For a better experience, click the Compatibility Mode icon above to turn off Compatibility Mode, which is only for viewing older websites.

Roundtable Explores Responses of Legal, Medical Systems to Rape

September 13, 2012

An international panel of scholars assembled at the law school on Sept. 5 explored the ways that reforms intended to improve rape investigations by law enforcement and medical personnel have backfired.

The discussion, entitled “When is Rape ‘Legitimate?,’” came amid controversy U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri stirred recently by questioning whether women can be impregnated through sexual assault.

While Akin’s opinion represents a minority view, rape victims in many countries face high and sometimes invisible hurdles to establish their credibility in the eyes of legal and medical investigators, said the scholars, Professor Rose Corrigan of the law school and the Drexel University College of Arts and Sciences; Professor Lesley McMillan of Glasgow Caledonian University; Professor Sameena Mulla of Marquette University, Professor Gethin Rees of the University of Southampton and Professor Deborah White of Trent University.

Procedural changes adopted in the 1970s to help rape victims navigate the legal system have in many cases produced little benefit, the scholars said.

There is little documentation that rape kits created to help corroborate evidence have had much effect, Corrigan said, noting that the tools can’t necessarily prove that sexual contact took place, much less that it was coercive.

The kits rely on evidence of physical resistance, White said, despite the fact that many victims try not to provoke their attackers. Furthermore, while submitting to a forensic examination is optional, victims too traumatized to undergo the procedure commonly face questions about their veracity. In such ways, White noted, the very tool created to corroborate victim accounts can be used to unfairly undermine their credibility.

McMillan discussed the ways in which the timing of complaints can affect a victim’s access to justice. Jurors often assume that a delayed complaint means that rape did not occur, although studies have demonstrated various reasons why victims may wish to act slowly. As a result of these findings, jurors in England are instructed that delays in reporting rape should not undermine the victim’s credibility.

The discussion was co-sponsored by the law school, the Drexel University College of Arts & Sciences and Comparative Analysis in Rape Research Network.