On Friday, convicted rapist Brock Turner was released from jail after serving only 3 months of an incredibly lenient 6 month prison sentence for his rape of a woman attending a party. On January 18, 2015, two men witnessed Turner raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster and held him until police arrived. Aaron Persky, the judge in the Turner case, decided to give Turner a light sentence, considering that a prison sentence would have a “severe impact” on the rapist (arguably the entire point of a prison sentence…). The case was widely regarded as evidence that rape is not taken seriously in legal proceedings, and that men still have difficulty understanding the significance of sexual assault. While Turner must register as a sex offender, he got the equivalent of a legal slap on the wrist for violently assaulting another person. As a woman, I am angry. But as a psychologist, I am unsurprised. Social psychologists have long known how juror perceptions of rape victims, as well as ideas regarding masculine identities, contribute to cases like Turner’s.
Sociologists and psychologists have explored the existence of “rape myths,” or complicated societal beliefs that essentially assert that women are “asking for it.”1 Acceptance of rape myths contributes to rape culture, and casts blame onto the victims of sexual crimes rather than onto the perpetrators. These rape myths are embraced so wholeheartedly that they are often seen in convicted rapists’ speech about their crime.2 Men who have been convicted of rape are more likely to see their crime as ambiguous, such that they believe there is room to interpret their crime as consensual sex.2 A man’s feelings about masculine gender roles also predicts his comfort with sexually coercive behavior, demonstrating that the more that men buy into toxic beliefs about masculinity, the more likely they are to engage in sexual assault.3 While rapists are usually men, rape is still perpetrated by a minority of men, and the men who commit the crime are often seen as social pariahs.4 Indeed, it appears that sex offenders have their own unique qualities. For instance, sex offenders are more likely to lack empathy, or the ability to identify with the experiences and emotions of others, which may contribute to their criminal attitudes.5 This may also explain why some men are comfortable with sexually coercive behavior, while many men are clearly not.
Unfortunately, rape victims must also face a biased court system, as the people involved in legal sentencing are likely swayed by their own perceptions of the victim’s behavior. Those perceptions, unbeknownst to jurors, are often created in part by the very rape myths that contributed to the assault in the first place. There is evidence, for instance, that rape victims that were intoxicated at the time of their assaults are less likely to be seen as credible and are more likely to be seen as deserving of rape by jurors.6 Mock jurors were also more likely to have negative evaluations of rape victims when the victim bought the drinks, as opposed to when the perpetrator bought the drinks, something that contributed to feelings of perpetrator guilt.7 This effect is similar to the finding that victims who willingly ingest substances are seen as “more to blame” than victims who ingested substances unwillingly.8 Interestingly enough, it is often a tactic for the rapist to use their own level of intoxication to excuse their actions, suggesting that they would have behaved differently if they had been sober. Research does support this to some degree, finding that the amount of alcohol ingested is positively related to the seriousness of the assault committed.9 Ironically, research also suggests that some men, particularly men who endorse rape myths, are more likely to buy women alcohol as a way of procuring sexual access through intoxication.10
Luckily, there are few people who commit these heinous acts, and, to some degree, they can be recognized by their personality traits. The “macho personality” is composed of characteristics like seeing violence as masculine and dangerous situations as thrilling. Men who possess these specific macho traits are more likely to behave violently and gravitate towards violence.11 It’s important to remember that no amount of alcohol can force someone to commit a violent act, even if Brock Turner’s friends and family think differently. It’s also important to consider the bigger picture: how ideas about masculinity and biased perceptions of victims contribute to both the formation of rapists and the perpetuation of rape culture. Rather than focusing on drinking on college campuses, we need to work to dispel rape myths that equate intoxication with sexual invitation.
- Payne, D.L., Lonsway, K.A., & Fitzgerald, L.F. (1999). Rape myth acceptance: Exploration of its structure and its measurement using the Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale. Journal of Research in Personality, 33, 27-68.
- Lea, S. & Auburn, T. (2002). Feminism & Psychology: “The social construction of rape in the talk of a convicted rapist.” Women and Language, 25(2), 58.
- Truman, D.M., Tokar, D.M., & Fischer, A.R. (1996). Dimensions of masculinity: Relations to date rape supportive attitudes and sexual aggression in dating situations. Journal of Counseling and Development, 74(6), 555.
- Lee, P.C. (2003). Reason, rape and angst in behavioral studies. Science, 301(5631), 313.
- Marshall, W.L., Hudson, S.M., Jones, R., & Fernandez, Y.M. (1995). Empathy in sex offenders. Clinical Psychology Review, 15(2), 99-113.
- Wenger, A.A. & Bornstein, B.H. (2006). The Effects of victim’s substance use and relationship closeness on mock jurors’ judgments in an acquaintance rape case. Sex Roles, 54(7-8), 547-555.
- Lynch, K.R., Wasarhaley, N.E., Golding, J.M., & Simcic, T. (2013). Who bought the drinks? Juror Perceptions of intoxication in a rape trial. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 28(16), 3205-3222.
- Stewert, D.N. & Jacquin, K.M. (2010). Juror perceptions in a rape trial: Examining the complainant’s ingestion of chemical substances prior to sexual assault. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatmen,t & Trauma, 19(8), 853-874.
- Abbey, A., Clinton-Sherrod, A.M., McAusian, P., Zawacki, T., & Buck, P.O. (2003). The relationships between the quantity of alcohol consumed and the severity of sexual assaults committed by college men. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 18(7), 813-833.
- Sanchez-Romero, M. (2010). Alcohol use as a strategy for obtaining nonconsensual sexual relations: Incidence in Spanish university students and relation to rape myths acceptance. The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 13(2), 864-874.
- Zaitchik, MC. & Mosher, D.L. (1993). Criminal justice implications of the Macho personality constellation. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 20(3), 227-239.