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Journal Article

Judging the legality of sexually violent tactics: a comparison between prosecuting attorneys in the United States and Colombia

Journal of Sexual Aggression 28 (2): 261–279
Zoë D. Peterson, Monica Perez Trujillo, Ana L. Jaramillo-Sierra (2022)
attorney perceptions, sexual violence, coercive tactics, measurement, cross-cultural research
In order to study sexual violence internationally, it is helpful to understand similarities and differences in how sexual violence is conceptualised across countries. The current study examined prosecuting attorneys’ judgments about which sexual tactics legally qualify as sexual violence in two countries. Attorneys from the U.S. (n = 28) and Colombia (n = 24) evaluated whether 36 tactics would qualify as a sexual offense in their jurisdiction. Although Colombian and U.S. attorneys agreed on the legality of many tactics, Colombian attorneys judged more behaviours as criminal, on average, than U.S. attorneys. Within-country variations suggested that differences were due not only to different legal statutes, but also to different interpretations of laws. Open-ended responses illustrated sources of ambiguity, including lack of clarity about how much coercion is required and which behaviours indicate nonconsent. This suggests that vagueness within legal definitions may allow attorney judgements to be influenced by stereotypes and prejudices.

Practical Impact Statement: This study illustrates the vagueness of legal definitions of sexual violence in two countries—the United States and Colombia. This vagueness provides prosecuting attorneys with substantial power to interpret the law, and in this study, some attorney judgements of legality seemed to be influenced by stereotypes. Greater training for law students and attorneys about the realities of sexual violence may be helpful in undermining belief in rape myths that may inhibit attorneys from prosecuting certain sexual violence cases.
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