Rape and the Culture of the Courtroom

Rape and the Culture of the Courtroom

Rape and the Culture of the Courtroom

Rape and the Culture of the Courtroom


Rape law reform has been a stunning failure. Defense lawyers persist in emphasizing victims' characters over defendants' behavior. Reform's goals of increasing rape report and conviction rates have generally not been achieved. In Rape and the Culture of the Courtroom , Andrew Taslitz locates the cause of rape reform failure in the language lawyers use, and the cultural stories upon which they draw to dominate rape victims in the courtroom.

Cultural stories about rape, Taslitz argues, such as the provocatively dressed woman "asking for it," are at the root of many unconscious prejudices that determine jury views. He connects these stories with real-life examples, such as the Mike Tyson and Glen Ridge rape trials, to show how rape stereotypes are used by defense lawyers to gain acquittals for their clients.

Building on Deborah Tannen's pathbreaking research on the differences between male and female speech, Taslitz also demonstrates how word choice, tone, and other lawyers' linguistic tactics work to undermine the confidence and the credibility of the victim, weakening her voice during the trial. Taslitz provides politically realistic reform proposals, consistent with feminist theories of justice, which promise to improve both the adversary system in general and the way that the system handles rape cases.


“SHIRLEY ROBINSON, TAKE THE STAND!” My ears hurt as the court clerk bellowed my witness's name, showing not a hint of the appropriate tone one might expect in calling a rape victim to the stand. But no one else seemed bothered by his demeanor or saw anything unusual in the routine of assembly-line justice in Philadelphia's juvenile courts.

Shirley (a pseudonym) rose slowly from her chair. She wore a long, polyester blue dress; like most crime victims, she was not a woman from comfortable economic circumstances. Luckily, she was dressed modestly, unlike some rape victims, especially younger ones, who would dress in clothes for court that were both inexpensive and revealing, unless I had convinced them in advance that juries expected greater modesty from “real” rape victims.

The judge glowered at Shirley. There was no jury, for juveniles were not entitled to one. Judge K. was not known for his warmth and was, indeed, the judge before whom I would have liked least to try any rape case. Since all my efforts at judge shopping had failed, I had had no choice. I swallowed my concerns, and, with the judge's permission, asked Shirley to tell us what happened on the night that brought her to court.

Shirley testified that she had been at choir practice at her church and had participated in a Bible study group that same night. It was a cold, January night with snow from a few days before still on the ground. Leaving church about 9:30 P.M., she had started walking the five blocks to her apartment, where she lived alone. She walked quickly, knowing that the streets were not safe, although she had made this nightly trip from church many times with no incident. This night, however, Tony, a teenage male from her church, also African American, started walking beside her. “Hi, Shirley. Why don't I walk you home to make sure you get there safe?”

Shirley testified that she kept up her pace but turned to look at the boy beside her. She did vaguely recognize him from church, but they had never . . .

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