Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Reporting of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault by Nonstrangers to the Police

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Reporting of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault by Nonstrangers to the Police

Article excerpt

We examine the effects of the gender of the victim and offender and their relationship to each other on whether sexual and physical assaults are reported to the police. We also examine the reasons victims give for not reporting assaults and whether reporting patterns have changed over time. The analyses are based on a sample of 6,291 physical assaults and 1,787 sexual assaults from the National Violence Against Women Survey. The results suggest that victims are just as likely to report domestic assaults as they are to report assaults by other people they know. Male victims are particularly reluctant to report assaults by their intimate partners, whereas third parties are particularly unlikely to report assaults by partners of either gender. Sexual assaults, particularly those that involve acquaintances, are less likely to be reported. These patterns have not changed since the 1960s.

Key Words: assault, crime reporting, domestic violence, gender, police, sexual assault.

It is commonly believed that domestic violence and sexual assaults are hidden from society's view because most incidents are not reported to the police (e.g., Frieze & Browne, 1989; Herzberger, 1996; Pagelow, 1984). Only "the tip of the iceberg" is observed-the rest occurs "behind closed doors" (Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980). In this research, we examine whether these offenses are less likely to be reported to the police than other violent offenses, and if so, why?

Violence is unlikely to come to the attention of the criminal justice system unless someone reports it. If domestic violence and sexual assault are less likely to be reported than other crime, then the offenders may be more likely to recidivate. In addition, if they are less likely to be reported, then official data on domestic and sexual assault are less useful.

Some scholars emphasize the role of gender in the reporting of domestic and sexual assault (e.g., Belknap, 2001; Dobash & Dobash, 1998). Although they do not make explicit comparisons between different crimes, they imply that domestic and sexual assaults against women are particularly likely to go unreported. Women's reluctance to report assaults by their male partners has been attributed to fear of reprisal, economic and psychological dependence, and anticipation that the police do not take these charges seriously (e.g., Frieze & Browne, 1989; Pagelow, 1984). Women's reluctance to report sexual assaults has sometimes been attributed to their lack of confidence in a criminal justice system that assigns blame to them rather than to offenders (e.g., Belknap; Williams, 1984). In general, these scholars emphasize gender discrimination in the criminal justice system and in the larger society.

A second approach to police notification focuses on the "relational distance" between the victim and offender (Black, 1976). The smaller the relational distance between adversaries, the less likely it is for the legal system to become involved in disputes. Thus, violent disputes between strangers are likely to activate a legal response, disputes between intimates or family members tend to be handled privately, and disputes between friends and acquaintances tend to fall somewhere in between. Differences between domestic and stranger assault reflect a broader structural relationship between relational distance and the activation of law.

Black's (1976) approach would also predict gender effects on reporting. He argues that victims have less access to the law if they have lower status than their adversaries. If women have lower status than men, then men's assaults on women should be less likely to be reported than assaults involving other gender combinations. The argument implies a statistical interaction between the gender of offender and victim.

In the present study, we use data from the National Violence Against Women Survey to examine the effects of gender and social relationship on police notification for physical and sexual assault. …

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