What is a Rape Shield?

wiseGEEK Writer

A rape shield law refers to a law protecting women who have alleged rape to have certain details of their lives brought up in open court by defending attorneys, or it can be a law that keeps women anonymous in the press if they claim rape. Both of these laws are a means of avoiding revictimization of the rape victim. One suggests that a woman’s private or sexual behavior prior to the rape is not of interest to the courts, and the other suggests that woman who makes this claim is entitled to privacy in the media, if she chooses, not be public about her allegation. This article uses the female gender and pronoun, but men can be raped and rape shield laws may protect them as well.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

How much and how well a rape shield law of the first type works, varies. Some suggest that when the issue is consent and if the accused is making a case that consent was given or was ambiguous, certain sexual facts about the alleged rape victim should be admissible by a court, and they may be in some cases. For instance, a woman alleging date rape with a history of sexual one-night stands might be lying and sexual history could be part of the proof of this. Attorneys may see a rape shield law as potentially giving advantage to accuser because they cannot establish a pattern of behavior suggesting the accuser’s trustworthiness on the issue or consent.

The flipside, and one thing the rape shield law attempts to provide women, is avoidance of investigations into sexuality when things like consent are definitely not an issue. It ought not matter how a woman dressed, who she slept with before, or whether she had shocking sexual proclivities, if she’s raped with physical force or demonstrative threat to life. For many years in the court, even if a woman was raped at gunpoint, she might have to endure every private detail of her life being trotted out before the court. Laws to prevent this, no matter details of the rape, were sought.

What can be said about any individual rape shield law is that it is usually written at state or region level. This means degree of protection depends on grey area of each law and location. Individual protections offered to victims vary.

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The same is true for any rape shield law offering media privacy. The standard of keeping a rape victim's name out of the papers may be kept by some journalists and may be legally required. Some laws forbidding naming a rape victim have been challenged in some regions and struck down as violating rights of the accused or free press. Many local papers will not print victim’s names, but this changes drastically if a case is high profile. It is difficult to shield the accuser in these instances, and then to protect them from any type of investigative journalism. While well intentioned, rape shield laws inhibiting media coverage, seldom work in high profile cases.

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