By Joanna Pozzulo and Emily Pica

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. All photos provided by The Conversation from various sources.

As a content warning, please note that article includes information about sexual violence. We understand that this can trigger strong reactions and we encourage the community to connect with Carleton University’s Sexual Assault Support Centre and/or Health and Counselling Services for support. Additional community supports can also be found here.

Actors, movie executives, socialites, broadcasters, singers and royalty are a few examples of members of high-status groups with individuals who have been accused of sexual crimes.

Some of these high-status people have been found guilty while others have not. As psychologists who study factors that influence juror decision-making, we are interested in the role of “status” on jurors’ perceptions of guilt and credibility.

Jacob Hoggard, former frontman for the Canadian band Hedley, was recently found guilty of raping a woman in a Toronto hotel room in 2016. He was found not guilty of groping and raping a teenage fan. Hoggard was sentenced to five years in jail and granted bail pending an appeal. He is currently facing a sexual assault charge in northern Ontario.

Sexual assault misperceptions

There is a perception that sexual assaults are committed by awkward loners who are unknown to the victim, late at night, when no one else is around. This perception is in stark contrast to the reality, however.

In both Canada and the United States, approximately 80 per cent of sexual assault occurs between a victim and perpetrator who are known to each other. The perpetrator may be a partner, friend, acquaintance, co-worker or even a celebrity.

In 2014, CBC fired radio host Jian Ghomeshi after he was accused of sexual assault by multiple women. In a high-profile trial in 2016, Ghomeshi was acquitted of all charges.

Sexual assaults are more likely to occur in private spaces such as a home or hotel room than in public locations such as dark alleyways.

It is estimated that only 20 per cent of sexual assaults are reported to police. In a related issue, victims may delay reporting for numerous reasons. For example, victims may think that they will not be believed, the victim does not want to see themselves as a victim or they fear revictimization during the court proceedings.

#MeToo and the changing landscape

In 2017, the hashtag #MeToo prompted victims of sexual misconduct to share their stories, representing a watershed moment in sexual violence. Victims used their voices to gain closure on their experiences.

The #MeToo movement resulted in increased reporting of sexual assault. Specifically, the number of sexual assaults reported to police between 2016 and 2017 rose 13 per cent in Canada and 17 per cent in the United States.

Allegations of sexual assault have been reported years and decades after the assaults occurred.

American professor Christine Blasey Ford came forward in 2018 to detail a sexual assault that occurred 36 years earlier, when she was 15 years old. She felt compelled to share her story when her alleged perpetrator, Brett Kavanaugh, was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court. Allegations against Kavanaugh have not been tried in court, and he was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2018.

Christine Blasey Ford testifies against Brett Kavanaugh before his appointment as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Memory and time

It has long been established that memory is not like a video recording with an exact image being stored for later recall. Memory can be influenced by factors that include stereotypes, suggestive and leading questions, stress at the time of the event and the delay between the incident and when the victim is asked to recall the event.

The longer the delay between the event and the recall, the more likely the accuracy of the memory is diminished.

We conducted a study to examine mock jurors’ perceptions when an incident is reported 15, 25 and 35 years later. We also looked at whether perceptions were influenced by the type of sexual offence (harassment or assault). Mock jurors read a mock-trial transcript depicting an alleged sexual offence.

We found that mock jurors held more favourable perceptions of the defendant when the alleged offence was harassment compared with assault. Delayed reporting also affected jurors’ perceptions: Surprisingly, a longer delay (25 years), compared to a shorter delay (15 years), increased guilty verdicts for sexual assault.

These results suggest that jurors in sexual offence cases are more likely to believe older accusations than those that are more recent.

Celebrity defendants

In 2017, actor Kevin Spacey was accused of sexually assaulting Anthony Rapp when he was only 14 years old in 1986. Spacey was cleared of assault in this case last month. More than 30 accusers have come forward since Rapp five years ago, also alleging Spacey engaged in sexual misconduct with them.

Unfortunately, Spacey isn’t the only celebrity to be accused of sexual misconduct. There were allegations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby ranging over a span of 40 years. Cosby was convicted in 2018 of sexually assaulting a Canadian woman at his home in suburban Philadelphia in 2004. His conviction was later overturned and he was released from prison.

We conducted another study to examine how the social status of the defendant (low or high), victim social status (low or high), victim gender (male or female), and the reason the victim was unconscious during the assault (consuming alcohol versus consuming cold medicine) influenced mock jurors’ decisions in sexual assault cases.

Participants read a mock-trial transcript and provided credibility and guilt ratings. A defendant of lower social status was more likely to be seen as guilty when the victim was unconscious due to alcohol consumption. In terms of examining perceptions of the victim, when the defendant was of high social status (for example, a star quarterback), the victim was perceived as having more control of the situation.

Conversely, in other studies that we have conducted, we haven’t found that a defendant’s social status had an impact.

Guilt and status

The perceptions of who perpetrates sexual offences continue to be called into question as allegations against unlikely perpetrators surface.

There may be a sense that celebrity status provides protection against accusations of wrongdoing by feeding into the “halo effect,” which is the tendency for positive perceptions in one area of your life to influence perceptions of other areas of your life.

Victims can take solace that delayed allegations of sexual assault against high-profile defendants can be prosecuted. High-status defendants can be tried in a court of law and some, like Hedley’s Hoggard, are found guilty.

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The Conversation

Monday, November 7, 2022 in
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