“A Rape Is a Rape, Regardless of What the Victim Was Doing at the Time”: Detective Views on How “Problematic” Victims Affect Sexual Assault Case Processing

Published date01 March 2020
Date01 March 2020
Subject MatterArticles
CJR842639 26..44 Article
Criminal Justice Review
2020, Vol. 45(1) 26-44
“A Rape Is a Rape, Regardless
ª 2019 Georgia State University
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of What the Victim Was Doing
DOI: 10.1177/0734016819842639
at the Time”: Detective Views
on How “Problematic” Victims
Affect Sexual Assault
Case Processing
Eryn Nicole O’Neal1 and Brittany E. Hayes1
Research finds that “problematic” victim behaviors—for example, alcohol consumption—influence
sexual assault case outcomes. Questions remain, however, regarding officer perceptions of what
constitutes a problematic victim and how these victims complicate case processing. Indeed, most
case processing research has relied on quantitative methods and inquiry into officer attitudes has
primarily relied on the use of vignettes. Using data from in-depth interviews with 52 Los Angeles
Police Department sex crimes detectives, we examine attitudes toward problematic victims.
Overall, we aim to determine whether rape culture beliefs and efforts to operate in a “downstream
orientation” influence detective views regarding victims who have been deemed problematic.
rape culture, sexual assault, detective attitudes, downstream orientation, qualitative
Research overwhelmingly highlights the importance of victim characteristics and behavior in influ-
encing sexual assault case outcomes. Lafree’s (1989) formative research established that officer
perceptions of case legitimacy as well as arrest decisions are shaped by the victim’s behaviors and
moral character. Furthermore, contemporary case processing research continues to stress the impor-
tance of victim behavior and characteristics in influencing sexual assault case outcomes (Fallik &
Wells, 2015; Kaiser, O’Neal, & Spohn, 2017; LaFree, 1981; McCahill, Meyer, & Fischman, 1979;
Spohn, Beichner, & Davis-Frenzel, 2001; Spohn & Holleran, 2001; Spohn & Spears, 1996). The law
enforcement focus on victim behavior and moral character is likely tied to ubiquitous social beliefs
1 Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX, USA
Corresponding Author:
Eryn Nicole O’Neal, Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Sam Houston State University, P.O. Box 2296,
Huntsville, TX 77341, USA.
Email: eno006@shsu.edu

O’Neal and Hayes
that justify sexual violence based on certain victim and incident characteristics (see O’Neal,
2017b) in addition to criminal justice practices that promote a “downstream orientation” (see
Frohmann, 1997). Downstream orientation is a term used to describe a phenomenon where crim-
inal justice actors become concerned with potential outcomes at later stages of case processing—
in other words, outcomes that are “downstream” (Frohman, 1991). To the first point regarding
victim behavior and moral character, women who engage in sex work or participate in “risk-
taking” behaviors, such as alcohol consumption, are often seen as—at least partly—responsible
for their victimization. To the second point, a downstream orientation encourages law enforce-
ment officers to predict how the victim, the suspect, and the incident will be viewed and evaluated
by prosecutors, the judge, and even jurors. This approach can be problematic because the focus in
investigation and case processing is shifted to how others will interpret the case (Emerson &
Paley, 1992). Overall, rape culture-specific societal beliefs contribute to the justification of sexual
violence against certain types of victims and downstream orientations likely shape law enforce-
ment treatment of these cases.
Research has established the role victim characteristics and behavior play in criminal justice
decision-making in sexual assault cases. Officers consider victim “risky” behaviors—for example,
alcohol consumption, engaging in sex work, and walking alone at night—when assessing victim
credibility (see Campbell, Menaker, & King, 2015; O’Neal, 2017b; Tasca, Rodriguez, & Spohn,
2013). Research also suggests that victim characteristics and behaviors influence arrest and initial
charging decisions, with both being less likely when victims engage in risk-taking behavior prior to
or during the incident (Beichner & Spohn, 2005, 2012; Spears & Spohn, 1997). Overall, recent
decades have yielded sufficient research indicating that victim behaviors influence sexual assault
case processing (e.g., credibility assessments and arrest decisions); however, scholars argue that this
body of literature would benefit from understanding law enforcement perceptions about these types
of cases (O’Neal, 2017b). Indeed, most research that assesses the impact of victim credibility
assessments has been vignette-based (see Sleath & Bull, 2017), and inquiry into the effect of victim
behavior on case processing (e.g., arrest, filing, victim cooperation) has relied on quantitative
methods (Kaiser, O’Neal, & Spohn, 2017; O’Neal, 2017b; O’Neal & Spohn, 2017). O’Neal
(2017b) asserts that interview data would facilitate a more nuanced and in-depth understanding of
the factors that influence sexual assault case processing as it relates to victim characteristics and
This research contributes to the current body of literature by assessing detective views on how
victim behavior affects sexual assault case processing. This study aims to determine whether rape
culture beliefs and efforts to operate in a downstream orientation influence detective views gener-
ally, and case processing specifically, regarding these types of victims. Examining detective views
toward “problematic” victims can advance understanding of officer decision-making in several key
respects. First, this work can shed light on how detective perceptions likely interact with victim
characteristics to affect case processing. Specifically, this work can help explain if and how rape
culture attitudes enter the police assessment of victims and possibly lead to downstream orientations.
Second, understanding detective views on problematic victims and case processing can inform the
development of appropriate and supportive criminal justice response techniques. Developing such
strategies is necessary for policing because officers are often the first point of contact victims have
with the criminal justice system.
Review of the Literature
Before discussing the various explanations that can inform the connection between problematic
victims and behavior and case outcomes, we present general information regarding the case pro-
cessing of sexual assault. From there, we review the body of research that has documented the role

Criminal Justice Review 45(1)
played by risk-taking behavior in case outcomes, as this type of problematic victim behavior is often
highlighted as a salient factor contributing to arrest decisions, prosecutorial decisions, and victim
cooperation decisions (LaFree, 1981; McCahill et al., 1979; Spohn et al., 2001; Spohn & Holleran,
2001; Spohn & Spears, 1996).
Sexual Assault Case Processing
Notable changes in sexual assault laws have occurred over the past several decades (Spohn &
Horney, 1992). Advocacy efforts aimed at victims of crime and activities surrounding the women’s
movement have played a salient role in improving the criminal justice response to sex crimes.
Specifically, jurisdictions have eliminated or relaxed resistance and corroboration requirements,
established gender-neutral offenses categorized by seriousness and with appropriate punishments,
and passed rape shield laws (Spohn & Tellis, 2012a). These reforms were intended to increase
successful case processing in sexual assault cases, yet research regularly finds that attrition remains
an issue in the criminal justice system. In other words, sexual assault incidents that come to the
attention of law enforcement often do not result in successful prosecution. Approximately one fourth
to one third of sexual assault incidents reported to law enforcement will result in an arrest (Alderden
& Ullman, 2012a, 2012b; Spohn & Tellis, 2014). Of those cases presented by the police to the
prosecutor for filing consideration, fewer than half will result in felony charges (Alderden &
Ullman, 2012a). These patterns of attrition may result from the fact that sex crimes occupy unique
spaces in the criminal justice reporting, investigation, and prosecution processes. In the following
two paragraphs, we detail two specific examples regarding these unique spaces.
First, the abovementioned legal changes occurred within a historical-legal context where the
criminal justice system was reluctant to appropriately respond to victims of sexual assault. This
historical context continues to shape legal responses to sexual victimization (Spohn, Tellis, &
O’Neal, 2015). Specifically, beliefs surrounding relationship privacy, problematic attitudes toward
complainants, and rape myth-supportive attitudes can result in problematic criminal justice
responses. To be clear, police do not necessarily hold more problematic views of victims compared
to civilians; the issue is that the beliefs of officers—despite their position of authority—mirror those
of the public (see Brown, Hamilton, & O’Neill, 2007). These types of attitudes and beliefs can result
in police practices that deny full protection to certain types of victims. For example, regarding sexual
victimization, officers with higher rape myth acceptance have been found to engage in victim
blaming while concurrently diminishing blame reserved for perpetrators (Sleath & Bull, 2012).
These types of attitudes can result in...

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