Sexual Assault - Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education 


Chapter 1: Definitions, Myths, and Facts


Learning Objective 1.1: The student will be able to define and discuss
the concept of sexual assault/rape.

Learning Objective 1.2: The student will be able to identify and discuss the various sexual assault facts, myths, and misconceptions.

Learning Objective 1.3: The student will be able to identify and discuss general
statistics concerning sexual assault in the United States.



Sexual assault is a crime of violence that presents law enforcement officers with some of the most difficult issues they must confront in their daily work. Estimates of the number of sexual assaults taking place daily in our society vary widely, because no one knows how many assaults go unreported. Sexual assault is considered second only to homicide in the widespread devastation it wreaks on its victims and their families. Yet only a tiny fraction of sexual assault perpetrators are ever convicted. This can lead to frustration and apathy among law enforcement officers, who may wonder why they should even bother with a crime that is so unlikely to be prosecuted successfully.

The good news is that law enforcement officers can have an enormous impact on the feelings experienced by the victim, the collection of evidence, and ultimately the likelihood that rapists will be identified and prosecuted. Law enforcement officers are often the first responders to an incident of sexual assault, and victims look to them to see how they will be treated by the rest of society. A supportive response can help an anguished victim gather the strength and courage to assist with the gathering of evidence (much of which may be within the victim's own body, which must therefore be invaded a second time), to give valuable testimony, to assist in the prosecution of the crime, and ultimately to confront the offender (and the offender's defense team) in court.

Putting more sexual offenders behind bars is critical, because few rapists rape only once. The relatively small number of rapists who are jailed often report having raped dozens or even hundreds of victims. According to recent figures, nearly one out of every three women will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime--which means that it has happened to someone you know. And we now know that sexual assault is not limited to women, although as yet few men have had the courage to come forward to report sexual assaults because of cultural biases that tell us that "real men" cannot be raped.

Law enforcement officers will probably already be familiar, from their own experiences and their training, with some of the material that follows. But sexual assault is an extremely difficult issue, and our society's views on sexual assault and ways of addressing it are changing rapidly. Awareness of and sensitivity to the complexities of sexual offenses will help officers be more effective in their contacts with both victims and offenders.

What Is Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault is an act of violence in which force is used or threatened, committed by one person against another, without consent. It involves sexual acts, but is not limited by gender, relationship between victim and offender, method or weapon used, or orifice involved.

The term sexual assault has largely replaced the term rape, both in books and in the laws of the state of Texas, in order to clarify that it is not limited to acts perpetrated by men against women, or to vaginal penetration. In this text, the terms are used interchangeably; rape is used to denote any sexual assault, and may be perpetrated against man, woman, or child.

Because we as a society have been reconsidering and revising our definition of sexual assault and rape over the past few years, it is important to consider carefully each of the elements of this definition.

An act of violence. First, sexual assault is an act of violence, and it is a crime. Short of murder, rape is generally considered the most brutalizing kind of crime that can be perpetrated on a victim. Although any crime may result in emotional crisis, the intensity of the crisis is more severe in cases of sexual assault because of physical violation and humiliation, as well as pervasive fear of being killed. Most victims of rape report feeling terror that they would be murdered, and this terror does not pass for months or years. Seventy-five percent of female rape victims require medical care after the attack, and in 47% of rapes, the victim sustains injuries other than rape injuries.

Force is used or threatened. Although only 12% of the attacks reported to law enforcement involve a weapon (usually a knife or a gun), another 80% involve the use of physical force. The threat of force may also be implied. Ron Aaron, Director of the San Antonio Rape Crisis Center, notes that "most rapists don't use guns, knives or other weapons. Most rapists don't need them. They create or exploit vulnerability on the part of the victim. Threats of force may not even be verbalized. Threats are implicit in every rape." Sexual assault is always committed by someone who is (at least temporarily) in a position of greater power than the victim.

Committed by one person against another. Sexual assault is an act of aggression against another person. The assailant's principal motive in rape is not to achieve sexual gratification but rather to terrorize, humiliate, and exert control over the victim.

Without consent. "Without consent" means that the victim has not consented to the sexual act and is an unwilling participant in it. There are basically three methods of gaining sexual access to a person:

  • Consent. Both parties freely participate as the result of mutual interest and negotiation.
  • Coercion. An unwilling person is intimidated into sexual activity by a person in a position of power or dominance. Refusal by the victim to participate could have economic, vocational, or social consequences.
  • Force. Either there is risk of bodily harm, injury, or death if the victim refuses to participate, or the victim is physically unable to escape.

Any participation in a sexual act that is obtained through either force or coercion is obtained "without consent." All instances of force and some instances of coercion are illegal sexual assaults under Texas law. Automatically considered to be "without consent" in Texas is sexual access obtained:

  • by physical force or violence, or with the threat of force or violence;
  • when the victim is unconscious, unaware of what is occurring, or physically or mentally unable to resist;
  • when the victim is under the age of 14, or under the age of 17 if the offender is more than three years older;
  • as a result of coercion by
    1. any public servant;
    2. a mental health or health care services provider upon whom the person is emotionally dependent; or
    3. a clergyman upon whom the person is emotionally dependent.

Consent to sexual assault, under the law, is not implied by wearing seductive clothing, consuming alcohol or drugs, going to someone's room or apartment, or participating in kissing or fondling.

It involves sexual acts…not limited by orifice involved. Acts which may qualify as sexual assault under Texas law include (a) any form of illegal penetration or contact between the mouth, anus, or sexual organs of one person and the anus or sexual organs of a second person; and (b) penetration of the anus or sexual organs of one person by any part of another person's body or by any object. Sexual assault also may occur through clothing.

In addition, "indecency with a child" (under 17), a lesser offense than sexual assault, includes touching the breasts, genitals, or anus of the child ("fondling") or exposing genitals or anus to a minor with the intent to gratify one's own sexual desire, without consent (if the offender is less than three years older than the victim; otherwise, consent is irrelevant).

Not limited by gender. Although the overwhelming number of sexual offenders are male, and most sexual assault victims are female, anyone can rape or be raped. It is difficult to estimate the number of male sexual assault victims because they so seldom report the assault to anyone.

Not limited by relationship between victim and offender. Sexual assaults are carried out against spouses, partners, family, friends, and acquaintances. Any sexual act in which a person participates "without consent" is rape, whether it is spouse or partner rape, incest, child sexual abuse, "date rape," acquaintance rape, or stranger rape. A sexual assault by someone you know can be even more devastating than assault by a stranger because it destroys your faith and trust in human relationships.
Not limited by method or weapon used. As discussed above, any type of force and some types of coercion are included in the legal definition of sexual assault. It does not matter whether the assault occurs as a sudden attack by a stranger on the streets late at night or among friends at a party in a college dorm where there is heavy drinking.

Aggravated Sexual Assault

An assault is considered "aggravated" if a weapon is used or displayed; the life of the victim or of another person is threatened; the victim is under the age of 14, elderly, or disabled; the perpetrator causes grave bodily harm; or the assault occurs during the commission of another felony.

Statistics on Sexual Assault in the United States

Sexual assault is taking an extraordinary toll on our society:

  • Somewhere in America, a woman is raped every 2-5 minutes.
  • There are approximately 350,000 instances of sexual assault each year in the United States, as reported by victims. (Some studies suggest that the actual number of assaults may be nearly twice as high.)
  • One out of every three women and one out of every ten men will be the victims of sexual violence at least once in their lifetime.
  • At least one-half of all rapes are committed when the rapist is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Nowhere is safe: about 60 percent of sexual assaults take place in the victim's home or at the home of a friend, relative, or neighbor. Only 38% of women in this country feel very safe in their own homes at night.
  • More rapes occur within the property lines of fraternity and sorority houses than in any other specific area in the United States excluding military bases and prisons.
  • The United States has the highest sexual assault rate of the countries that report such statistics--4 times higher than Germany, 7 times higher than the average for all of Europe, 13 times higher than England, and 20 times higher than Japan.
  • One of the most startling aspects of sex crimes is that only 1 in 3 sexual assaults are reported. The Justice Department estimates that even fewer--only 26% of all rapes or attempted rapes--are reported to law enforcement officials.

The most common reasons given by women for not reporting sexual assaults are the belief that it is a private or personal matter and fear of reprisal from the assailant. In addition, two-thirds of victims are concerned that people will believe it was their fault or they were responsible, and half are concerned that their names will be made public by the media. Research has also shown that victims who were survivors of child sexual abuse are less likely to report sexual assault.

If few cases are reported to law enforcement, even fewer are successfully prosecuted.

  • A 1993 report to the Senate Judiciary Committee estimated that only 2% of forcible rapists ever go to prison.
  • About two-thirds of convicted rape defendants receive a prison sentence; the average term imposed is 10-14 years. An additional 19% of convicted rape defendants are sentenced to a term in a local jail (for an average of 8 months), and about 13% receive probation (for an average of 6 years).
  • The average time actually served has increased nationally from about 3 1/2 years to about 5 years, raising the percentage of sentence served from 38% to about 50%.
  • Sentences of some convicted rape defendants also include a fine (13%), victim restitution (12%), required treatment (10%), community service (2%), or other penalties (10%). Although the effectiveness of treatment for sexual offenders is uncertain, it is alarming that 90% of convicted offenders receive no treatment.
  • There are approximately 234,000 offenders convicted of rape or sexual assault in the U.S. who are under the care, custody, or control of corrections agencies; nearly 60% of these sex offenders are under conditional supervision in the community.
  • The number of prisoners sentenced for violent sexual assault other than rape has increased since 1980 by an annual average of nearly 15%--faster than any other category of violent crime. (This figure could indicate improvements in reporting and handling of rape cases as well as an increase in the number of offenses.)

The number of sexual assaults that occur each year in Texas is difficult to estimate because complete police data are kept only for what the FBI defines as "forcible rapes": assaults committed by men against women which include violence or the threat of violence. (This outdated definition omits assaults against men and children and those that result from coercion or force but not violence.) Moreover, only about one-third of the counties in the state are served by rape crisis centers, and victims are much more likely to report assaults to a rape crisis center than to law enforcement. The centers that do exist serve over 20,000 people each year, of which approximately 14,500 are survivors; the others are family members, who are also deeply affected by sexual assault.

  • In 1997, the number of "forcible rapes" reported to law enforcement in Texas was 8,007. In addition, there were 5,090 arrests made for "other sexual offenses." (Data on the number of reports of "other sexual offenses" are not available.)
  • Texas ranks twelfth in the nation in the number of forcible rapes per capita.
  • If the number of sexual assaults reported to law enforcement is 26-33% of the actual number of sexual assaults, then 26,000 to 33,000 rapes and 15,000 to 20,000 "other sexual offenses" occur in Texas each year. However, some estimate there are as many as 90,000 sexual assaults each year in Texas.
  • Two million of the over 6 million Texas women age 18 to 78 will be sexually assaulted during their lifetimes. Of the 5.2 million children in Texas, almost 2 million will be sexually assaulted or abused by age 18.

One of the most frightening aspects of sexual assault is how young many of its victims are: nearly half are teenagers or younger, and many more are age 18-25. These young people are often naive, ill-prepared, and unable to recognize the danger they are in or take action soon enough to be able to evade sexual assault. They are easily exploited or coerced, especially by adults whom they trust or who have power over them.

  • More than half of all sexual assault victims are females younger than 25.
  • Two-thirds of convicted rape and sexual assault offenders serving time in state prisons had victims under the age of 18, and 40% had victims age 12 or younger.
  • Approximately one-third of all juvenile victims of sexual abuse cases are children younger than 6 years of age.
  • In nearly 3 out of 4 incidents, the offender is not a stranger. In 90% of the rapes of children younger than 12, the child knows the offender.

Child sexual abuse is treated in detail in another course in this series. However, it is important to mention here that most sexual offenders (and many other perpetrators of violent crimes) were themselves abused in sexual or sadistic ways as children. Although most survivors of child sexual abuse do not become sexual offenders, the minority who do ensure that the chain of abuse will extend into generations to come.

Effects of Sexual Assault on Victims

Survivors of sexual assault are probably more devastated than survivors of any other crime. Sexual assault survivors believe they have narrowly escaped dying. They undergo "traumatic stress," which is a complex of physical, mental, and emotional responses including fear, anger, pain, shock, and the shutdown of many physical and cognitive systems. Their most fundamental assumptions of trust, personal safety, and bodily integrity have been destroyed. Rape victims today must also face the fear that they could still be infected with the potentially deadly HIV virus--a fear they must live with for at least 6 months, until a definitive test can be performed. Female victims also face the possibility of pregnancy; if they have been made pregnant, they may have to make a difficult choice between abortion and carrying the child of a rapist to term.

Many victims will also develop lasting symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). First identified in war veterans, PTSD causes chronic numbing of physical and emotional responses, denial of reality, guilt and self-blame, nightmares, and flashbacks. It results in intense psychological and physiological distress, provoked by internal and external cues that remind the patient of the trauma. PTSD often lasts for years; for some, especially survivors of childhood sexual abuse, it may last a lifetime. Survivors of sexual assault may experience depression, anxiety, explosive anger, and a general inability to maintain relationships or cope with everyday problems. Many survivors of sexual assault develop eating disorders or chemical dependency, and many become suicidal.

  • Fifty percent of adult rape victims lose or are forced to quit their jobs.
  • One-third of all rape victims consider committing suicide. Rape victims are 13 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population.
  • Sexual assault (not including child sexual abuse) costs the U.S. $127 billion dollars each year--far more than any other violent crime--in medical expenses, increased burden on the judicial system, and indirect cost to the economy in the form of sick leave, employee absenteeism, and many other effects.

Vivid recollections of the assault--often including smells and other intense sensory input--intrude into the rape survivor'sthoughts and everyday activities. Rape survivors may avoid any and all reminders of the trauma (especially difficult if the assault occurs in the home) and may be terrified of being alone. They usually have trouble concentrating. They may feel distant from other people or hopeless for the future Some may come to believe in superstitions or engage in rituals in an effort to feel that they have some control over their existence. Rape trauma can have disastrous effects not only on the survivor but also on their spouses or partners, family, friends, and colleagues.

Recent research has suggested that PTSD causes permanent physical as well as emotional changes. In survivors of trauma, the "fight or flight" hormones--usually triggered when a person is in danger--continue to be triggered long after the danger has passed, as the survivor relives the terror of the experience over and over in memory, in dreams, and in situations that trigger flashbacks. This chronic stress causes biochemical changes which cripple the immune system, shut down processes that repair tissue, block sleep, and even reduce bone density in women--making it even more difficult for the survivor to find the physical and emotional resources to cope with life and to recover. PTSD also cripples the survivor's ability to recognize or effectively evade new dangers: because the "fight or flight" hormones are already chronically triggered, the system is unable to respond with a new boost when real danger threatens.

The recovery process itself often involves reliving the trauma and all of the emotions associated with it. To undergo this long-term, excruciating process, survivors need the support of counselors, fellow survivors, family, and friends. The process may require extraordinary patience from employers and family members. Sexual assault has not only immediate but also secondary and even tertiary victims.

Myths and Facts about Sexual Assault

All of us who live in this society have been exposed to countless misconceptions about sexual assault. These misconceptions are linked to sociocultural views about interpersonal violence, our perceptions of male and female sex roles, racist myths, and other common stereotypes. They tend to minimize the seriousness of sexual assault and put the blame on the victim rather than the offender. Exposing these myths and replacing them with facts is the first step toward changing people's attitudes and reducing sexual violence.


Myth: All the perpetrators of sexual assault are men.

Fact: The great majority of sexual assaults committed against both men and women are perpetrated by men (up to 99%), but sexual assault is a crime related to the use of power and physical force. Men are sexually assaulted by other men, and women sometimes perpetrate sexual assaults against men and against other women. Assaults by women are much less likely to be reported, so the actual incidence is unknown.


Myth: All the victims of sexual assault are women.

Fact: The majority of victims of sexual assault are women (about 90%), but the number of men sexually assaulted by other men is a significantly unrecognized problem--especially since men seldom report sexual assaults. Sexual assaults against men do occur, and not only in prisons or in the homosexual community. It is currently estimated that one out of ten men are sexually assaulted as adults, and one out of seven are sexually abused as children.


Myth: Rape is an isolated, infrequent event that only happens to attractive, young women or women who are promiscuous or provocatively dressed.

Fact: Anyone can be sexually assaulted. Sexual assault victims include people of color, lesbians/gays, people with disabilities, and persons from every racial, ethnic, religious, economic, and social background. In Texas, sexual assault victims in 1996 ranged in age from 2 months to 99 years old. Most sexual assault victims at the time of assault are not wearing provocative clothing; most are wearing blue jeans or nightgowns.


Myth: Most sexual assaults are committed by strangers at night in dark alleys.

Fact: Over 75% of all sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. Over 50% of assaults occur in the home, and 35-40% occur during the daytime. Victims assaulted in their homes suffer increased trauma because the violation occurred at a place where they believed they were safe.


Myth: Most sex offenders are dirty old men or single African American males.

Fact: Most convicted offenders are white males (75%), and most are under the age of 40 at the time of arrest (over 80%). Most are or have been married. Sex offenders come from all socioeconomic backgrounds and usually begin assaulting victims in adolescence; one-third are arrested before the age of 24. Over 90% of all sexual assaults occur between people of the same race or ethnic background.


Myth: Sex offenders are usually hermits, weirdoes, or bums who can't get along with other people.

Fact: Most sex offenders come from average or advantaged homes and are well-groomed, intelligent, employed people who live in a family or with other people. Most are also dedicated to their families and good providers.


Myth: Rape is an impulsive act that happens when the rapist gets sexually aroused.

Fact: Most rapes (58% to 71%) are planned in advance. Surprisingly, most rapists report experiencing fairly low levels of pleasure in their sexual assaults.


Myth: Rape is motivated by sexual desire.

Fact: Rape is a crime of aggression and violence, motivated by anger and the desire for power and control.


Myth: Real rape only happens when a stranger attacks a woman.

Fact: Most rapes and sexual assaults (approximately two-thirds) are committed by someone known to the victim.


Myth: Women often provoke rape by their own behavior: wearing low-cut or tight clothing, going out alone, staying out late, being drunk, using drugs, etc.

Fact: No one asks to be sexually assaulted, nor does anyone's behavior justify or excuse the crime. People have a right to be safe from a sexual violation at any time, in any place, and under any circumstances.


Myth: A woman who truly resists can't be raped. If she didn't fight back, she must have wanted it.

Fact: Most women are victims of acquaintance rape. They don't fight because they know the person assaulting them, and can't believe that someone they know and trust would rape them. Finding themselves in a state of disbelief, these women imagine their assailants will soon come to their senses and stop. Most rape victims are not able to mobilize themselves to fight their assailant forcefully and fast enough to stop the attack--and some who do fight back end up getting injured severely or killed.


Myth: Rape is justified if a woman "leads a man on," then changes her mind.

Fact: Every sexual interaction must always be a matter of consent between both parties. Any participant must be able to stop at any time. Claims by men that they cannot stop after a certain point or that they will experience pain or "blue balls" if they do not ejaculate do not justify rape.


Myth: "No doesn't really mean no."

Fact: Some women (and men) may not always mean "no" when they say it. However, their partners should always assume that they do mean it and comply.


Myth: She got drunk--she deserved it.

Fact: Getting drunk in the presence of people one does not know well may reflect poor judgment, but it is not justification for being assaulted.


Myth: She went to his room after the party. She was asking for it.

Fact: A young or naive woman may genuinely believe that if a man invites her back to his room to see his painting collection, he really wants to show her the paintings. Consenting to go to a man's room is not a code that translates into consent to have sex. Both partners must communicate verbally and agree to have consensual sex. Both partners have the right to change their minds at any time.


Myth: If (s)he agrees to some degree of sexual intimacy, (s)he wants to have intercourse.

Fact: If (s)he agrees to some form of sexual intimacy short of sexual intercourse, that is all (s)he has agreed to. The assumption that a person wants "to go all the way" or participate in any other sexual act needs to be clarified in a verbal discussion of the person's wishes. (This is an underestimated problem in male homosexual interactions.)

Movies and the media almost never portray people having a verbal discussion about what intimate acts they do or do not want to participate in. Instead, the woman swoons and falls into the man's arms, and they are next shown in bed, having obviously had sex. This type of portrayal perpetuates the idea that the more aggressive partner "knows" what the other person wants. In fact, many perpetrators of sexual assault ignore clear signals from victims because they are so focused on their own feelings and impulses.


Myth: If it's happened before, maybe she's a masochist. She likes it rough, or she's somehow provoking it.

Fact: This accusation is particularly relevant in cases of sexual assault that are complicated by a history of domestic violence or childhood sexual abuse. Some victims who have been repeatedly submitted to sexual assault or domestic violence may have undergone physiologic and psychological changes that render them less able to perceive vulnerable situations or to problem-solve about how to escape. They may "freeze" like an animal in headlights when resubmitted to trauma, instead of resisting or attempting to flee. Although 68% of incest survivors become adult victims of rape or attempted rape by a nonrelative at some point in their lives, they do not like or ask for it.


Myth: Some women have rape fantasies, and sometimes they come true.

Fact: Some people do have fantasies about being overcome or abandoning themselves with their partners. However, these fantasies differ from sexual assault because the person has mental control over the beginning and end of the scenario and can abandon inhibitions safely. Even those who participate in sadomasochism do so with a selected and trusted partner. No one wants to have absolutely no control over what is done or who does it.


Myth: If the patient was not a virgin, it's not a big deal.

Fact: Any sexual assault can be a devastating experience, leaving the survivor with memories that can impede interpersonal and intimate relationships forever.


Myth: She wasn't hurt--she'll get over it.

Fact: The degree of physical trauma is often not the best way to evaluate injury in sexual assault cases. A lower degree of physical injury often occurs when there is a higher degree of intimidation. Very few people want to be hurt emotionally or physically or to have control wrenched from them. Psychological trauma can be as great or greater for physically uninjured patients as for those with physical trauma.


Myth: Wives can't be raped by their husbands.

Fact: Wives can be raped by their husbands, and it is a crime, although few husbands are actually convicted for it. Women who are raped by their husbands are vulnerable to being raped on more than one occasion, as part of ongoing domestic violence.


Myth: Prostitutes can't be raped.

Fact: Prostitutes are frequently raped, but seldom report the crime because they believe they will not be supported or taken seriously by police. It may be difficult for law enforcement officers to be sympathetic to prostitutes because they seemingly choose to expose themselves over and over to hazardous (and illegal) situations that may result in rape. It may help to recall that most prostitutes have experienced sexual or other abuse in childhood and, like battered spouses, continue to place themselves in abusive situations. No one--even a prostitute--wants or deserves to be raped.


Myth: Men can't be raped, especially by women. If the man does not have an erection, it can't happen, and if he does have one, he probably enjoyed it.

Fact: Men are sometimes sexually assaulted by women. Women who assault men frequently rely on intimidation and threat of violence or retaliation rather than physical force. Any woman in a position of power, such as a supervisor, teacher, or therapist, can use coercion to elicit sex from a male. Penile erection can occur in response to extreme emotional states, such as anger and terror, as well as from sexual arousal. No man enjoys rape; neither does any woman.


Myth: Women consent to sex and later change their minds and "cry rape."

Fact: False accusations of sexual assault occur at the rate of 2%, which is identical to the rate of false reporting for any other violent crime. It is far more common for victims of sexual assault not to report the crime to anyone, especially given societal attitudes which tend to blame the victim, than for a person to make a false report of rape.


Myth: The best way for survivors to "get over" a sexual assault is to act like it didn't happen, put it behind them, and get on with their lives.

Fact: Speaking out about sexual assault can be an essential part of the recovery process for survivors (although survivors should never be forced to speak out before they are ready). The process of recovery may continue for years after an assault. All survivors have a right to support and validation from friends, family, and service providers, no matter how long it has been since they were sexually assaulted.

Sexual assault victims themselves often believe many of these myths and therefore hesitate to come forward. In some cases victims may accuse investigators of not believing or of blaming them, when in fact they are "projecting" their own feelings onto the officers. It is critical that officers not act in a way that reinforces myths about sexual assault; doing so may jeopardize the investigation.

Police Attitudes toward Sexual Assault

The attitudes of law enforcement officers--and the public's perceptions of the attitudes of law enforcement officers--can have a profound effect on the willingness of victims and others to report sexual assaults, to give evidence, and to assist in identification of offenders. In past decades, the media sometimes carried reports of officers who asked insensitive questions (e.g., "Did you enjoy it?"), did not take sexual assault victims seriously, or even called sexual assault victims back later and asked for a date. These kinds of stories were highly damaging to the trust necessary between those who report sexual assault and those who investigate it.

The American Bar Association even published a parody of the sort of questions some officers asked rape victims. In this scenario, a victim who has been robbed at gunpoint is asked why he didn't resist more (even though the officer knows the assailant had a gun), why the victim didn't scream or cry out, whether he had ever before given his money away by choice, why he was out walking at night on a street, and why he was wearing nice clothes that could be seen as "advertising" his wealth.

Recent studies of police officers' attitudes toward rape suggest that most officers, like other Americans, have become more sensitive lately to issues of sexual assault. For example, most officers do not believe that women secretly desire to be raped or that any woman deserves to be raped, and most officers would like to see rapists severely punished. However, officers differ in their beliefs about whether women sometimes cause or provoke rape by their appearance or behavior. Similarly, some officers believe that the crime is less serious if the offender and victim have previously had consensual sex. Officers also give mixed responses when asked whether rape is a sex crime, whether rapists are sexually frustrated, and whether all rapists are mentally sick. The confusion shown in their answers is not surprising, since some of these issues have only recently become clear, in the light of new research. Of more serious concern is the finding that a small subset of officers are clearly prejudiced against rape victims; such attitudes will certainly hamper officers from carrying out their duties effectively.

Studies of officers have also shown that officers who have more experience with rape cases are more sympathetic toward sexual assault victims--especially victims of acquaintance rape. Officers who participate in training courses such as this one and find the training helpful also develop more sympathetic attitudes. Interestingly, officers who are aware of sexual harassment in their own work environment also tend to be more sympathetic toward sexual assault victims. These officers seem to understand that sexual harassment is a lesser crime on the continuum of sexual aggression (see Chapter 2).

A study conducted in Texas in the 1970s found that investigators often held victims to a higher standard of behavior than was required by the law. No doubt the attitudes of Texas officers have changed considerably since then--but so have the laws. It is essential for law enforcement officers to stay abreast of changes in the laws they are sworn to enforce.

Responsibilities of Law Enforcement Officers

Peace officers charged with protecting society according to the law need to be mindful of three basic responsibilities in regards to sexual assault. First, an assault cannot be ignored. Sexual assault against a man, a woman, or a child is a crime, under Texas, U.S., and even international law. It is a law officers are sworn to enforce, even if they feel discomfort at interfering in "personal" affairs.

Second, peace officers need to help victims through the extraordinarily difficult process of recovering from sexual assault, telling their stories, and providing evidence if sexual offenders are ever to be caught and prosecuted for their crimes. Seldom, if ever, does a rapist rape just once; many offenders in our jails report having hundreds of victims. The next victim could be someone you know and care about--and all victims are equally deserving of officers' sympathy and best efforts.

Third, peace officers need to help cut off sexual violence at its source. Law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges must coordinate with available social service agencies in the community to develop a strong and sustainable response to sexual assault. Such coordination can include referring victims to shelters and other facilities, working together to supervise known offenders living in the community, and helping to educate the public about the myths and truths of sexual assault. As Senator Joseph Biden commented, in his speech supporting the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (discussed in Chapter 3), "violence against women reflects as much a failure of our nation's collective moral imagination as it does the failure of our nation's laws and regulations."

Rights of Sexual Assault Survivors

Sexual assault survivors do have certain rights and deserve sympathetic treatment. The University of Texas at Austin Police Department has drafted the following "bill of rights" guaranteeing victims of sexual assault fair treatment:


The University of Texas at Austin Police Department hopes to gain the trust and respect of sexual assault victims by offering this guarantee that emphasizes privacy, sensitivity, and understanding.

  • We will meet with you privately.
  • We will not release your name to the public or to the press. In addition, whether or not you choose to press charges, you have the right under Texas law to use a pseudonym for all aspects of the investigation.
  • Our officers will not judge you, and you will not be blamed for what occurred.
  • We will treat you and your particular case with courtesy, sensitivity, dignity, understanding, and professionalism.
  • If you feel more comfortable talking with a female or male officer, we will do our best to accommodate your request.
  • If treatment is required, we will drive you to a hospital.
  • We will assist you in privately contacting rape crisis, UT counseling, and other available resources.
  • We will fully investigate your case, and will help you to achieve the best outcome. This may involve the arrest and full prosecution of the suspect responsible. You will be kept up-to-date on the progress of the investigation.
  • We will continue to be available for you, to answer your questions, explain the systems and processes involved, and be a willing listener.
  • We will consider your case seriously, regardless of your gender or the gender of the suspect.

Other agencies may consider drafting something similar to offer victims, their families, and their friends reassurance during the trauma of a sexual assault report and investigation. In a later chapter, we will examine the written notice of rights that the prosecutor's office is required by law to provide victims, but this sort of informal statement may be helpful to any department in building an atmosphere of trust between officers and the citizens they serve.

Peace Officer and Law Enforcement Agency Civil Liability

Law enforcement officers who neglect their duties in protecting victims of sexual assault may find themselves liable for litigation. Victims can litigate against officers on the basis of intentional harm (intentional tort) or negligence. In other words, officers who mean no harm but allow a victim to be harmed may find themselves targeted in a civil suit.

Negligence is a breach of a common law or statutory duty to act reasonably toward those who may be foreseeably harmed by another's conduct (Sorichetti v. City of New York). Four criteria must be met in order to establish negligence on an officer's part. All four criteria, which are outlined below, depend upon the principle of "duty," the legal obligation of law enforcement to act in enforcing the law.

A victim litigating against an officer on the basis of negligence needs to demonstrate four things relating to the officer's actions:

  1. Failure of the officer to perform his or her duty.
  2. Causal link between officer's negligence and harm to the plaintiff.
  3. Actual damage suffered by the plaintiff as the result of negligence.
  4. Violation of constitutional guarantees. For example, victims of sexual assault who are members of a minority can use the argument that their rights to "equal protection" under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution have been violated.

Tort litigation against officers is heard in Federal Court. When successful, a plaintiff may be awarded monetary damages and attorney fees. Depending on the case, an individual officer may have to pay for his or her own legal defense counsel. If the plaintiff prevails, the individual officer as well as the law enforcement agency may have to pay the judgment. The following are examples of actual cases that are recent or still pending:

  • The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that both a rape victim and her parents (who heard the attack because their daughter was talking to them on the phone when the assault occurred) could sue officers for alleged negligent failure to properly forward paperwork to the prosecutor's office, resulting in an assailant's release from detention on a previous rape charge, allowing him to be out of custody and attack her. (Weinstein v. City of Santa Fe, 1996)
  • A California court ruled that a victim of alleged sexual crimes could sue the county on the basis of their failure to protect him because of his homosexuality. According to the suit filed, the county district attorney told the alleged perpetrator that the victim's homosexuality justified commission of the alleged crime. (Ortland v. County of Tehama, 1996)
  • An $850,000 settlement was eventually reached in the case alleging that two Milwaukee police officers violated the rights of one of the victims in the notorious Jeffrey Dahmer case. As luridly reported in the media, the officers questioned a naked and bleeding 14-year-old Laotian boy, Konerak Sinthasomphone, but returned the victim to Jeffrey Dahmer when he claimed the boy was his adult homosexual lover. The suit charged that Sinthasomphone's right to the equal protection of the law was violated based on race, sex, and sexual orientation. (Sinthasomphone, Estate of, v. City of Milwaukee, 1995).

While the Dahmer case was clearly an aberration, it serves as a reminder to law enforcement officers that it is their duty to offer equal protection of the law to all victims of sexual assault, even victims toward whom they do not immediately feel sympathetic (for whatever reason).


Sexual assault is a grievous offense and all too common crime in the United States and in Texas. It is an act of violence and degradation expressed through actions that are sexual in nature. It is devastating to its victims, who do not ask or want to be raped and whose lives are changed forever by the assault. It can happen to anyone.
In the following chapter, we will explore in some detail the sources of many of our attitudes and the historical evolution of the legal issues involved in rape crimes. This background may help elucidate the sources of biases that persist in our culture.

Don't forget to prepare an answer for these questions and those in the other chapters of this course before you go to the chapter review Web orm to submit your answers.

You may want to:

  1. write out the answers on paper, and then type them into the form,
  2. use a word processor to answer the questions, then cut and paste them into the Web form.

Chapter Review Exercises

  1. Compare the sexual assault statistics in this chapter with those of your city or region. Are they similar or significantly different? If they are different, explain.
  2. In addition to the moral and pyschological implications of sexual assault citizens should be concerned with the economic impact of sexual assault in America. Explain.
  3. What are the three basic methods of gaining sexual access to a person? Which ones are legal in the state of Texas?
  4. Explain what is consent and whether or not it can only be given verbally.
  5. Of the 5.2 million children in Texas, how many will be sexually assaulted or abused by age 18?