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CFL Interviews

Jessica Woodhams
May 2008

"Linguistic theory provides me with a new way of considering the verbal interchanges between offender and victim."

Jessica Woodhams is currently Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology at the University of Birmingham. Her main research interests lie with behavioural consistency, serial offenders and case linkage. On May 28th 2008 Jessica visited the Centre for Forensic Linguistics, where she gave a talk on 'Rape as communicative interaction - an application of investigative linguistics' and later spoke to Nicci MacLeod about her current work and plans for the future.

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Before entering academia, you worked as a crime analyst for the London Metropolitan Police. Can you begin by telling us a little bit about your role there, and what motivated you to make the move to academic research?

As a crime analyst, I was a police civilian and I worked in a unit which had pan-London responsibility for the analysis of sexual offences and homicides. My main responsibility was to conduct what we now call case linkage on stranger sexual offences. This involves looking for behavioural similarities between crimes which might suggest they were committed by the same offender. Identifying such offence series means the police can conduct their investigations more efficiently and combine evidence from several crime scenes. Although I thoroughly enjoyed working with my colleagues at the Met, it struck me that there was little empirical research to support our practice. Due to our operational duties there was little time available to conduct the much-needed research into case linkage. My move to academia has allowed me to address this concern and has given me the opportunity to collaborate with others in advancing research on case linkage.

You are now Principal Lecturer in Forensic Psychology at the University of Gloucestershire, but some of your recent work has had a very linguistic flavour. Can you explain the significance of linguistic theory as it relates to your research?

Before taking up my new position at the University of Gloucestershire, I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Tim Grant, a forensic linguist. Through our conversations it became clear that forensic psychologists and forensic linguists share many common research interests. My research background, due to my previous employment, is in the area of sexual offences, which is an interpersonal type of crime, requiring an interaction between the offender and victim. Linguistic theory provides me with a new way of considering the verbal interchanges between offender and victim. Dr. Grant and I have been developing a categorisation system for rapists' speech with the aim of enabling crime analysts to consider more fully the use of speech in case linkage. Also, forensic linguistics not only offers theories but methodologies that are potentially relevant to research in forensic psychology. For example, I have been trialling the use of the collocation function in WordSmith to identify if(situation)-then(behaviour) contingencies in rape scenarios, which may prove useful in case linkage work. At present, I have been using it to investigate how specific victim and offender behaviours co-occur.

Among your research interests is the detection of false complaints of rape. Firstly, can you tell us broadly what your research in this area has revealed so far?

Dr. Grant and I were interested in the idea of whether myths about how a rape unfolds, which are prevalent in our society, would be present in allegations of rape that were withdrawn as false. We investigated this from the perspective of whether differences in reported rapist speech would emerge between withdrawn-as-false allegations and those maintained to be true. One of our most interesting findings was a difference in the amount of rapists' speech reported. The withdrawn-as-false allegations contained fewer rapists' utterances overall. This was particularly evident in the closure stage; that is the point at which the rapist has completed the sexual assault and must now leave the victim. The withdrawn-as-false sample contained fewer reported rapist utterances in this stage than the maintained-as-true sample. I am currently conducting some research with Emma Sleath, who is based at the University of Leicester, which has asked university undergraduates to construct a credible and non-credible account of a sexual assault. We haven't finished the analysis yet but anecdotally in both sets of accounts there is often little speech by the rapists and noticeably very few utterances in the closure stage. Such findings suggest that the myth of a non-speaking rapist (or one who converses little with the victim) may emerge in fabricated accounts, particularly if one considers the closure stage. However, it is important to add that Tim and I have only studied this with one sample of actual rape allegations, and Emma and I have only sampled one set of undergraduates, so both studies need replication. Also it's important to remember that there are many shades of grey between a true and a false account of rape. For example, an account of rape that is largely accurate may still contain some fabrications if a victim is ashamed or embarrassed about acts that they were forced to commit.

Secondly on this point, the research has received some feminist criticism in the media. How do you respond to that? Does the focus on detecting false statements pose you any moral dilemma?

I can't comment on the first part of your question as I haven't seen any feminist criticisms of our work specifically. However, with regards to your second question I think there are several points to emphasise. I very strongly feel we need to do much more to improve the investigation and prosecution of rape and sexual assault, a conviction reflected in my research thus far. Rape and sexual assaults cause considerable psychological and sometimes physical injury to victims. Similarly, falsely accusing a person of sexual assault can cause considerable psychological trauma to the person falsely accused and to their family and friends. Tim Grant and I were acutely aware before starting this research that there is a misconception that false rape allegations are common. This misconception has been well documented in psychological research. We were therefore very careful to use stringent criteria for labelling an allegation as 'withdrawn-as-false'. Only allegations where there was considerable corroborative evidence that the victim had fabricated the sexual assault were sampled. It wasn't sufficient, and in my view it shouldn't be sufficient, that an allegation was suspected of being false for it to be labelled in this way. What I think our research importantly shows is the very small number of false rape allegations in existence in the U.K. We identified a sample of just 20 from a national database containing many thousand rape allegations. This stands in stark contrast to some of the estimates of the incidence of false allegations made by criminal justice personnel in psychological research. Whilst I can therefore understand why our research is controversial, without such research there would be no empirical evidence that one could use to refute such misconceptions.

What are you working on at the moment, and in what directions do you see your research moving in the future?

At the moment I'm busy setting up two new Masters programmes in Forensic and Criminological Psychology. However, the Nuffield Foundation has recently awarded me a grant to conduct some research on group rape. I will be working with the Serious Crime Analysis Section of the National Policing Improvement Agency, investigating how victims and offenders interact with one another during group rapes, why these types of sexual assault are more violent than assaults by single offenders, and considering the explanatory power of various social psychological theories in accounting for this form of group violence.

Thanks for your time!

You're very welcome.

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Related links

University of Birmingham
The Nuffield Foundation
Jessica Woodhams et al's 2007 paper on case linkage

© Centre for Forensic Linguistics, Aston University, Birmingham, UK, 2013