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The Language of Sexual Assault Crimes. By Detective David Williams Fayetteville Arkansas Police Department. “Comfort Women”. Language Matters. Cases are won and Lost Due to Excellent or Poor Language Choices During: Victim Interviews Documentation Testimony.

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The language of sexual assault crimes l.jpg

The Language of Sexual Assault Crimes

By Detective David Williams

Fayetteville Arkansas Police Department



Language matters l.jpg
Language Matters

Cases are won and Lost Due to Excellent or Poor Language Choices During:

  • Victim Interviews

  • Documentation

  • Testimony


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Victim’s Behavior Characteristics:

  • Self blame

  • Humiliation and embarrassment

  • Loss of affect or numb response

  • Omission of details

  • Reluctance to report

  • Incomplete memory

  • Nightmares/flashbacks

  • Anger at others for not protecting him/her


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Emotions Involved with Sexual Assault

  • Humiliation

  • Shame and self-blame

  • Guilt

  • Fear of people

  • Grief and depression

  • Denial

  • Anger and irritability


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Issues Specific to Sexual Assault

  • Sexual assault is one of the few crimes that requires intense scrutiny into the believability of the victim’s description of the event

  • It is probably the only crime in which the suspect can successfully defend himself by claiming the victim consented to the crime


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Three Major Needs Victims Have

  • The need to feel safe.

  • The need to express their emotions.

  • The need to know what comes next after their victimization.


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The Role of Professionals

The dignity and healing of victims depends on the respect and assistance extended by professionals.


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Re-victimization

  • Insensitive questioning by police

  • Criminal justice attitudes suggesting that the victim contributed to his/her own victimization

  • Delays in the return of personal property

  • Fear of reprisal by the defendant

  • Lack of information on the status of the case


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Things NOT to Say

  • Everything is going to be alright

  • Don’t cry

  • You shouldn’t feel that way

  • I know how you feel

  • You must get on with your life

  • I promise I’ll get this guy and he’ll go to prison for a long time



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Language in Interviews THERE FOR YOU.

  • Language is critical in victim interviews.

  • The victim may be “the best evidence” in a case if approached with the right interviewing techniques,.

  • Mistakes by an officer during the interview or in reporting can have a positive or negative impact on the case.


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Language CAN THERE FOR YOU.

  • Explain her thoughts and feelings

  • Discover valuable corroborating clues

  • Make a victim more willing and able to navigate the criminal justice process

  • Lead to successful prosecution of a Known Violent Offender


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Language CAN Also THERE FOR YOU.

  • Shut her down

  • Confuse or under-inform judges, juries, media

  • Lose cases that should have been won


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Good Verbal and Written Language Skills THERE FOR YOU.

  • Maintains cooperation from victim.

  • Clears up inconsistencies in statements.

  • Encourages victim to tell the entire truth and not omit information which would later be used to challenge his or her credibility, e.g. drug or alcohol use.

  • Builds a stronger case.

  • Avoids re-victimization.


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The Interview THERE FOR YOU.

  • Build rapport and trust

  • Explain the purpose of the interview

  • Address questions the victim can’t answer

  • Address concerns regarding prosecution

  • Use open-ended questions

  • Allow the victim control


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Importance of a safe, nonjudgmental environment THERE FOR YOU.

  • Encourages a more thorough and truthful report

  • Remove the incentive to be untruthful.

    My favorite place


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Information Needed by the Investigator THERE FOR YOU.

  • Describe

    • Victim’s behavior and relationship with the suspect

    • Suspect’s behavior

    • Document specific acts committed

    • Suspects sexual behavior

    • Establish force or threat of force

    • Suspects description

    • Establish M.O. or signature


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Challenge: Lack of Physical Resistance THERE FOR YOU.

  • Victims often don’t resist because they are surprised, confused or fear injury or death.

  • They are threatened if the assailant is larger and/or stronger.

  • They are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.


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Police reconstruct the victim’s reality THERE FOR YOU.

  • Describe her account including her thoughts and feelings.

  • Reconstruct her reality for prosecutors and jurors so they will understand why she didn’t physically resist her assailant.


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Challenge: Delayed Reporting THERE FOR YOU.

  • Delayed reporting is typical, especially in non-stranger assault.

  • “Imagine a child molested by a stepfather or other relative versus a stranger in the park. In which case is the victim most likely to go to police?”


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Why victims delay reporting? THERE FOR YOU.

  • They fear they won’t be believed.

  • Fear what will happen to their lives after they report.

  • They don’t recognize what happened to them as a crime.

  • They feel shame and guilt.


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Overcoming the challenge of delayed reporting THERE FOR YOU.

  • The interview should obtain information which explains the delay in reporting.

  • Thorough documentation of actions and thoughts.

  • Interviews with others the victim disclosed the assault to, especially the first person.


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Dealing with Inconsistent or Untrue Statements THERE FOR YOU.

  • Why will a victim make an inconsistent or untrue statement?

    • Rape trauma syndrome

    • Discomfort talking about sex

    • Repeated interviews

    • Fear of blame, shame

    • Their own drug or alcohol use

    • Their own illegal behavior


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Problematic Language Areas in Documentation and Testimony THERE FOR YOU.

Erotic/Affectionate Characterization of Sexual Assault

  • “Suspect then made love with her…”

  • “She then had sex with him…”


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Problematic Language Areas in Documentation and Testimony THERE FOR YOU.

Sexual Assault as Distinct from Violence

  • He kissed her and then put his penis into her vagina.

  • He held her and slid two fingers into her.


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Problematic Language Areas in Documentation and Testimony THERE FOR YOU.

Appropriate Resistance by the Victim or Questionable Actions of Victim

  • Victim stated she didn’t do anything to stop him.

  • Victim never made any attempt to scream or get away.

  • Victim willingly drank alcohol with him.

  • Victim never called the police after the alleged attack (delayed reporting).


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Problematic Language Areas in Documentation and Testimony THERE FOR YOU.

Good Character of the Offender

  • Smith was polite and calm during the interview.

  • He said he would never hurt a woman.

  • Smith indicated that Victim is bi-polar and off her medications.

  • Smith promised he would take care of her so we would not have to come back out.


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Problematic Language Areas in Documentation and Testimony THERE FOR YOU.

Grammatically Omitting or Minimizing Agent of the Assault

  • Victim was assaulted.

  • The woman said she is a victim of abuse.

  • She said he is never violent unless he drinks.


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Problematic Language Areas in Documentation and Testimony THERE FOR YOU.

“Cop Speak”

  • “Suspect exited the vehicle and proceeded…”

  • Oral Copulation

  • Digital penetration


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Strategy THERE FOR YOU.

Erotic/Affectionate Characterization of Sexual Assault

Appropriate use of verbs and descriptions:

Raped or Sodomized as opposed to “had sex with” or “made love with…”


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Strategy THERE FOR YOU.

Sexual Assault as Distinct from Violence

Include the violence in your reports and testimony and use vivid verbs.

  • Suspect clamped his mouth onto Victim’s and forced his tongue into her mouth…

  • Suspect shoved his penis into her vagina and raped her…


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Strategy THERE FOR YOU.

Lack of Resistance or Questionable Actions by Victims

  • Articulate her fears

  • Understand WHY she didn’t report

  • Be honest about drug/alcohol use (it’s the omission that’ll get you)


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Strategy THERE FOR YOU.

“Good Character” of Suspect or Suspect’s Efforts to Blame Victim

  • Understand “Batterer’s M.O.”

  • Recognize efforts to charm/manipulate you.


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Strategy THERE FOR YOU.

Grammatically Omitting or Minimizing Agent of the Assault

NAME the Suspect and keep that person as the SUBJECT (action-taker) in your reports and testimony

Bob Smith raped his girlfriend during the argument...


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Strategy THERE FOR YOU.

Cop Speak

Talk and Write Like a Professional, Approachable Person

  • The suspect jumped out of his car and ran…

  • He then forced two of his fingers into her vagina…


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Conclusion THERE FOR YOU.

The words we use when speaking to victims and when documenting their responses and our findings are CRITICAL in terms of:

  • Successful Prosecution

  • Long-term Emotional Recovery of Victim

  • The Safety and Well-Being of our Communities


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