The case processing of intimate partner sexual assault: a brief review and recommendations for future research

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  • 1 Sam Houston State University, USA
  • | 2 University of Cincinnati, USA
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Research examining legal responses to violence against women has historically dichotomised sexual assault and intimate partner violence, leaving unanswered questions regarding criminal justice responses to intimate partner violence incidents that involve sexual violence. Although research has examined whether cases involving partners, acquaintances or strangers are handled differently, few scholars consider the specific factors that undermine intimate partner sexual assault case processing. The current article guides future intimate partner sexual assault case-processing research with the hopes of filling this research void. Understanding intimate partner sexual assault case processing is necessary so that police, prosecutors and practitioners can use research-based approaches to increase victim satisfaction and decrease attrition.

Abstract

Research examining legal responses to violence against women has historically dichotomised sexual assault and intimate partner violence, leaving unanswered questions regarding criminal justice responses to intimate partner violence incidents that involve sexual violence. Although research has examined whether cases involving partners, acquaintances or strangers are handled differently, few scholars consider the specific factors that undermine intimate partner sexual assault case processing. The current article guides future intimate partner sexual assault case-processing research with the hopes of filling this research void. Understanding intimate partner sexual assault case processing is necessary so that police, prosecutors and practitioners can use research-based approaches to increase victim satisfaction and decrease attrition.

Key messages

  • Research examining legal responses to violence against women has historically dichotomised sexual assault and intimate partner violence, leaving unanswered questions regarding criminal justice responses to intimate partner violence incidents that involve sexual violence.

  • There is specific need for research examining the police decision to arrest, the prosecutor’s initial decision to file charges and the victim’s decision to cooperate. Despite the importance of these stages in determining the fate of cases, we know very little about these decision points in intimate partner sexual assault case processing.

  • Collecting files from both intimate partner violence and sexual assault case categories will provide the opportunity to examine/compare decision-making and outcomes in cases that are formally recorded as different crimes (and often handled by different units) but are arguably the same phenomenon (that is, sexual violence that occurs within the context of an intimate partnership). This sampling strategy may assist researchers in identifying which types of cases are being most successfully processed and whether responses differ based on incident categorisation and responding unit (sex crimes versus family violence).

Introduction

Intimate partner violence (IPV) and sexual assault (SA) are severe violent acts that impact millions of people worldwide every year (Black et al, 2011). Recent global estimates indicate that one in three women worldwide have experienced sexual violence and/or IPV in their lifetime (World Health Organization, 2017). In 2018, in the US alone, 734,630 incidents of SA and 847,230 incidents of IPV were reported to the National Crime Victimization Survey (Morgan and Oudekerk, 2019), which is an increase from 2017 estimates. Although the majority of victims will not formally report their incidents, research suggests that police contact with SA and IPV victims is not trivial. Research conducted in Serbia indicates that approximately 12 per cent of IPV victims seek help from the police (Djikanović et al, 2012). A study of New Zealand women found similar help-seeking rates, with approximately 13 per cent of IPV victims reporting to the police (Fanslow and Robinson, 2010). In the US, approximately 25 per cent of SA victims and 45 per cent of IPV victims reported to the police in 2018 (Reaves, 2017; Morgan and Ouderkerk, 2019). More broadly, Palermo and colleagues (2013) used demographic and health survey data from 284,281 women in 24 developing countries to examine the factors associated with the formal reporting of gender-based violence (GBV). They found that 7 per cent of respondents reported to a formal source (from 2 per cent in India and East Asia to 14 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean). Unfortunately, criminal justice systems (CJSs) have historically encountered problems when attempting to respond to and address SA and IPV, treat victims with respect, and ensure that justice is served (see Spohn, 2020). For example, it was not uncommon for jurisdictions to require that reports of SA be supported by evidence that the victim resisted their perpetrator and/or have a witness corroborate. Regarding IPV, law enforcement has historically neglected to intervene in a meaningful way, often leaving the victim and suspect to handle the situation on their own after failed attempts at on-site mediation. These issues are not limited to the US. Case attrition in IPV cases and the case processing of SA have also been examined in other nations. Research in the UK, for example, has found that attrition in these types of cases occurs most often at the policing stage (Hester and Lilley, 2017; see also Hester et al, 2003; Walker et al, 2019). Overall, estimates suggest that a non-trivial amount of IPV and SA victims contact the police to report their experiences and that case attrition in these types of incidents is relatively normal; therefore, examining the case processing of these crimes is becoming more and more important. Indeed, police and prosecutors are often considered ‘gatekeepers’ of the CJS (Lafree, 1989; Kerstetter, 1990) because their actions greatly determine the trajectory of a case (O’Neal and Spohn, 2017; O’Neal, 2019).

Research examining the criminal justice (CJ) response to GBV has historically dichotomised SA and IPV. This is problematic, as findings indicate that between 7 per cent and 14 per cent of women who cohabitate or marry will be sexually victimised by their partners at least once (Finkelhor and Yllo, 1985; Tjaden and Thoennes, 1998; Black et al, 2011). These findings highlight an important nexus between SA and IPV. Spohn and Tellis (2012a; 2012b) have argued that dichotomising IPV and SA has resulted in a void of research examining the CJS’s response to intimate partner sexual assault (IPSA), that is, sexual victimisation that happens in the context of an intimate partnership. Years later, Spohn et al (2015: 100) suggested that future research should focus on examining CJ decision-making in IPSA, as it is ‘a topic that is arguably a challenge and an under-developed area in SA case processing literature’. Additionally, Hester and Lilley (2017) have recently acknowledged the dearth of research examining rape in the context of IPV. Although research has examined whether SA cases are handled differently depending on the suspect–victim relationship, few scholars have considered the specific factors that undermine full prosecution. Accordingly, the current brief review article attempts to guide future IPSA case-processing research. Until this research is carried out, questions will remain regarding how the CJS can best respond to victims.

Literature review: IPSA case processing

As mentioned earlier, relatively little research has focused specifically on the case processing of IPSA. However, scholars have recently been working to fill voids regarding the intersection of IPV and SA in the context of CJ responses (O’Neal et al, 2015; O’Neal and Spohn, 2016; Hester and Lilley, 2017; O’Neal, 2017). In the following paragraphs, we highlight recent studies that have focused explicitly on the CJS’s response to IPSA.

O’Neal et al’s (2015; see also Tellis, 2010) qualitative examination of prosecutorial decision-making in IPSA cases investigated the factors that influence initial charging decisions in complaints referred to Los Angeles prosecutors. They found that various legal, cultural, relationship-based and rape myths surrounding IPSA influenced charging decisions, and that prosecutors ultimately consider legal and extra-legal factors when making charging decisions. Legal factors are those expected to influence decision-making, such as the strength of evidence. Extra-legal factors include legally irrelevant characteristics, such as the victim’s moral character. Specifically, they found that prosecutors were less likely to file initial charges in cases that did not include traditional ‘domestic violence’ factors (for example, excessive jealousy, controlling behaviour and so on), if the victim declined cooperation or if the victim’s credibility was questioned.

O’Neal and Spohn’s (2016) mixed-methods study focused on both law enforcement and prosecutorial decision-making in IPSA cases. Overall, this work highlights the complexity of two stages of the CJS decision-making process. O’Neal and Spohn (2016) enhanced quantitative findings with qualitative examples from Los Angeles Police Department detective interviews and charge evaluation sheets from complaints referred to Los Angeles prosecutors. They found that police officers were more likely to arrest in cases involving suspect weapon use, a physical assault of the victim, victim cooperation and physical evidence collection, as well as when the suspect was interviewed and when the victim made a prompt report. Regarding prosecutorial decision-making, initial charging decisions were influenced by suspect weapon use and whether the victim cooperated with the investigation.

O’Neal’s (2017) mixed-methods research is the only study of victim cooperation in IPSA cases. This study used quantitative data from 160 IPSAs reported to Los Angeles law enforcement and qualitative data from case narratives that detailed the reasons why victims withdrew participation with case processing. Quantitative results suggested that IPSA victim cooperation is influenced by: (1) relationship factors, including marital status, relationship length and controlling behaviour; (2) measures of case seriousness, including suspect threats; and (3) evidentiary strength, including physical evidence collection. Qualitative results indicated that victims mainly withdrew cooperation because: (1) they were no longer interested in continuing with the CJ process and/or they wanted to put the matter behind them; or (2) they blamed themselves for the incident and/or made excuses for the suspects’ behaviours.

Hester and Lilley (2017) assessed the progression of rape cases across three police forces in England. While IPSA had the highest proportion of arrests in this study, likely because of the risk-assessment protocols used by police when responding to IPV incidents, these cases had the fewest convictions. During victim interviews, it was ascertained these cases might have ‘dropped out’ because of fear and threats from the suspect. Further work by Walker and colleagues (2019) demonstrated that victim age and gender intersect, with older women less likely to report and less likely to have their case progress. This work highlights that while there may be cross-national differences in the operations of CJSs, some consistency in case-processing factors exists.

Moving forward: recommendations for future research

There is a specific need for research examining the police’s decision to arrest, the prosecutor’s initial decision to file charges and the victim’s decision to cooperate. However, despite the importance of these stages in determining the fate of cases, we know very little about these decision points in IPSA case processing. Regarding arrest, examining this decision stage is vital because broader research generally focuses on arrest when quantifying discretion, that is, the decision-making control afforded to the police (Schulenberg, 2015). Regarding the prosecutor’s initial filing decision, some scholars consider this stage to be the most important (Spohn and Holleran, 2001). Prosecutors have essentially absolute discretionary power at this stage of the process. Case rejection at this stage is usually exempt from review (Spohn and Holleran, 2008), making information gleaned from examining this decision point particularly compelling. Regarding victim cooperation, existing research has consistently found that this decision influences outcomes in both IPV and SA cases (for a recent review, see O’Neal, 2017). Indeed, understanding the circumstances that surround the cooperation decision can inform CJ practices and is important for case attrition. In the sections that follow, we provide suggestions for future research. We begin with a suggested data-collection strategy. We then discuss why examining arrest, initial filing and victim cooperation is an important first step in moving the IPSA case-processing body of work forward.

Identifying appropriate samples and data-collection strategies

To study IPSA case processing, we suggest collecting narrative reports from police agencies and linking them to charge evaluation sheets collected from district attorney offices. As the suggested future research involves examining IPSA cases specifically, we suggest collecting case files from two different case categories: (1) cases that have been formally recorded as ‘SA/rape’ but involve intimates; and (2) cases that have been formally recorded as domestic violence or IPV but the nature of the violent relationship or reported incident includes sexual violence.

Cases that have been formally recorded as ‘SA/rape’ but involve intimates include incidents that are recorded as sex-related offences (for example, rape, SA, sexual battery, sodomy and penetration with a foreign object) and include intimate partners. We generally define intimate partners as a suspect and victim who are married, cohabitating, dating or legally separated or divorced, or who have children together. For example, a rape report involving a dating couple would fall under this category. These types of reports are typically handled by a sex crimes unit.

Cases that have been formally recorded as domestic violence or IPV should be included if the nature of the reported incident or violent relationship involves rape, SA and so on. For example, a domestic violence call between married individuals would fall under this category if the victim reported an aspect of sexual violence (rape, SA, sexual battery and so on) within the context of the violent relationship. These types of reports are typically handled by a family violence/domestic violence unit.

Collecting files from these two case categories will provide the opportunity to examine/compare decision-making and outcomes in cases that are formally recorded as different crimes (and often handled by different units) but are arguably the same phenomenon, that is, sexual violence that occurs within the context of an intimate partnership. This sampling strategy may assist researchers in identifying which types of cases are being most successfully processed and whether responses differ based on incident categorisation and responding unit (sex crimes versus family violence).

Arrest, initial filing and victim cooperation in IPSA

The research reviewed in this article indicates that scholarship regarding IPSA case outcomes and case-processing decisions is in its infancy. Although a handful of studies exist, to date, scholars have neglected to undertake a large-scale study to document the specific factors that undermine the full prosecution of these types of cases. Moreover, questions remain regarding cross-national comparison of CJS responses to IPSA. Given that societal attitudes towards SA and IPV and victim help-seeking behaviour can vary according to location (Hayes and Boyd, 2017; Hayes and Franklin, 2017; see also Goodson and Hayes, 2018), research would benefit from examining these case processes in various cultural and geographical contexts.

Public attitudes towards sexual violence that happens within the context of an intimate partnership can shape police and prosecutorial decision-making in IPSA cases. For example, research shows that individuals are unaware of how widespread acquaintance rape and IPSA are, resulting in increased victim blaming in incidents where the suspect is a dating partner (L’Armand and Pepitone, 1982; Bridges and McGrail, 1989; Johnson et al, 1997). Placing blame on victims of acquaintance rape and IPSA may stem from beliefs that prior dating or sexual interactions suggest women’s willingness to engage in sex in any situation (Pollard, 1992). Additionally, sexual victimisation that occurs in intimate relationships is sometimes wrongly categorised as couple miscommunication. This is rooted in the idea that perpetrators do not realise that women do not want to have sex at the time of the incident (Belknap, 2007). These types of public attitudes are problematic because legal decision-making is vulnerable to the same biases that characterise information processing, like the propensity to focus on information that is consistent with pre-existing views (McEwan, 2003). To be clear, CJ actors do not necessarily hold more problematic views of IPSA victims compared to the public; rather, the issue is that the beliefs of officers and prosecutors – despite their ‘gatekeeping’ authority – sometimes mirror those of the public (see Brown et al, 2007). To date, research has found that some – not all – CJ actors adhere to rape-related myths (Krahé, 1991; Page, 2010; Sleath and Bull, 2015). Adhering to rape myths can result in CJ responses that deny full protection to certain IPV victims (like those that experience sexual assault within their relationships). Rape myths may be particularly salient for IPSA case processing because these types of incidents are surrounded by numerous cultural and legal myths (Berman, 2004). Overall, because problematic officer and prosecutor attitudes can result in CJ responses that deny full protection to certain victims, it is important to investigate how police and prosecutorial attitudes towards IPSA victims and case characteristics can affect arrest and filing decision points.

Regarding victim cooperation, IPSA victims encounter numerous stressors and barriers to participation that victims of other crime types do not (for example, Ford, 1991). For example, an IPSA victim may have to report, discuss and/or testify about intimate details of their consensual sexual relationship with the suspect. An IPSA victim may have anxiety about losing financial support if their abuser is the principal household earner. Victims may have concerns for their children’s safety or custody battles, fearing that they will have to raise the children as single parents (Hart, 1996). Victims of IPSA may worry that cooperating with the CJS will cause new acts of violence or that the abuser may threaten the children to maintain power post-separation (Hayes, 2016). These reservations are not unjustified – IPV suspects are seldom detained prior to trial (Lerman, 1980). Victims of IPSA may be forced by their partners (that is, abusers) to terminate cooperation. Suspects may threaten children or pets, attempt to pressure them back into the partnership, or destroy property (Hart, 1993; Hayes, 2016). These factors can cause victims of IPSA to view withdrawing cooperation as the only possible decision. Overall, the limited body of previous IPSA cooperation research indicates that relationship variables shape cooperation decisions in incidents that are undoubtedly IPV but formally categorised as SA. Importantly, information may be missed if scholars examine cooperation decisions without acknowledging that the contextual and situational factors associated with SA can vary according to the relationship between the suspect and victim (O’Neal, 2017).

There is variation in the operation of CJSs cross-nationally. Hester and colleagues (Hester et al, 2003; Hester and Lilley, 2017) provide examples of how IPSA may be examined within the UK. They compiled a database including IPV incidents, attrition and police practice that was supplemented by interviews with IPV victims, non-CJ agency staff, coordinators and solicitors, as well as case files and court observations (Hester et al, 2003). Differences in the operations of CJSs are important to consider as prior work has found that prosecution and conviction rates differ between US jurisdictions and jurisdictions outside the US, and indicate inconsistency in the direction of these differences (Garner and Maxwell, 2009). Examination of the case processing of IPV, SA and IPSA, both inside and outside the US, continues to be an area where more research is needed.

Conclusion: research to practice

The research suggested herein will have practical and academic significance. Indeed, limited scholarship exists on IPSA case processing. Therefore, the research suggested earlier has the potential to shed important light on the complex nature of CJ and victim decision-making in these types of cases. Additionally, understanding IPSA case processing through research has the potential to improve law enforcement, prosecutorial and practitioner responses to these crimes. For example, O’Neal’s (2017) research found that IPSA victims were less likely to cooperate with law enforcement when perpetrators limited the victim’s access to a vehicle, telephone and/or tangible support from family and friends. This study provides insight into the ways in which perpetrator behaviour can influence victim experiences with formal help-seeking institutions. This type of research can help guide official responses by demonstrating the necessity of treating IPSA victims as IPV victims (as opposed to simply SA victims) and acknowledging potential relationship-based barriers to cooperation. For example, IPSA victims may be unable to attend follow-up police and prosecutor interviews or caseworker meetings due to a lack of transportation, or may miss detective or caseworker telephone calls due to being denied access to a phone (O’Neal, 2017). In addition, a victim may return to their abuser’s residence because they have been denied other forms of support. Officers, prosecutors and caseworkers may consider these victims as less worthy of formal attention if they ‘ignore’ calls, are ‘no shows’ for meetings or return to their attacker’s residence. However, O’Neal’s (2017) research shows that the choice of not cooperating may be a result of the suspect’s behaviour. CJ professionals and practitioners can use research to inform their response to victims, which has the potential to increase victim satisfaction and cooperation, and to decrease case attrition.

Funding

This project was funded, in part, by the Crime Victims’ Institute at Sam Houston State University.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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  • 1 Sam Houston State University, USA
  • | 2 University of Cincinnati, USA

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