Prosecuting Sexual Assault: A Comparison of Charging Decisions in Sexual Assault Cases Involving Strangers, Acquaintances, and Intimate Partners

Document Type


Publication Date



In this study of prosecutors’ charging decisions in sexual assault cases, we test the hypothesis that the effect of victim characteristics is conditioned by the relationship between the victim and the suspect. We categorize the victim/suspect relationship as one involving strangers, acquaintances/relatives, or intimate partners, and we examine the effect of victim, suspect, and case characteristics on charging decisions in each type of case. The results of our analysis reveal that the effect of victim characteristics, with one exception, is confined to cases involving acquaintances and intimate partners. In these types of cases, prosecutors were less likely to file charges if there were questions about the victim’s character or behavior at the time of the incident. In contrast, the victim’s reputation and behavior did not affect charging in cases involving strangers; in those types of cases, prosecutors were more likely to file charges if the suspect used a gun or knife or if the victim was white. We conclude that stereotypes of “real rapes” and “genuine victims” continue to influence the charging decision in at least some types of sexual assault cases. .