Helping the public understand rape and sexual abuse

On March 27th 2014 I gave a presentation at St Mary’s Centre SARC Annual conference on public attitudes to rape. You can read the speech I gave or watch a video of my slides below:

Understanding how the jury thinks

Thank you very much for having me. I’m actually really excited to be here. I speak quite a bit about rape and sexual abuse but I go out of my way to talk to people who probably haven’t thought too much about it before. It’s been awhile since I’ve stood in front of an audience of people who work in the field. Today feels a bit like catching up with an old friend. And like all good friends, often if it’s been awhile since I’ve seen you one of the first things I’m likely to do is off-load all of my frustrations before even asking you how you are. So let me tell you what’s frustrating me at the moment.

I’m frustrated that the organisations that support survivors of abuse are as invisible to society as their client group. They are not seen, they are not talked about, and they are not financially supported by their own communities.

I’m frustrated that we criticise prosecutors for conviction rates in rape cases when they just happen to be the person at the end of the line of society’s attitudes to rape. I think we should hold the CPS to account for the things that are their responsibility, but it isn’t their fault that many people have the kind of attitudes that will always favour acquittal. Society holding a prosecutor responsible for rape myths in court is like the long term heavy smoker holding their doctor responsible for their health.  

And I’m frustrated that the one person who is always left out of every conversation about abuse is the one person who is fully responsible for it – the offender. When a father sexually abuses his child it is not the government’s fault. When a solider rapes their colleague it is not the army’s fault. We should hold those organisations to account for the things they are responsible for but we should be careful that in our noise we’re not silent about the offender – because our silence helps them remain invisible.

See – I’m feeling better already. Thank you. How are you?

If you haven’t come across me and my work before Hello – I’m Nina Burrowes. I’m a psychologist, I’m a researcher, and I’m about to become an author.

I’m here today to talk to you about the jury. To explain why rape myths are alive and well in our court rooms and to give you my thoughts on how we can tackle this. Most of what I’m going to talk about today is covered in more detail in a report that is freely available online. I’m sure the organisers of today will make sure you can find links to the report after today.

I wrote the report as a gift for the CPS last year. Alison Saunders was kind enough to write the foreword for the report and this is actually the first time I’ve had a chance to thank her for doing that in person.

If your job involves understanding public attitudes to rape; educating the public about rape, investigating rape cases or prosecuting rape cases then in the report I’m trying to show you how to use psychology to help you with your work.

In the report there is lots of information about rape myths. Rape myths are inaccurate assumptions about rape. Assumptions like a real victim will always fight or try to run away; a real victim will report the offence straightaway; only gay men are involved in male rape. I then go on to talk about the jury and explain why rape myths are so very useful for them.

So let’s talk about the jury. And when I’m talking about the jury I’m really talking about public attitudes to rape.

My starting place in all of this is compassion. I did not come out of the womb with a sophisticated understanding of rape and sexual abuse. The knowledge I’ve got is a knowledge I’ve chosen to build for myself over the years. There would have been a time when I knew next to nothing about rape. I have probably held many of the rape myths myself. And in a way – good for me. Rape myths are fantastic way of making something feel less scary. These days I know a lot more about rape. But I can’t stand here and say that this knowledge makes me feel safer. The choice I’ve made is to educate myself about the realities of rape, and learn to live with my fears.

So when we’re trying to educate people about this stuff I think it’s important to remember that we were probably once in their shoes, that we also have more to learn ourselves, and that in some cases what we’re asking people to do is live with more fear, more confusion – not less. Holding rape myths helps you see the world in black and white – I’m trying to paint the world grey.

Let’s deal with the black and white first – here is your typical sex offender.

Have you seen this man

For the police officers in the room – this is why we’re all so frustrated with you. You have a description AND a location – why can’t you catch this guy?

Whilst this image scares us – actually it’s really reassuring. That person is easy to spot. They are easy to avoid. That person is not my son, my brother, my friend. That person is not me. Our myths about offenders are designed to make us feel safe. But whilst they make us feel safe they also make life much harder for victims and much easier for sex offenders.

When a juror walks into a court room this is the image that they probably have in their head. They are probably expecting to hear a story about a stranger who randomly attacked an innocent woman in an alleyway at night. Instead we all know that they are much more likely to hear a story about two people who knew each other, who seemed to quite like each other, who appeared to be having a good evening, but now one of them is accusing the other of rape. There are no witnesses. There are no injuries. The complainant admits that she did not fight or call out for help. There is nothing but one person’s word against another’s.

So how might people react to this kind of evidence? Let’s meet three jurors and find out.

Meet Janice – When Janice hears the facts of the case she hears the story of a foolish girl who made a series of bad decisions and should be held responsible for the consequences.

This attitude is useful for Janice. Janice is terrified of the idea that she might be raped one day. Her way of coping with this fear is to make the complainant responsible for what happened. If Janice can believe that the complainant was in control, she can believe that she is also in control. All she has to do in order to avoid being raped is to avoid the kind of foolish decisions that the complainant obviously made.

How can we work with Janice? Janice is actually quite a tricky juror to work with because her attitudes about rape are part of a coping mechanism. People don’t tend to like it when you take their coping mechanism away from them. The journey we need to go on with Janice is to help her see that whilst her ideas make her feel safe, in reality they make her less safe. We can help Janice see this by helping her to focus on the defendant’s behaviour – she hasn’t given any attention to his motives or actions. We also need to help her see that she is relying heavily on hindsight – she needs to see that the complainant had no idea what was going to happen. She needs to recognise that there were tens of thousands of women who made similar choices and decisions on that very same night but didn’t end up getting raped. Ultimately Janice wants to feel safe. Currently she’s trying to feel safe by blaming the victim. The message that she needs to hear is that she will only be safer by opening her eyes to the realities of rape.

Now let’s meet Sam. I think Sam is the juror I encounter most frequently. He’s also the juror I think I’ve read the least about in the research literature on rape myths. When a juror hears evidence in a case they will use some existing understanding of the world to help them make sense of the evidence.

Sam doesn’t know anything about sexual violence so the framework he chooses is normal dating. When he uses this framework the evidence sounds like normal dating that maybe got a bit out of hand. He thinks it’s unfortunate that the complainant feels this was rape.

By linking the evidence to normal dating Sam has effectively put his own behaviour on trial. He’s saying that everything sounds normal – so if he finds the defendant guilty does that mean he needs to question his own behaviour?

Because he has linked his own behaviour with the defendants he has to dismiss the evidence. He has to minimise it in order to exonerate his own behaviour.

How can we work with Sam? We need to help Sam see that rape is very different from normal dating behaviour. We need to help him see that rape is penetrating someone who is either unconscious or otherwise incapacitated; someone who is actively trying to fight you off; or most likely someone who is non-responsive through fear.

There are two things I would want to point out to Sam. We are hard wired to detect fear in one another. I am designed to detect fear in you because the thing you are frightened of may also be a threat to me. To rape is to detect that fear on some level, and then to continue what you are doing. Most people if they felt any sense of fear in their partner during sex would be horrified. There is no room for fear in proper intimacy. For a rapist the fear doesn’t make them stop. For a rapist the fear may be precisely what they are looking for. This is a million miles away from normal sex.

The other thing that I would point out to Sam is that the victim is most likely non-responsive, inactive. Consent in normal dating situations is actively given. Consent is ‘she was ripping my clothes off as fast as I was ripping her clothes off’. Sex is about mutual enjoyment and pleasure. In the case of rape the victim is playing no active part. ‘She didn’t say no’ is not consent.

We want help Sam realise that the evidence has nothing to do with him, so that he can hear the evidence without the feeling that he is on trial. We need to help him see how abnormal the defendant’s actions and motivations were. The good thing about working with Sam is that he will gladly listen to anything that distances his own behaviour from rape. He’s going to be relieved to hear that it has nothing to do with him.

Finally, let’s meet Richard. When Richard hears the evidence he thinks that this simply is not rape. He’s a bit annoyed that this case has even come to court. As far as he is concerned the complainant is either devious or confused.

Richard sees the world in black and white. He likes the status quo. He hates change and he hates ambiguity. Rape is related to a number of issues that he finds important –power, gender, justice. He has very rigid attitudes to these issues and would find the idea of changing them very threatening.

You are never going to change Richard. Richard is too inflexible to change – he is more likely to break. He has built himself a house of cards and he will defend it rigorously. So let’s not try and change Richard. Instead let’s give him some ‘new’ information that he can fit in with his existing opinions. Effectively let’s help him build an extension next to his house of cards. The new information needs to be presented very clearly. Show him how this case is an exception to the rule. Teach him things he didn’t know about how sex offenders operate. Let him keep his old ideas, but make sure he learns some new ones too.

In all of this I want to emphasise how important storytelling is. Storytelling is meaning making – it’s how we makes sense of things. When a juror is in the court room they will come in with their expected stories about rape. When they are presented with the evidence they will be trying to take that evidence and make a story out of it.

Most of the stories we tell about rape are about the victim and they suit the defence. We tell the story of the woman who cried rape because she was cheating on her boyfriend and got found out. We tell the story of the foolish girl who was obviously inviting sex. 

What stories do we tell that support prosecution? We only seem to have one – the violent monster who attacks women in dark alleyways. This is the only story that we tell and it isn’t a story that will help you in most rape cases.

So we need to start telling more stories about sex offenders. We need to tell the story of the sex offender who wasn’t ready to admit to himself that he was a rapist. We all like to think of ourselves in a positive light. Sex offenders are no different from everyone else in this respect. Admitting to yourself that you are a sex offender is a big psychological risk because it is likely to threaten your self-concept. Sex offenders are highly motivated to deny or minimise their own offending behaviour.

We also need to tell the story of the sex offender who carefully planned his offence in order to make sure he didn’t get caught. We need to help people realise whilst violent attacks on strangers do occasionally happen they are rare because they represent a very high risk offence for a sex offender. Attacking a stranger in public means risking someone intervening. There will be physical evidence – CCTV, DNA, witnesses. The victim is very likely to report it to the police. The police will have the benefit of physical evidence and public co-operation to catch the attacker. And the jury – this is the story they are expecting to hear. They will happily convict.

But if you are an offender who doesn’t want to get caught, or an offender who isn’t ready to recognise that they are a sex offender, then you are more likely to commit the most common type of offence. You select a victim you already have access to, you select someone who trusts you enough to go with you to a location where you can safely commit the offence, you don’t use violence – you use coercion and incapacitation, after the offence you do everything you can to normalise what just happened. You reassure yourself and your victim that what just happened was not rape. But it was.

When we tell stories about that kind of offender suddenly many of the ‘rape myths’ can be used as arguments for prosecution rather than defence: of course they knew each other, of course they were drinking, of course she trusted him and agreed to go back to his flat, his car, of course there was no violence, of course he sent her lovely text messages afterwards, of course it took her time to find the courage to report the rape – she, like you, never thought that someone she trusted would rape her.

If you’d like to learn more about that type of sex offender please read the report. If I really wanted to sell the report to you maybe I’d use a phrase like ‘this report will change your life’. I suspect it won’t. But writing it did change mine. I’ve spent most of my career so far talking to government, practitioners, and academics about rape and sexual abuse. It was through writing this report that I realised that it was time for me to start talking to the public about it. 

I think that there are a lot of people out there who are tired of being frightened, angry, and confused about rape and sexual abuse. I think that a lot of people are beginning to recognise that whatever we’re currently doing to stop abuse isn’t working. I think that there is a growing appetite for a more sophisticated dialogue about this issue and a desire to ask the questions that are really important. Why does this continue to happen?  How can we stop it?

I’m not going to stand here and tell you that I have all of the answers to those questions. But I can play my role in helping those people who want a deeper understanding of the realities of rape and sexual abuse.

I have a whole body of work planned that will probably take me years to finish. But whilst the finish line may be a long way off the starting line is only weeks away. In March I’ll be publishing my first book on rape and sexual abuse. I’ve decided to start my conversation with the public by sending a message to the group of people in our society who are paying the highest price for the status quo. These are the women, men, boys and girls who have experienced some form of abuse and who are living with it on their own. I suspect that if you wanted to count this group you would have to count them in their millions.

 The first two chapters of this illustrated book are already live on my site. If you have a website and you think that the visitors to your site would be interested in this book please provide a link to it.

I suspect when the book is launched I’m going to be busy. Which means it might be awhile before we get to speak to each other again. But for now – thank you for listening.

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