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What are Rape Shield Laws?

Navigation:  Home > Legal Questions > What are Rape Shield Laws?


Rape Shield Laws, which exist in all states except Arizona, basically limit the use of a victim's prior sexual history by the defense in an effort to undermine the credibility of a rape victim's testimony. Rape shield laws arose in the 1970s because, legally, the primary elements of rape are a sexual encounter and unwillingness of one participant. Because consent may or may not be manifested verbally during a sexual encounter, that element is difficult to prove.


Because of that difficulty, the credibility of the accuser and the accused are crucial, especially where evidence of sexual activity on the part of the accused tends to cast doubt on the accuser's truthfulness. Accordingly, rape victims who had been sexually active prior to their assault were deemed legally less credible than those who had not been.


However, a woman's sexual history should not be relevant to her truthfulness. As such, rape shield laws were passed so that accusers could exclude sexual history on that basis. Further, rape shield laws were passed to increase the reporting of rape and its successful conviction because fear of being revictimized by debasing and humiliating cross-examination on their past discouraged victims from reporting and pursuing charges.

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