Rape Myths and the Search for True Justice

New research explores how rape myths influence the way police treat victims.

Posted Oct 26, 2017

Sexual assault is everybody's problem. 

Despite the perennial rash of stories about how sexual assault complaints are handled by police and the courts, actual statistics continue to show a bleak picture. Most assaults are never reported to police, making them difficult to measure. According to the 2016 National Crime Victimization Survey, there were 431,840 incidents of sexual assault or rape (depending on the legal definition used) in the United States in 2015. But estimates from other sources have that number much higher.

What is known is that the vast majority of assaults that get reported to police never make the transition from initial investigation to an actual prosecution. And for victims who see their claims dismissed or ignored, the resulting emotional and physical harm can last a lifetime. Though rape crisis centers and other resources can provide counseling and legal services to help sexual assault victims, it is more important than ever to understand the kind of roadblocks that sexual assault victims can face, especially when dealing with the criminal justice system.

In most jurisdictions, police are required to make an initial investigation of a sexual assault claim to determine whether enough evidence exists to be referred to a prosecutor. However, in the U.S. alone, 73 to 93 percent of all complaints never proceed to prosecution. Though prosecutors can often decide not to proceed with a case due to insufficient evidence, the most common reason these complaints are dropped is that police decide not to refer them to a prosecutor in the first place.

According to many studies looking at how sexual assault victims are treated by police, it is far from uncommon for victims to be treated with disbelief, be denied critical services, and even be blamed for being assaulted in the first place. Often known as secondary victimization, the emotional trauma that can result from dealing with skeptical police officers may be as devastating as the original assault. This "second rape," as many victims have termed their experiences with police, can deepen posttraumatic symptoms and contribute to long-term emotional and physical health problems. Not surprisingly, research has found a direct link between the extent of secondary victimization and the likelihood that police will fail to follow through with complaints.

A recent study published in the journal Psychology of Violence explores secondary victimization involving the police as well as underlying beliefs about rape that perpetuate this kind of treatment. Led by Jessica Shaw of the Boston College School of Social Work, a team of researchers examined written police records into 400 cases in which sexual assault forensic exam kits were collected (these were randomly selected from the 10,559 kits collected by a midwestern police force over the previous thirty years). Of the 400 kits examined, only 248 were part of formal police case files with the rest either going untested or lacking proper files for various reasons. 

Of those 248 cases, 237 involved a female victim and 11 (4.4 percent) involved a male victim but with all cases having at least one male perpetrator. All of the cases were reviewed by four coders looking at specific statements noted by police officers in the files and what they suggested in terms of how rape myths influenced the way the cases were handled by police. The coding scheme was based on the following common myths associated with sexual assault:

  • The victim is lying: If the story seemed implausible or inconsistent, or if the victim changed her/his story, then the police would call the entire story into question.
  • The victim consented: If the victim consented to at least part of the sexual activity on the occasion for which the complaint was filed or a previous occasion. This also included cases where a victim was raped by several perpetrators though he/she only gave consent to one perpetrator.
  • The victim is not injured: If the victim lacked bruises, marks, or otherwise failed to appear disheveled. This also included cases where the victim's appearance or clothing seemed "too clean" for a rape to have occurred.  
  • The victim is not upset: If the victim failed to show the emotions police expected a rape victim to show. Examples included victims who weren't crying or otherwise didn't show visible concern about being raped.
  • The victim is a sex worker: If the victim "worked the streets" or otherwise took money for sex, cases of rape were often seen as a "trick gone bad."
  • The victim is a regular drug/alcohol use: If the victim was intoxicated or high at the time of the rape, their version of events were often discounted. This also included victims who "smelled of alcohol" or known to be a regular user.

Another rape myth, "the victim didn't fight back," was discarded by the raters since few cases came up that matched it. There were also statements found in police files that didn't match up with these rape myths but which did suggest preconceived ideas about what "real" rape looked like, who was most likely to commit rape and who wasn't, as well as who was to blame. To catch additional rape myths that may have influenced police dealing with each case, the cases were re-coded to identify possible reasons why police may have chosen not to proceed with a complaint. 

All told, results identified 15 different subcategories of rape myths that influenced police investigating complaints. The additional categories were:

  • The victim didn't act like a victim afterward: If the victim displayed behavior that didn't seem consistent with the rape account, police often assumed they were making it up. For example, if a victim first called for a taxi after being assaulted rather than the police
  • The victim has "done this before": If a victim has reported rape in the past but failed to follow through with the investigation or had lost in court.
  • The victim is "mental": If a victim suffers from some form of mental illness that made him or her a less credible witness.
  • The victim is promiscuous: If the victim has a history of one-night stands or multiple sex partners.
  • The victim is not credible: If the victim has a history of lying.
  • The victim is uncooperative: If the victim is intentionally withholding information or not cooperating with police.
  • The victim doesn't have enough information: If the victim simply didn't know enough about the assault to allow police to find the perpetrator.
  • The victim has no contact information: No phone number or permanent address for police to call him/her as needed.
  • The victim or case is weak: Any other factors that might make the victim less credible, i.e., mental or physical problems that might affect the case.

All 15 categories were then grouped into three general types depending on the kind of statements made by police in the files:

  1. Circumstantial statements: If the police felt that certain circumstances of the assault made the rape complaint less believable. For example, if the victim is seen as lying, as not being injured, or had given consent. Of the 248 cases examined, 63 (25.4 percent) included at least one circumstantial statement. 
  2. Characterological statements: If the rape complainant was seen as having one or more characteristics that made him/her less likely to be raped. These included having a history of substance abuse, was "mental", was a sex worker, or had made previous complaints. Of the 248 cases examined, 42 (16.94 percent) had one or more characterological statements noted.
  3. Investigatory blame statements: Statements placing blame on the victim for the case not proceeding as far as it might have. For example, the victim could have been refusing to cooperate, failed to provide enough information, etc. Basically, anything that might weaken the case sufficiently for police to refuse to proceed. This was the most popular category, with 41 percent of case files having at least one blame statement or as many as three in some cases. 

Based on these results, Jessica Shaw and her co-authors concluded that police routinely rely on rape myths in judging whether a case should be referred to a prosecutor. These rape myths typically focused on what a "real" rape looked like, whether or not there was a "legitimate" victim, or who was to blame for what happened. As it happens, almost all of the rape myths identified correspond to statements used in rape myth acceptance scales used in previous research studies and help demonstrate how prevalent these beliefs about rape can be. These results also highlight how often police rely on "victim blaming" to justify not investigating complaints as thoroughly as they otherwise might. 

Given how common these beliefs about rape appear to be in many police forces, it's much easier to understand the secondary victimization often experienced by men and women who report being raped. These also highlight the critical need for better sexual assault training by police as well as better education to show how inaccurate rape myths can be. Training can also help police officers avoid the often traumatic questioning victims receive as well as ensuring greater involvement by community support workers to act as advocates for victims who might not be able to stand up for themselves.  

Ultimately, victims of sexual assault often face a long and agonizing road before attaining any kind of justice. Learning to overcome the damaging myths surrounding rape is an essential first step to making real changes both within the criminal justice system and in society as a whole.


Shaw, J., Campbell, R., Cain, D., & Feeney, H. (2017). Beyond surveys and scales: How rape myths manifest in sexual assault police records. Psychology of Violence, 7(4), 602-614. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/vio0000072