A new study shows the problem with rape victim reporting is not whether “complainants show emotion or not but with how decision-makers perceive the complainant’s emotion and behaviour”. Picture: istock
A new study shows the problem with rape victim reporting is not whether “complainants show emotion or not but with how decision-makers perceive the complainant’s emotion and behaviour”. Picture: istock

Study reveals ‘alarming’ reason rape victims aren’t believed

A NEW study shows distressed rape victims are 'alarmingly' viewed as more credible in court and when reporting crimes than victims who don't show emotion.

The University of Queensland research, released this week, uncannily has strong echoes of the new hit Netflix crime series Unbelievable which follows a teenager who reports being raped and then recants her story.

UQ School of Psychology PhD candidate Faye Nitschke said given emotion was not related to honesty or accuracy, the findings, which showed people were basing credibility on emotion, were concerning.

She said research suggested people expected victims of rape, robbery and other crime types to become distressed when reporting or giving evidence.

"If that crime becomes more severe, the expectation is the reaction should be more severe," Ms Nitschke said.

"But there are a lot of pragmatic reasons why complainants don't become upset when giving evidence and so people's expectations about how complainants should behave are not consistent with reality," she said.

 

 

She said addressing misperceptions about a "complainant's level of emotionality should be a priority".

"To improve the fairness and accuracy of how allegations of sexual assault are evaluated, we need effective methods for reducing reliance on a complainant's emotional demeanour," she said.

New research looks at how emotion plays a role in rape victims perceived credibility. Picture istock
New research looks at how emotion plays a role in rape victims perceived credibility. Picture istock

A Brisbane Rape and Incest Survivors Support Centre (BRISSC) support worker said the centre was very aware of the myths and perceptions about what a 'real' rape victim looked like and "how she might present or act".

"It comes as no surprise to hear that the research reflects judgements are being made in this manner by professionals tasked with overseeing the process that occurs when a woman reports a sexual assault," the support worker said.

"The statistics show rape victims' perpetrators are usually people known to them and that there are a myriad of ways that people may respond and relate their experience to others."

The support worker said the stereotype of 'real' rape victims was generally "understood to be victims raped by strangers" who "only react in ways that people expect them to".

The support worker said most people were not "familiar with trauma responses and the ongoing effects of".

Ms Nitschke's research, conducted in collaboration with Associate Professors Blake McKimmie and Eric Vanman, analysed 20 studies involving 3,128 participants who were criminal justice professionals, community members and mock jurors.

"A complainant not showing emotions when giving evidence is quite common and very normal, as is showing emotions," Ms Nitschke said.

"We don't think decision-makers are fully aware of the extent of how they

interpret visible and non-visible displays of emotion."

"Not showing emotion does not mean complainants are not experiencing distress. A person who is experiencing PTSD may not present with visible signs of emotion, or a person may choose not to show emotion to present a factual response."

Ms Nitschke said credibility judgments that people made at various points of the criminal

justice system were very important in case attrition "as they influence whether a

case is progressed or not, and whether a jury believes the complainant".

"We know so few cases proceed to trial and we wanted to see if emotionality was a factor," she said.

"There is a body of literature that suggests that emotion does have an impact on credibility judgments ".

Ms Nitschke said the issue of emotion and credibility had been on people's radars for some time as well as the role of stereotypes that people have about victims and how people "think a typical rape" occurs.

"What the literature tells us is the judgement people are making about whether the complainant is being honest relates to whether the case proceeds or not," Ms Nitschke said.

She said jurors were sometimes instructed to make decisions about the credibility of witnesses in criminal trials, "so it is important for credibility decisions to be made accurately".

The research is hoping to drive a better understanding of attrition of rape cases in the criminal justice system

 

New research hopes to improve how rape victim emotion is understood by authorities and the community. Picture: istock
New research hopes to improve how rape victim emotion is understood by authorities and the community. Picture: istock

Ms Nitschke said there was also a large portion of cases never reported.

"Certainly, from personal safety data in Australian data we know that a large number of rapes and sexual assaults are never reported to authorities. Research suggests one reason complainants do not report is because they fear they are not going to be believed," she said.

Research is already underway to develop a series of studies that will help explain further how complainant emotion is used and understood in decision-making about credibility.

"We'd like ultimately to improve the decision-making process and to support decision makers to do a more accurate job."

She said it was critical to understand that the problem was not whether "complainants show emotion or not but with how decision-makers perceive the complainant's emotion and behaviour".

"We want to see complainants supported and cases moving through the criminal justice system."

Only nine per cent of rape allegations made to police in Australia proceeded to trial Ms Nitschke said.

"In up to 88 per cent of rape cases, the defendant and complainant know each other - so-called acquaintance or date rape - and the complainant's testimony about consent is critical.

"If the complainant is not perceived to be credible, these cases do not progress through the criminal justice system."



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