Blaming Children: How Rape Myths Manifest in Defense Attorneys’ Questions to Children Testifying About Child Sexual Abuse

Suzanne St George, Emily Denne, Stacia N. Stolzenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Since rape myths were codified in 1980 (Burt, 1980), scholars have shown that individuals who endorse rape myths perceive victims as less credible and more responsible for rape and perpetrators as less responsible. Studies also show that rape myths hinder successful adjudication of rape cases by influencing juries’ assessments of perpetrator guilt (Dinos et al., 2015). While most of this research focuses on sexual assaults involving adult victims, some scholars have found that victims as young as 12 are blamed for rape. If rape myths influence the perceptions of sex offenses even when victims are children, then defense attorneys in child sexual abuse (CSA) cases may be motivated to highlight rape myth in CSA trials. In the current study, we conducted a content analysis of the cross-examinations of 122 children, aged 6 to 17, alleging CSA to determine if and how defense attorneys question children about rape myths. We looked for questions about force and resistance, motives to lie, victim precipitation, and character issues (e.g., habitual drug use). We found that defense attorneys commonly referenced rape myths in CSA trials. A total of 10% of all defense attorneys’ lines of questioning referenced a rape myth, and attorneys asked 77% of children at least one rape myth line of questioning. Whether or not attorneys asked about different myths and the content of these questions varied by children’s age. Our findings indicate that defense attorneys use rape myths strategically to undermine children’s credibility in CSA trials, but they adapt (adult) rape myths in ways that are plausible in the CSA context. Policies formed to prevent the prejudicial impact of rape myths at sexual assault trials involving adults (e.g., rape shield laws) may not adequately prevent their impact in CSA trials. Prosecutors, therefore, should address rape myths at CSA trials.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of interpersonal violence
DOIs
StateAccepted/In press - 2021

Keywords

  • attorney strategies
  • child sexual abuse
  • rape myths
  • victim credibility

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology
  • Applied Psychology

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