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Does the Controversy Matter? Comparing the Causal Determinants of the Adoption of Controversial and Noncontroversial Rape Law Reforms


  • The author wishes to thank the National Science Foundation, the American Association of University Women, and the Verizon/Hopeline Research Fellowship Program for generous financial assistance during this research. The author also wishes to thank Jody Clay-Warner as well as three anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on previous drafts of this article. Please address correspondence to Jennifer McMahon-Howard, Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, Kennesaw State University, 1000 Chastain Road MD# 2204, Kennesaw, GA 30114; e-mail:


Do the causal determinants of legal change differ for controversial and noncontroversial laws? Using rape law reforms as an example of legal change, I answer this question via a longitudinal examination of the intrastate characteristics and interstate processes that affect the adoption of both controversial and noncontroversial rape law reforms. The results show that the adoption of partial reforms significantly decreases a state's likelihood of passing a stronger version of the reform only for controversial rape law reforms. Other factors, such as women's economic power and the interstate process of diffusion similarly affect both controversial and noncontroversial reforms. Thus, contrary to the idea that the process of diffusion operates differently for controversial reforms, the results indicate that spatial proximity negatively affects the adoption of both controversial and noncontroversial rape law reforms. These findings have important implications for theoretical explanations of legal change, research on rape law reforms, and social movement research and activism.