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Shame and social stigma often prevent survivors of sexual assault from reporting their experiences. But even when they do, society’s perception of what a rape victim looks like can negatively affect how sexual assault cases are adjudicated, according to a recent study.

Harvard University professors Matthew Baum and Dara Kay Cohen, as well as doctoral student Suzanne Schwarz, asked more than 1,000 people to choose one of two sexual assault cases to recommend for prosecution as part of a peer-reviewed study published in 2020. The study sought to capture unconscious biases to better understand rape culture in the U.S.

“Rape culture, particularly on college campuses, is a culture in which sexual violence is treated as the norm,” said Kenyora Parham, executive director of the advocacy group End Rape on Campus. “Rape culture really factors into the survivor’s decision even to report and come forward with their assaults.”

In their study, the authors found that participants were about 10% less likely to recommend prosecution and severe punishment when the victim knew their perpetrator. More than 85% of sexual assaults on college women are committed by someone they know, according to the National Institute of Justice.

If an assault happened at a party instead of a private residence, participants were 11% less likely to recommend prosecution. If the victim was a man, they were 16% less likely to do so.

Victim blaming – messaging that survivors often internalize that contributes to the underreporting of sexual assaults – influenced participants’ decision-making, according to the authors.

“These are sort of stereotypes that people carry around in their heads. They may not think about them; they may not think of them as relevant,” Baum said in an interview, “But they’re primed by the media, they’re primed by the culture, they’re primed by our learning of history, you know, they exist in the culture, and so they affect human beings.”

In real life, most reports of sexual assault are handled by at least 7,000 Title IX coordinators across the country, who have to reckon with their own biases in the work that they do. Michelle Issadore, executive vice president responsible for training at TNG, an education safety consulting firm, said the organization tries to offer training on bias and cultural competency so that administrators “can try to grapple with some of the things that we’re all affected by because we live in the world.”

One way to combat rape culture would be to have age-appropriate sex and consent education earlier in K-12 education, Issadore said.

“There’s a lot of groundwork that we could lay earlier and it’s one of the reasons we’re so interested in working with partners in K-12 education to find age-appropriate, developmentally appropriate ways to talk about ‘good touch, bad touch,’ and bodily autonomy, and consent,” Issadore said. “We have a lot of unpacking to do when students arrive on campuses.”

For Parham, the U.S. still has a long way to go to address rape culture. Title IX has changed very minimally since the 1990s, as many students aren’t able to receive the justice, transparency and accountability they deserve because of the way the law is currently laid out, Parham said.

The authors of the study hope that greater awareness of unconscious biases will lead to more equitable decision-making, not just in Title IX cases, but in courts and the media.

“Being aware of those factors that can cause jurists to make decisions for reasons other than a straight assessment of the legally relevant facts of the case could potentially lead to reforms,” Baum said.