Chapter 1: Definitions, Myths, and Facts
Learning Objective 1.1: The student will be
able to define and discuss
the concept of sexual
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
concerning sexual assault in the United
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
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
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
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
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
- any public servant;
- a mental health or health care services provider upon
whom the person is emotionally dependent; or
- a clergyman upon whom the person is emotionally
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
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
Myth: Wives can't be raped by
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
Myth: Prostitutes can't be
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
THESE ARE YOUR RIGHTS!
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,
- 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
- If you feel more comfortable talking with a female or
male officer, we will do our best to accommodate your
- If treatment is required, we will drive you to a
- 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
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
- Failure of the officer to perform his or her
- Causal link between officer's negligence and harm to
- Actual damage suffered by the plaintiff as the result
- 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
- 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
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:
- write out the answers on paper, and then type them into
- use a word processor to answer the questions, then cut
and paste them into the Web form.
Chapter Review Exercises
- 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.
- 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.
- What are the three basic methods of gaining sexual
access to a person? Which ones are legal in the state of
- Explain what is consent and whether or not it can only
be given verbally.
- Of the 5.2 million children in Texas, how many will be
sexually assaulted or abused by age 18?