The challenge in sexual assault cases often isn’t identifying the perpetrator, but whether or not the occurrence of a crime can be proved
By Jim Twardesky
“To hear something with thoughtful attention, to give consideration” is how Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines listening. Yet many times when we say we are listening, what we are really doing is hearing the other person’s words through our own preconceived bias and notions. This tendency becomes particularly problematic when police officers are tasked with investigating sexual assault.
how rape myths can impede investigations
Rape myths are assumptions held by people about what constitutes “real rape.” Often these myths revolve around blaming the victim for his or her actions prior to the assault. Examples of these include that sex workers can’t be raped, dressing provocatively and excessive intoxicant use is asking to be raped, and the classic, you asked to be raped by showing interest in the suspect prior to the assault.
Other rape myths revolve around the victim’s behavior during and after the assault. Examples of these include that real rape victims disclose the assault immediately, that it’s only rape if you suffer physical injury, and if you don’t fight back or run then you weren’t really raped. To that note, officers should be aware that academic research has shown that a large portion of rape victims become immobilized by the fear they are experiencing making the fight or flight response more like fight, flight or freeze. 
One of the biggest barriers facing law enforcement in attempting to protect society from sexual violence is that victims do not report the assaults. Recent Bureau of Justice statistics based on crime victimization surveys estimate that 70%-80% of sexual assaults go unreported each year, making sexual violence the most underreported violent crime occurring in the United States. 
Rape myths discourage reporting because they send a message to victims that what they experienced isn’t really rape and thus won’t be taken seriously. This helps the rapist because one of the best ways to avoid being arrested is for the victim to never report the incident in the first place. Rape myths further help to encourage the rapist by helping them to justify their deviant actions.
In my experience, rapists rarely see themselves as rapists; even more rare is the rapist who blames themselves for what happened. I’ve interviewed hundreds of rape suspects and not surprisingly, many of them tended to be big proponents of rape myths. They want us to believe these myths because it allows them to fulfill their deviant desires without fear of penalty.
What is perhaps even more concerning for law enforcement, is that when victims do come forward, only approximately a third of all reported sexual assaults are cleared by arresting the offender.  This becomes especially upsetting when you consider that the offender is known to the victim approximately 80% of the time  and the prevalence of false reporting is much lower than commonly thought (another rape myth by the way). 
Are police officers more or less likely to believe in rape myths than the general population? Academic research has tried to answer that question with mixed results.  That’s not surprising since police officers themselves are such a large demographic with significant variations in education levels, backgrounds and personal experiences. Ultimately that question should be irrelevant as long as an officer’s acceptance of rape myths does not prohibit them from conducting a thorough investigation. Most concerning for anyone overseeing sexual assault investigations is when officers not only hold false beliefs about what rape is, but use those myths to guide their investigation and make closure decisions. 
A rapist wants the police to conduct investigations based on assumptions because the second-best way to avoid being arrested is for the police to discredit the victim before the investigation even starts. The rapist is fully aware of myths surrounding rape and they use that knowledge to pick their targets and to later justify their actions should anyone question them about the incident.
Rape is a violent crime occurring in all our communities and often, sexual assault cases are not whodunits. So why is there a low clearance rate for such a violent, despicable crime when the offender is often known to police?
Failing to really listen
The challenge in sexual assault cases often isn’t identifying the perpetrator but whether or not the occurrence of a crime can be proved. Rape cases rarely come with eyewitness or objective video footage. Even DNA evidence gathered from rape kits can be of little value if the offender claims it was a consensual act.
The fact of the matter is that sexual assault typically occurs behind closed doors with the investigator being left to sort out exactly what happened. Finding the truth becomes nearly impossible if officers allow preconceived myths about what rape really is clouding their judgment or interfere with their investigation.
Because of the challenges inherent in sexual assault investigation, interviews ‒ and especially the victim interview ‒ take on added significance. Good interviews with attention to detail are key to a successful investigation. In one case I worked, a teenage girl had been reported as a runaway after being last seen hanging out with a boy she met at school. She was located the following morning after not showing up for school at which time she reported being held at gunpoint and sexually assaulted by the young man she had last been seen with.
The suspect’s story was that they had consensual sex multiple times the previous night and she was now trying to avoid getting in trouble for not going home. He further stated that everything had been fine when she left, and they had made plans to hang out again.
On face value, his statement was a perfectly logical scenario that accounted for many of the known circumstances surrounding the incident. His story explained why she had been gone all night and why his DNA may show up in the rape kit. His story also provided a motive for the allegations by conveniently making use of another common rape myth (that being that victims commonly lie to hide their own misdeeds). His hope was to increase his own credibility while taking away from her credibility. What he most wanted to avoid was a thorough investigation of his actions.
The devil is in the details
It’s important to remember when starting an investigation that it’s not about believing or not believing a victim, it’s about listening to what they are telling you so that you can follow up on it later. An objective fact-finder takes the statement and does their best to verify the contents of that statement before determining what to believe.
To do that, officers must be cognizant of their own biases, specifically any preconceptions they have about what constitutes the act of rape. The most important thing to remember as an officer is that you need to focus on the facts, and not make assumptions based on your own personal views on a subject or a victim (especially if your views are wrong or ill-informed). In order to do that, you need to really listen to what you are being told, not assume you know what you are being told.
During the victim interview in the above case, one of the things she stated was that she had escaped in a hurry after the suspect had fallen asleep. I further noted during the interview that she had to put her phone extremely close to her face whenever she went to look up information for me. When I pointed it out, she responded that her vision is horrible, and she had lost her glasses during the assault. We later found her glasses behind the suspect’s bed after we had served a search warrant.
When confronted with this fact, even the offender reluctantly agreed she had probably left in a panic if she had forgotten to grab her glasses on the way out. He ultimately made several incriminating admissions and later pled guilty to sexual assault. That small, but crucial piece of corroborative evidence, only came about because I had been listening and observing her statements for facts that could be confirmed later on rather than assuming I knew what had happened.
It is also important to keep in mind that the suspect in a sexual assault investigation deserves that same level of intent listening and attention to detail as the victim. The rise of the #metoo movement has brought a much-needed spotlight to society’s response to sexual assault, but with that has come additional public pressure on the police to hold sexual assault suspects accountable. Society relies on law enforcement to be objective fact-finders who don’t bow to public pressure or rush to judgment. If the person under investigation is trying to tell you something, it’s paramount that you are listening, otherwise, you run the risk of arresting the innocent.
Sexual assault may occur behind closed doors but there is still a series of circumstances that led up to the assault, the assault itself and a series of circumstances that took place after the assault. All of which need to be investigated before any conclusions can even be considered.
Officers should always remember that the truth gets better with further examination while lies tend to fall apart under scrutiny. Really listening and paying attention to detail is how law enforcement can best seek justice.
By following the evidence, avoiding assumptions and focusing on what can be verified rather then what can’t be verified, the investigator is in a much better position to reach the goal of discovering the truth. And discovering the truth is how we can hold sexual predators accountable.
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About the author
Detective Corporal Jim Twardesky has been in law enforcement since 1999, currently serving as a detective for the City of Warren police department in Michigan. He has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a master’s in public administration, both from Wayne State University. Additionally, he teaches as an adjunct instructor for the Macomb Public Service Institute and regularly lectures on the subjects of child homicide, sex crimes and interviewing child molesters through his company Twardesky Consulting.