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New legal guidance for prosecutors helps to tackle rape myths and stereotypes against the changing picture of modern life

|News, Sexual offences

The growing exchange of naked selfies, misconceptions about the use of ‘hook up’ dating sites and discussion of why sexual assault victims may remain in contact with their attacker all form part of new draft guidance for prosecutors on rape myths and stereotypes published by the Crown Prosecution Service today.

The material is part of a wide-ranging revision of legal guidance for prosecutors on rape and serious sexual offences (RASSO) which is being launched for public consultation. It is the first full refresh since 2012 and includes updated guidance on dealing with digital material, as well as reasonable lines of enquiry. The suggested changes aim to reflect the changing world, especially the growth of the digital technology and its impact on sexual behaviours and encounters.

Siobhan Blake, CPS rape lead said: “There have been massive changes to the way people live their lives in the last 10 years and this has undoubtedly transformed the way people interact, date and communicate with sexual partners.

“Rape remains one of the most complex criminal offences and that is why this updated legal guidance addresses 39 common myths and stereotypes.

“As dramatic technological advances have changed the way people meet and connect, it’s vital those in the criminal justice system understand the wider, social, context of these changes.

“For example, many teenagers believe that sending explicit photos or videos is a part of everyday life. Our prosecutors must understand this and challenge any implication that sexual images or messages equate to consent in cases of rape of serious sexual violence.”

The CPS has worked hand in hand with victim support groups to update the myths and stereotypes guidance. A project focused on reasons for lower conviction rates in cases involving the 18-24 age group and sought expert views on what might be driving the trend. This work found that while established myths and stereotypes - such as belief that wearing a short skirt is proof of implied consent - are still common, changing use of technology has led to the emergence of new myths, linked for example to sharing of explicit selfies, use of dating apps, and casual sex.

The refreshed guidance aims to support CPS lawyers as they build the strongest possible cases to put before the court. Key changes include updates on:

  • The impact of trauma, in particular how the memory of a victim or complainant can be affected. It is crucial that prosecutors understand the impact and are able to present the prosecution case in a way which contextualises this for a jury.
  • Reasonable lines of enquiry - this section refreshes guidance on striking the appropriate balance between privacy and a thorough investigation. It focuses on obtaining early advice and the need for investigators and prosecutors to work together from the earliest stage in order to build strong cases and escalation processes.

Changes have also been made to guidance when considering cases involving same sex sexual violence, and when there are victim vulnerabilities, with a focus on psychological and mental health issues.

Fay Maxted, Chief Executive of the Survivors Trust, said:  “Negative stereotypes and myths about rape victims are pervasive in society, creating a toxic environment where victims and survivors fear they will be judged or disbelieved, and where many survivors have experienced victim blame as a result.  For this reason, many survivors never report or delay reporting.   We therefore welcome the proposal to include information that will dispel misconceptions and misunderstandings with an up-to-date awareness of the way trauma can impact on behaviour and how to ensure a sensitive response to victims/survivors.”

Duncan Craig OBE, Chief Executive Officer of Survivors Manchester, said: “As a provider of specialist sexual violence services to boys and men, we see first-hand the impact on individuals that rape myths have, from making it even harder to step forward in the first place to break their silence, through to adding extra barriers in to their healing journey. These myths infect societies view of not only the seriousness of rape, but also create a breeding ground for silence and the continuation of harm. Seeing the impact first hand and recognising the CPS desire to attack these myths is the sole reason we took part in the development of this new guidance and are proud to have done so. We hope that they help challenge views and improve the way the Criminal Justice System deals with myths in rape cases.”

In July, the CPS published RASSO 2025, its ambitious five-year strategy which aims to look at all aspects of how rape is prosecuted to identify areas for improvement and build confidence that every case is being dealt with expertly and fairly. In addition, a joint action plan with police to drive improvements in the investigation and prosecution of rape cases is due to be published later this autumn.

Claire Waxman, the London Victims’ Commissioner, said: “I welcome the publication of new guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service today. This is a much-needed update that will help to tackle pervasive myths and stereotypes around rape and the culture of disbelief.

“Last year I carried out the London Rape Review, a comprehensive review into rape cases in the capital, which revealed that only three per cent of allegations result in a conviction.

“Following this research I called for the Crown Prosecution Service to undergo trauma training and refresh their guidance, as for too long, evidence of trauma, such as inconsistencies in memory, has been misinterpreted as victims being unreliable which has influenced charging decisions. I am pleased my recommendation has been welcomed and that the new guidance includes the impact trauma can have on a victim’s memory. This is great progress.”

Siobhan Blake added: “We share the public’s concern about the disparity between the number of rape and serious sexual offences reported and those cases getting to court, and are determined to make significant changes to improve that for survivors of these appalling crimes.

“Clear, up to date guidance is crucial to help our specialist prosecutors make fair and effective decisions and make sure that justice is delivered in every case for victims and alleged perpetrators.”

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