Dismantling Victim Credibility in the Child Sexual Assault Trial

By Amber Joy Powell, Heather R. Hlavka, and Sameena Mulla

Two male attorneys cross-examined 12-year-old Jacob for several hours. They repeatedly questioned him about the lack of visible bruises on his body from the two male defendants Jacob testified sexually assaulted him. While 7-year-old Jessica was accused of “poor hygiene” and 15-year-old Sofia appeared puzzled on the stand as a male attorney accused her of fabricating sexual assault by a family friend because she wanted to rebel against her strict parents. Another male defense attorney told a jury that 15-year-old Tasha “[didn’t] look like a common sexual assault child victim” because she did not cry on the witness stand, nor exhibit the visible signs of distress expected of a teenage victim following sexual assault.

The criminal justice system’s suspicion of sexual assault victims is not new. Decades of feminist scholarship and activism have disputed cultural rape myths that suggest “real” victims are attacked by strangers, do not engage in alcohol use, do not dress in ‘promiscuous’ ways, display intense emotional and physical trauma, and immediately report the assault to law enforcement officials. These myths not only contradict many victims’ experiences, but they also subject them to “revictimization” by police, forensic nurses, attorneys, judges, and jurors. And while feminist exploration of these cultural rape myths has provided critical insight to our understanding of the gendered dimensions of sexual violence, we know little about children’s experiences of revictimization in the criminal justice system. Children are uniquely situated within the context of the courtroom because their claims are made further suspicious due to their age. Our ethnographic work employed an intersectional analysis to show how attorneys invoked common cultural narratives about gender, race, class, and sexuality to construct legal narratives about the credibility of black and latinx children and youth during the sexual assault trial. 

Jurors Only 2013- Hlavka
Photo taken by Heather Hlavka in 2013 from the fieldsite upon which the article is based. 

From May 2013 to April 2015, we observed several child sexual assault jury trials. Using our observations, transcripts, and court records, we noted how defense attorneys and prosecution utilized rape myths to either dismantle or establish children as credible witnesses. Our findings illustrate three key, often overlapping themes in attorneys’ narratives of credibility: invisible wounds, rebellious adolescents, and dysfunctional families. Attorneys used these themes to argue that the lack of physical and emotional wounds were evidence that sexual assault could not have occurred. Physical bruises and visible emotional responses, such as the ones that Jacob and Tasha failed to produce, were described by defense attorneys as “common sense” and “human nature.” Despite their legal status as minors, attorneys accused teenagers of rebellious, often sexualized behavior in order to distance them from common notions of childhood innocence and depict them as “more adult.” It was not uncommon to hear stereotypes like “teenagers lie” and are “not so innocent.” Defense attorneys argued that teenagers were driven to fabricate allegations of assault by their sexual fantasies, crushes, or personal vendettas against defendants. Black and latinx victims encountered additional vulnerabilities, as they were more susceptible to common racialized tropes of “bad girls”  and “jezebels.”

And yet, children were not alone in their scrutiny on the witness stand. Attorneys also discredited their families, and their mothers in particular. Attorneys often emphasized intrafamilial strife, working and living conditions, unwed and “unfit” mothers, and substance abuse to portray the family as dysfunctional. Children’s mothers were especially vulnerable to accusations of lying, in part because of their often complicated sexual history with the defendant. And youth were implicated and embedded within these familial stories.

Our work applies an intersectional analysis in order to center the process of courtroom testimonial violence and inequalities rather than to focus on the trial outcome alone. It is clear that non-normative images of victims and disadvantaged social status create vulnerabilities in the court and sustain particular cultural stories of doubt that burden youth of color as they are uniquely subjected to assumptions about sexual deviance and lack of innocence. These narratives situate structural inequalities in ways that coalesce to justify the dismissal of black and latinx youth claims of victimization.

Amber Joy Powell is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her current research interests include crime, punishment, law, and the intersections of race and gender. Her work focuses on institutional responses to sexual violence.

 

Heather R. Hlavka is associate professor of Criminology and Law Studies in the Department of Social and Cultural Sciences at Marquette University. Her research joins socio-legal studies and social control to focus on sexual violence.

 

Sameena Mulla is associate professor of Anthropology in the Department of Social and Cultural Sciences at Marquette University. Her research is at the intersection of legal and medical anthropology, and focuses

Moving Beyond the Gender Symmetry Debate: Ongoing Opportunities for IPV Research

By Wendi Johnson

One cannot begin to enumerate the number of articles, papers, and book chapters that have addressed the gender symmetry debate within the literature on intimate partner violence (IPV).  Yet the academic sparring between family and feminist scholars has led to a circular argument with no clear winner and has ultimately hindered progress on IPV research.  Thus, this entry will not be another weighing in of the debate, but instead I will focus on providing several suggestions to IPV researchers. While most of my comments are likely to reflect my quantitative orientation, by no means are they meant to exclude qualitative researchers.  I do not claim credit for any of these ideas, as they have been introduced previously in other outlets.  Rather, this is meant to simply serve as a reminder to myself and other IPV researchers of areas that could benefit from scholarly attention. Continue reading “Moving Beyond the Gender Symmetry Debate: Ongoing Opportunities for IPV Research”

Intersectionality in Real Life

By Elroi J. Windsor

What is intersectionality, and what does it look like in real life?

Sociologist Zakiya Luna explored these questions as they relate to the national coalition, SisterSong. For this collective of reproductive justice advocates, intersectional praxis was more than putting diverse groups of people in rooms together for meetings and events. Luna’s research described activists working in coalitions where “constructing identities and alliances is an iterative, never-ending process.”The participants in this women of color collective had similar experiences based on belonging to marginalized race and gender groups. Yet they also experienced challenges in their work due to intragroup differences based on ethnicity, ability, and citizenship. For SisterSong, the practice of intersectionality in real life is “ongoing” and “multidimensional.” It’s not always easy, and even woke folks have learning to do.

In the last few weeks, I’ve asked students in my Introduction to Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies class questions about intersectional feminist praxis. We’ve been reading Black Girl Dangerous,by black queer writer Mia McKenzie, and thinking about how intersectional politics play out in everyday life. My students and I currently live in North Carolina, a state that has made national news this past year. Our time and place is ripe for some intersectional analysis and praxis. Continue reading “Intersectionality in Real Life”

How do we know a toxic masculinity when we see it?

By CJ Pascoe

It seems that toxic masculinity – men’s problematic gender practices entailing violence, sexual aggression, emotional repression and dominance – is everywhere. I recently keynoted a conference at Oregon State University entitled “Moving Upstream: Examining the Sources of Toxic Masculinity to Create Healthier Communities.” Thanks to the internet we know that Wolverine is an example of it. The GOP is full of it. Both (former) Bernie and (current) Trump supporters embody it in their contempt for women. People are debating examples of it on the internet. Books are being written about it.

Men are blogging about freeing themselves from toxic masculinity and its deadly effects. They are simultaneously drowning in it and deeply invested in distancing themselves from it. Even men who arguably exemplify toxic masculinity seek to avoid the label.  Take for example Brock Turner, a Stanford student convicted of raping an unconscious woman. Even though two eyewitnesses watched him sexually assault the woman, he insists “in no way was I trying to rape anyone.

This is “good guy” syndrome. Good guys aren’t sexist, they aren’t racist, and they think gays are okay and they definitely do not condone sexual assault. Brock Turner’s “good guy” syndrome is not unique. An article I wrote with Jocelyn Hollander, “Good Guys Don’t Rape,” documents how young men distance themselves from identities as rapists even as they describe behaviors that look an awful lot like sexual assault—and, indeed, certainly meets the legal definition. Take Chad, a popular high school football player:

When I was growin’ up I started having sex in the 8th grade…The majority of the girls in 8th and 9th grade were just stupid. We already knew what we were doing. They didn’t know what they were doing you know?… Like say, comin’ over to our house like past 12. What else do you do past 12? Say we had a bottle of alcohol or something. I’m not saying we forced it upon them.  I’m sayin’… Continue reading “How do we know a toxic masculinity when we see it?”

The Gender-Genocide Nexus

By Gabrielle Ferrales, Nollie Nyseth Brehm, & Suzy McElrath

Several hundred thousand people have been killed in state-supported attacks on villages in the Darfur region of Sudan (Degomme and Guha-Sapir 2010), and millions have been displaced (U.S. State Department 2013). Darfur_mapYears after this violence began, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir became the first sitting head of state indicted for the crime of genocide by the International Criminal Court. Due to inaction by the UN Security Council, the Court’s investigation has since been suspended though the violence continues today.

We examine this critical social problem by analyzing the gendered nature of violence committed against men and boys in Darfur and describe the process of inflicting violence as the gender-genocide nexus. Although a substantial body of research on gender-based violence during episodes of mass atrocity has emerged in the last decade, much of this scholarship has focused on violence against women. While we do not seek to divert attention from women and girls, it is important to examine the broad range of violent acts that occur during genocide—including gender-based violence against men and boys. This includes rape, other forms of sexual violence (like sexual assault or genital mutilation), as well as non-sexual acts perpetrated on the basis of gender, such as sex-selective killing.

Using narratives from 1,136 Darfuri refugees from the U.S. State Department’s Atrocities Documentation Survey, we analyzed patterns of gender-based violence perpetrated against men and boys in Darfur. We found that these individuals experienced many forms of gender-based violence, such as rape, genital harm, and sex-selective killings. Darfuri men and boys also are victims of indirect violence, such as witnessing violence perpetrated against members of their family. Continue reading “The Gender-Genocide Nexus”

When Home is the Mouth of a Shark* : Gendered Consequences for Syrian Women Refugees

By Stephanie J. Nawyn

The war in Syria has produced the largest refugee migration since World War II. According to estimates from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, more than 4.8 million Syrians have fled into neighboring countries (with most experts agreeing that this is a conservative estimate), and are mostly entering Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. In the last year many more Syrians have attempted to seek asylum in Europe. The conditions under which these refugees struggle to survive are not entirely unpredictable, as many refugees throughout recent history share sadly similar experiences. But the scale of the crisis and the socio-political climates in the countries providing (and not providing) safe harbor have created conditions for Syrians that are somewhat unique to their situation, with some having gendered consequences.

Crossing conflict zones to reach safe countries is always dangerous, but because of the size of this migration many surrounding countries are restricting access to their borders. This has increased the use of smugglers, particularly for Syrians attempting to enter Europe. The expense of using smugglers affects all Syrians, but for women the increased costs and dangers of crossing national borders are compounded by an increased vulnerability to sexual violence. Further, as the difficulty of travel increases, women with small children or without a male family member to provide protection are less likely to attempt the journey.

While not all women are more socially isolated than men, women who before the war had less education, were not participating in the labor market, or were caring for small children tend to be more socially isolated than men, and this social isolation affects their access to information. Information is a key commodity for refugees; social media is aflame with discussions among Syrians of how to find a smuggler, the increased restrictions on certain routes, and emerging routes available for travel. Women without good information are more dependent upon others to seek safe passage out of Syria. Good information is sometimes necessary to survival, as smuggling exploitation of Syrians is rampant; some of the bodies of drowned Syrians have been found wearing fake life preservers stuffed with newspaper.

Currently most Syrians have sought refuge in countries that provide them with limited opportunities to permanently settle, notably restriction of the right to work in the formal labor market. Given that material assistance to refugees is limited, labor exploitation of Syrian refugees is widespread. In Turkey, for example, there is a large informal labor market (with estimates ranging from 30 to nearly 50 percent of all workers employed in the informal sector) that provides almost no worker protections, and wage theft of Syrians is common. Legislation passed in 2013 intended to provide Syrians with work permits has not yet produced a mechanism for Syrians to work legally. Continue reading “When Home is the Mouth of a Shark* : Gendered Consequences for Syrian Women Refugees”