Legal Considerations Regarding Sexual Assault

By OBOS Violence & Abuse Contributors | October 15, 2011
Last Revised on May 2, 2014

Although improvements have been made in the legal system, prosecution of a perpetrator can still be a drawn-out and painful process. Most communities have rape crisis centers that provide advocates to help women navigate the legal system. (To be connected to a rape crisis center near you, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE.) Many local district attorney offices offer victim/witness advocates who can provide information and support. In some states, sexual assault can be reported anonymously.

Even if you do not intend to report the assault now, write down everything you can remember so if you decide to file a criminal complaint later, your statement will be accurate. This statement can be useful should you decide to pursue a sexual assault protection order or other civil law remedies. For guidance, contact the Victim Rights Law Center, which focuses on legal services for victims of sexual assault.

Statutes of limitations— laws that set the maximum amount of time that can pass after a crime is committed before legal action is taken—vary by state; check the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) for specifics in your state. Since rape perpetrators seldom rape only once, your evidence may also provide critical information that can help others.

Many anti-violence activists focus on making the existing criminal justice system work better for those who experience sexual assault and domestic violence. Hard work by feminist activists in the late 20th century, for example, achieved better handling of domestic violence cases, through improved federal and state laws and more informed awareness in many police departments.

Some activists cite deep flaws in the criminal justice system. In the anthology Yes Means Yes! former rape-crisis worker Lee Jacobs Riggs writes, “I felt drained and frustrated (not to mention flat-out dirty) operating within a framework that positioned the criminal legal system as the primary remedy for sexual violence.”

In cases when prosecution of a rapist is successful, the verdict and who gets convicted too often reflect the inequities present in the U.S. legal system, which imprisons people of color and poor people at a higher rate than white and/ or middle-class perpetrators of similar crimes.

For more information on your legal options if you have been sexually assaulted, see Reporting and the Criminal Justice System on the RAINN website.