Evaluations of sexual assault: perceptions of guilt and legal elements for male and female aggressors using various coercive strategies

Violence Vict. 2011;26(6):799-815. doi: 10.1891/0886-6708.26.6.799.


This study examines the extent to which verdict, guilt, and legal components associated with jury instructions of sexual assault differ as a function of aggressor gender, participant gender, and sexual strategy used (consensual, verbal coercion, alcohol, or physical aggression) to obtain sex. Participants (N = 423; 276 women and 147 men) read a vignette depicting either a couple having consensual sex (control), or a male or female aggressor who initiates sexual intercourse via verbal coercion, use of alcohol, or physical abuse. College students were provided with legal instructions of sexual assault then asked to provide a verdict, degree of guilt, and legal components. Female participants rated guilt and coercion higher than did male participants. Ratings of guilt were highest in the physical assault condition followed by the alcohol, verbal, and control conditions. Female aggressors were rated less guilty than male aggressors. Results are explained in relation to sexual scripts and legal decision making. Lack of significance in verdict decisions and interaction effects suggests male and female aggressors are evaluated similarly using coercive strategies; yet, consent for sex was assumed and attributions of guilt was lower when the aggressor was female. Implications for jury instructions and future research are discussed.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aggression / psychology
  • Coercion*
  • Courtship
  • Crime Victims / classification*
  • Crime Victims / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Crime Victims / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Guilt*
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Male
  • Rape / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Rape / statistics & numerical data*
  • Sex Factors
  • Sexual Partners / classification*
  • Social Conformity
  • Social Perception*
  • Young Adult