Rape Shield Law and Legal Definition

Rape shield laws have been passed in almost all states to protect victims from the emotional trauma of being questioned about their sexual history on the witness stand. The fear of being humiliated has discouraged victims from reporting and pursuing charges. On the federal level, the United States Congress enacted Rule 412 of the Federal Rules of Evidence. This Rule declares that evidence offered to prove the victim engaged in other sexual behavior, or evidence offered to prove any victim's sexual predisposition, is generally inadmissable in any civil or criminal proceeding involving alleged sexual misconduct.

Rape shield laws seek to avoid putting the victim on trial for her clothing, attitude, behavior or sexual past. In some states, if a victim has had a prior relationship with her assailant. it may be introduced as evidence on the issue of consent.

Some states require the complaint of rape must be made within a certain time period. State laws vary on application of the "fresh complaint" doctrine. A fresh complaint is one made voluntarily and reasonably promptly after the sexual abuse. Discovery of rape trauma syndrome has undermined the fresh complaint rule, which was based on the assumption that delayed complaints of rape were less reliable.