“She Is his Girlfriend—I Believe this Is a Different Situation”: Gender Differences in Perceptions of the Legality of Intimate Partner Rape

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Despite the alarming problem of intimate partner rape (IPR), there is a dearth of empirical data investigating how jury-eligible individuals perceive IPR in a courtroom setting. In particular, very little research has addressed IPR beyond the scope of marital rape. Thus, we investigated how community members perceived intimate partner rape involving both a married and non-married couple in a mock trial context. In Experiment 1, 129 participants (78 women) read a trial summary describing an intimate partner rape that differed as to whether the victim and defendant were married or in a cohabiting, non-marital relationship. In Experiment 2, which involved the same methods as Experiment 1, we gave 153 participants (79 women) four verdict options: not guilty, guilty of Rape in the First-Degree, Intimate Partner Rape, or Sexual Misconduct. In both experiments, women were more likely to render guilty verdicts than men and yielded more pro-victim/anti-defendant judgments. Participants did not perceive the case differently between the marital status conditions. In Experiment 2, the presence of other guilty verdict choices influenced both men and women’s guilt decisions. The proportion of women who found the defendant not guilty of any crime decreased by over 50% in Experiment 2, while the proportion of men who found the defendant not guilty remained stable across experiments. The results suggest that few men and women are willing to convict the defendant of Rape in the First-Degree—especially when presented with other, lesser sexual crime options—and that the victim and defendant’s intimate relationship is a mitigating factor causing mock jurors to view IPR as a lesser, sexual crime different to felony rape.

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