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Rape: Legal Aspects - Forcible Rape: Enforcement Concerns

prosecutors report victim victims

Specific legal doctrines were only one of the impediments to effectively protecting women from rape. Even in cases that met the legal definition of the offense, victims often refused to report it, fearful that officials would humiliate them and that the offender would avoid punishment in any event. In the relatively few cases in which a complaint was filed, police and prosecutors often ruled it "unfounded" on the ground that the victim knew the assailant; waited too long to report the crime; or had been drinking, hitchhiking, or wearing suggestive clothing. Officials often assumed that such facts proved the victim was lying or made conviction impossible even if she was not. Juries reinforced such expectations by acquitting with some frequency when there was a suggestion of "contributory fault" by the victim.

The rape reform movement changed many components of this picture. Police and prosecutors are far more sensitive in their treatment of rape victims. Victims accordingly are less hesitant to report their rapes, prosecutors are less quick to drop charges, and juries are less easily swayed by old stereotypes. There is a general impression that enforcement problems are less serious than in the past.

Empirical studies provide only limited confirmation of this impression, however. It remains unclear whether the legal system's greater receptivity to rape complaints and intangible improvements in the courtroom atmosphere have led to concrete differences in legal outcomes.

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