had to result in bruises or marks and a similar proportion said it was not rape unless a person fought back.

The answer, she explains, is that public opinion polls and mock jury research rely on people who have volunteered to take part. By contrast, 87% of those who served on juries had told Thomas, in earlier research, that they would never have volunteered to do so:

Regardless of how demographically representative a group of volunteer “mock” jurors are, the very fact that they have volunteered to take part in a mock jury study means they cannot be representative of the vast majority of those who actually serve on juries in England and Wales…

What this in turn means is that the data from mock jury studies will be biased because those who choose to participate in these studies (and opinion polls) do not and cannot represent the overwhelming majority of actual serving jurors.

However, Thomas’s research did identify two issues on which juries would benefit from better guidance: a victim’s likely relationship with a rapist and the way in which a victim might be expected to give evidence.

On the first point, official statistics (see figure) show that 87% of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim and just 13% by a stranger. Thomas found that although most jurors (64%) correctly believe that a person is more likely to be raped by someone they know and only 5% incorrectly believe a rape is most likely to be committed by a stranger, almost a third of jurors (31%) said they were not sure about this.

Turning to the question of whether a rape complainant will necessarily appear emotional when giving evidence, Thomas cites research which suggests that this can vary widely: victims suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder may mask their feelings while others may show fear, anger or anxiety. There is no clear view among jurors on this issue: 43% say they would expect a complainant to be very emotional when giving evidence about a rape while 22% said they would not expect this and 35% are uncertain on this issue.

As Thomas notes, though, all judges in the Crown Court are provided with specific guidance on these issues and they can help jurors to evaluate the evidence at any time by giving directions about the law. Judges have been directing juries on rape myths and stereotypes for more than a decade.

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