RCASA’s Sunday Article Review: Judging Women and Defining Crime: Police Officers’ Attitudes Toward Women and Rape

In Advocacy, Outreach, Sexual Assault Awareness on February 7, 2010 at 9:00 am

Article from Sociological Spectrum, 28: 389-411, 2008, Amy Dellinger Page, Department of Sociology and Social Work, Appalachian State University.

Amy Page, of the Department of Sociology and Social Work looked at rape myths held by the general public and the professionals who serve them, particularly law enforcement.  She sites that the research she reviewed demonstrates a positive relationship between public attitudes toward women and rape myth acceptance. Page writes that that prosecutors rely more heavily on victim characteristics and other extra-legal factors than on criteria set forth by the law, when evaluating the merits of a rape case.  Little is known about whether this relationship also exists within police culture.  The study by Amy Page, assesses the relationship between police officers’ attitudes toward women and their attitudes toward rape.  The effect of a police officer”s educational level on holding onto rape myths is also assessed. Page hypothesized that police officers would be accepting of rape myths, which are inherently misogynistic.  Attitudes toward rape were expected to vary according to educational attainment and experience with rape investigations, such that higher levels of education and more experience with rape investigations would lead to the rejection of rape myths.

A survey was distributed to 2,898 police officers from two states in the southeastern United States. 891 completed surveys were returned, a 30% response rate. 80% of respondents were male and 17% were female. 3% of respondents chose not to identify their gender. 8% held a high school diploma or GED, 41% had some college but had not completed a degree, 15% had an Associate’s degree and 29% had a Bachelor’s degree.

Page found in the responses, that attitudes toward women showed some discrepancy in the previous assumptions and found that while some police officers endorse some sexist attitudes and they reject others.   Of the responses that Page accumulated, she found that police officers see most discrimination against women as something that occurred in the past, yet they also recognize that some forms of discrimination still exist. Generally the respondents  did not endorse  blatantly sexist attitudes.  Similarly, the responses indicate that while some rape myths are accepted, other myths are not.  Page also found that there was a significant difference on measures of modern sexism and the acceptance of rape myths with varying levels of educational attainment. Police officers who accept more rape myths were less likely to believe victims who did not adhere to the cultural stereotyped victim characteristics.  Page’s results indicated little differences in attitudes between the general cultural beliefs and the beliefs of police officers, finding that police officers did not hold rape myths or hold sexist attitudes more than the general public.  There were, however, a number of gender differences with women expressing more liberal views towards female rape victims than men, while men held more strongly to rape myths than women.

However, despite the continued discrepancy in beliefs held by the police officers studied by Page, the majority of police officers in her study agreed that any woman or man can be raped and disagreed with victim blaming statements.  One factor in Page’s study showed that police officers with higher education are more attuned to social problems, including gender oppression and have more egalitarian attitudes toward women. Her study also indicates that police officers may be less accepting of rape myths now than found in the past.

Rape myths are strongly related to general attitudes toward women.  Rape is not only a crime of violence and aggression but a crime of power that helps to reinforce inequality and sex role stereotypes. Rape victims often suffer negative consequences because of biased and prejudicial perceptions of sexual violence held by the general public, and allied professionals.  These attitudes have a negative impact  on victims’ self-perceptions.

Page’s study is refreshing and informative in that is disabuses the belief that police or other law enforcement are more sexist than the general public or more likely to harbor a belief in rape myths.  However, her study does highlight that rape myths still exist in our general culture.   That despite the great gains our society has made over the years in perceptions and reactions to rape victims, these attitudes continue to be held by the general public, including the allied professionals that serve victims.  We need to continue to focus on strategies for changing ideas about sexual assault, including,  action-oriented research which will help to educate, raise consciousness and improve services for victims.


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