Decades after Reforms Erased Sexual Assault Myths from the Letter of the Law, Pennsylvania’s Criminal Justice System Remains Infected

In the early morning hours in a college dorm room, three young men took turns physically restraining and vaginally, anally, and orally penetrating an eighteen-year-old woman student without her consent.  The victim had allowed the three men — who were friends of a friend — to hang out in her room after a party in the hall had ended, but said “no” when one tried to kiss her and then tried to move away when he made further sexual advances.  Afraid, embarrassed, and in shock, she was unable to take any further action to protect herself.  The district attorney brought charges against the men, and after a three day trial, the jury convicted the three men of sexual assault, indecent assault, and false imprisonment.  The trial court affirmed the sexual assault and indecent assault convictions when it denied the defendants’ motion for a new trial.  On appeal, however, the Pennsylvania Superior Court overturned these convictions.  The case, Commonwealth v. Claybrook, is now on appeal before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

In an Amicus (“friend of the court”) brief filed on March 2, 2012 on behalf of the Women’s Law Project (WLP) and forty-two Pennsylvania and national organizations dedicated to justice for victims of sexual assault, amici argue that the Superior Court overturned these convictions in reliance on sexual assault myths, including the myths that primarily strangers perpetrate sexual assault and that social interaction, absence of physical resistance, absence of severe physical injuries, and certain post-assault victim behaviors imply consent.  These myths have been discredited by social science research and eliminated by the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

Beginning in the early 1970s, the Pennsylvania General Assembly dramatically changed Pennsylvania’s sex offense laws.  For example, the legislature eliminated the requirements of resistance, corroboration, and prompt complaint so that a victim’s lack of active resistance, lack of physical injuries, or delay in reporting the crime would not bar prosecution.  In 1995, the legislature revamped Pennsylvania’s sex offense laws again.  Recognizing the complexity of sexual assault, particularly when the parties know each other, the legislature adopted a broader definition of forcible compulsion, eliminated differential treatment of spousal rape, and recognized the crime of “sexual assault,” defined as sexual penetration without consent.  With these changes, as legislative history shows and as the amicus brief lays out, the legislature eliminated several sexual assault myths from the law.

Social science research supports the elimination of these myths.  Most rapes are committed by someone the victim knows; rape often results in few, if any, physical injuries apart from the rape itself; and many victims do not physically resist their attackers for a variety of reasons, including fear of serious injury or death and trauma that causes some victims to become immobilized.  Furthermore, research shows that there is a wide range of reactions and behaviors that victims exhibit during and in the aftermath of sexual assault, and it is erroneous to assume that a victim should behave in any particular way.

The perpetuation of myths adopted by the Superior Court fuels distrust in the criminal justice system and contributes to the low reporting of sex offenses.  The vast majority of sexual assault victims do not report their sexual assault to police.  A recent discussion on twitter with the hashtag #ididnotreport illustrates how lack of confidence in the justice system silences victims of sexual assault and harassment.  One tweet explains, “[I did not report] because I have no faith in our justice system where so few rapists are jailed + victims are treated like perpetrators.”

To stop sexual assault and create a just society where perpetrators of sexual violence are punished for their crimes, the justice system must rid itself of the types of myths on which the Superior Court relied in Commonwealth v. Claybrook.

For more information on WLP’s work related to violence against women, click here and stay tuned for WLP’s forthcoming report, Through the Lens of Equality: Gender Bias, Health, and a New Vision for Pennsylvania’s Women, which details the pernicious impact of sexual assault and harassment on women’s health.

About womenslawproject

The Women's Law Project creates a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives. To this end, we engage in high-impact litigation, advocacy, and education.
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One Response to Decades after Reforms Erased Sexual Assault Myths from the Letter of the Law, Pennsylvania’s Criminal Justice System Remains Infected

  1. Molly Hendeson says:

    I appreciate all of your work. Can you please tell me the names of Judges on Superior Court who were involved in this case and how each one voted>

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