Amal Bass, WLP Staff Attorney
House Bill 1264, which provides for expert testimony in certain criminal proceedings, has passed the Pennsylvania House and Senate, and is now on Governor Corbett’s desk. Until this legislation is signed by the Governor and goes into effect, Pennsylvania remains the only state in the country that does not permit juries in criminal trials to hear expert testimony explaining the dynamics of sexual assault. The bill, sponsored by Representative Cherelle Parker (D-Philadelphia) and 61 representatives from both sides of the aisle, will allow expert testimony in criminal cases involving sexual offenses. This legislation permits the prosecution or the defense to call experts who, because of their “experience with, or specialized training or education in, criminal justice, behavioral sciences or victim services,” can help juries and judges understand “the dynamics of sexual violence, victim responses to sexual violence and the impact of sexual violence on victims during and after being assaulted.”
This legislation will help counter the misconceptions juries and judges have repeatedly applied in the past to sexual assault cases. These misconceptions, known as rape myths, “are attitudes and beliefs that are generally false but are widely and persistently held, and that serve to deny and justify male sexual aggression against women.” Kimberly A. Lonsway & Louise F. Fitzgerald, Rape Myths in Review, 18 Psych. of Women Quarterly 133, 133-134 (1994). These myths are connected to sexist attitudes about women and distort the dynamics of sexual assault.
Two rape myths, for example, are the belief that rape is rare and that women often lie about its occurrence. Other rape myths include the beliefs that sexual assault victims will actively resist their assailants throughout the assault and that they will report the crime as soon as possible. Adherence to these myths may make jurors and judges more inclined to believe that a victim’s delay in reporting the assault, her lack of visible physical injuries, or perceived inadequate resistance to the attack indicate that she is lying about what happened.
In reality, research shows that many rape victims cannot or do not fight back during an assault for a variety of reasons, including fear, immobilization due to being physically restrained, or immobilization due to their own psychological responses to trauma. Thus, many victims do not have visible physical injuries and do not actively resist their attackers during the assault. Furthermore, a delay in reporting an assault is very common, as victims dealing with the immediate aftermath of an assault are in the process of making sense of what happened to them and are figuring out what steps to take. Contrary to a common misconception, there is no “right” or “normal” way for a victim of sexual assault to behave.
Pennsylvania’s enactment of HB 1264 will promote justice for victims of sexual assault by giving lawyers such as prosecutors the tools they need to address these commonly held misconceptions about the dynamics of sexual assault. To learn more about rape myths in the criminal justice system, see the Women’s Law Project’s amicus brief in Commonwealth v. Claybrook and our chapter on sexual violence in our report, Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women.