Expert Opinion

A glimmer of hope for the blamed rape victim: Expert testimony on ‘rape myth acceptance' (RMA) and ‘belief in a just world' (BJW) may enhance a victim's credibility

A study on courtroom strategies to enhance the credibility of rape victims.

By Cassandra Pinaire, BA, and Kathryn Sperry, PhD

Victims of sexual assault are routinely blamed for their behaviors before, during and after a sexual assault. Victims who participate in “high risk” behaviors such as underage drinking, drug use or promiscuous dress at the time of an assault are blamed more than victims who did not participate in such behaviors. Even police and prosecutors often view the victim negatively if she had consumed alcohol prior to an assault (Schuller & Stewart, 2010), and they may be inclined to drop the case if the victim seems blameworthy (Brown, Hamilton, & O'Neal, 2007; Stewart & Maddren, 1997). Importantly, victim blame often decreases victim credibility in the courtroom (Wenger & Bornstein, 2006) and results in fewer convictions (e.g., Angelone, Mitchell, & Pilafova; Rye, Greatrix, & Enright, 2006).

One of the reasons that victims are sometimes blamed is society's strong desire to believe that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. This view of the world is called “belief in a just world” (BJW; Lerner & Simmons, 1966). Individuals who hold such beliefs are also likely to endorse what are called rape myths (“rape myth acceptance” (RMA); Burt, 1980). Examples of rape myths include “women secretly wish to be raped,” and “women who dress promiscuously are asking to be raped.”

Our research attempted to find courtroom strategies that could enhance the credibility of rape victims, particularly victims who might be perceived as blameworthy. Our research story has been discouraging because we have found that victim blame is incredibly difficult to overcome in the courtroom. Below is a review of some of our findings and we end on what we hope can be an encouraging note for victims.

First, we manipulated sympathy for the victim. In these studies, sympathy was manipulated through the use of a victim impact statement. We examined both strong and weak sympathy manipulations. We were surprised to find that inducing sympathy had the unintended consequence of the victim being perceived as less likeable and less credible. And what's more, inducting sympathy was most harmful when the victim was portrayed as blameworthy.

Next, we examined a concept known as “negative acknowledgment.” Negative acknowledgment occurs when an individual acknowledges or draws attention to a potentially negative quality, resulting in more positive perceptions of that quality (Ward & Brenner, 2006). In our research, for participants high in RMA and BJW, a victim who “negatively acknowledged” her blameworthy behavior of drinking prior to an assault was perceived as less credible relative to the victim who did not engage in negative acknowledgment. Our hindsight speculation is that for participants who already had a propensity toward blaming victims, a victim's negative acknowledgment may have just confirmed and justified those very beliefs.

Our most recent study is more encouraging. We examined the impact of expert testimony that specifically discusses RMA and BJW on perceptions of victim credibility. This type of expert testimony had a positive impact on jurors' evaluations of the victim. In the low blame condition, the use of expert testimony marginally increased victim credibility and significantly decreased BJW. In the high blame condition, the expert marginally increased sympathy for the victim.

While we are aware of how experts are routinely called to testify on rape trauma syndrome, we are not aware of how common it is for an expert to explain RMA and BJW in the courtroom. Through our research we have come to the conclusion that most states, if not all, would be willing to allow an expert to testify on the topic of RMA. The Daubert standard as established within the Federal Rules of Evidence states that the scientific testimony that is presented to the court should be relevant and reliable (Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 1993). The Federal Rules of Evidence Rule 702 further specifies that the testimony must be based on sufficient facts and data, it must be the product of reliable research methods, and the witness should apply the research reliably to the facts of the case. The testimony is normally allowed if it is scientifically valid and beyond the common understanding of the jurors (Lonsway, 2005).

Our research operates on this idea of using expert testimony on the topic of RMA. Rape myths and their ability to potentially impact judges and juries have been well established through numerous accounts of reliable, empirical literature (Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1994; Suarez & Gadalla, 2010; Turchick & Edwards, 2012; Yamawaki, 2009). While most states use the Federal Rules of Evidence or the Daubert standard, a select few still use the Frye standard, which originally required that any admissible evidence be generally accepted by the scientific community ( Frye v. United States, 1923). As discussed before, research regarding RMA is largely accepted and supported by the psychological community.


Victim blame in cases of sexual assault has serious ramifications, including victims' fears of reporting a rape incident (e.g., Du Mont, Miller, & Myhr, 2003) and dropped cases in which the victim was engaged in “risky” behaviors (Brown, Hamilton, & O'Neal, 2007). In the event a case actually makes it to trial, victim blame also leads to reduced victim credibility and fewer convictions (e.g., Angelone et al., 2007; Wenger & Bornstein, 2006). Furthermore, victims of sexual assault often blame themselves, which exacerbates the negative health consequences of victim blame. Self-blame leads to chronic depression (Branscombe, Wohl, Owen, Allison, & N'gbala, 2003; Frazier, 1990), PTSD (Moor & Farchi, 2011) and increased risk of revictimization (e.g., Miller, Markman, & Handley, 2007).

Given these very serious consequences of victim blame, our goal has been to examine ways to restore a victim's credibility at trial. Unfortunately, this has been a very challenging task, but perhaps the use of expert testimony can provide a glimmer of hope for the blamed rape victim.


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