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Sexual harrassement and assault: Is reporting sooner always better?

Within the past four years, sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations have increased immensely across the world. This is in part due to increased support from other survivors due to the #MeToo movement that begin in October 2017. The #MeToo movement erupted as a way for social media users to come forward with their own experiences of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault. In many sexual offense cases, the alleged sexual misconduct can go unreported for decades. Unfortunately, this can create a sense of doubt in the jury and a level of disreputability in the victim. Along with the controversy of delayed allegations, which can influence legal decision making of a jury, rape myths (false beliefs surrounding sexual misconduct) can often switch the blame from the perpetrator to the victim (Burt, 1980; Edwards et al., 2011). In turn, juries often find the accused “not guilty.”

Research on delayed reporting of sexual misconduct is limited when it comes to victims who experienced the sexual offense as an adult. In “The Effect of Delayed Reporting on Mock-Juror Decision-Making in the Era of #MeToo”, Fraser and colleagues (2021) were interested in understanding how the type of sexual offense (assault vs. harassment) and the length of time before reporting the offense (15 vs. 25 vs. 35 years) might influence mock-juror decision-making.

In their study, participants read an eight-page mock trial transcript which presented one type of sexual offense, and a specified delay in reporting of the offense. After reading, each participant was asked to rate the perception of the victim’s testimony on various aspects (i.e., honesty, accuracy, reliability, credibility, and believability), as well as the degree to which they thought the defendant was guilty or not guilty. Participants then completed the 22-item Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance (IRMA) scale to evaluate their level of agreeableness with different rape myths.

Results of the study indicated that delays in reporting matter in terms of the ultimate decision – delayed reporting resulted in fewer guilty verdicts, despite not influencing continuous guilt ratings or perceptions of either party. Thus, delays might not be changing perceptions of what the truth is, just verdict. Jurors were not impacted by type of sexual offense in their verdict or perceptions of guilt, however the defendant accused of sexual assault was perceived less favorably than the defendant accused of sexual harassment. Most participants had low rates of rape myth acceptance (as indicated by scores on the IRMA), which could mean that society is learning or that these participants might not be representative of a jury hearing these cases.

The results of this study emphasize the importance for victims to report sexual misconduct early. Legally, early reporting is also important because it is easier to find the truth when the evidence is fresh (which is why we have statutes of limitations). Physical evidence can disappear, memories can change. For innocent defendants, early reporting can also be beneficial so they can present better evidence (e.g., they might have better evidence of an alibi). More research should be done to fully investigate the result of delayed reporting, including experimental research such as this, but also real-world studies of cases. Hopefully, the #MeToo movement shows victims that they are not alone, and that reporting early is better. We obviously do not want to push for an assumption of guilt against defendants but encouraging early reporting will hopefully result in more accurate verdicts (i.e., finding the innocent not guilty and the guilty guilty).

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