Institutional and Legal Responses to Gender-based Violence: Research Notes and Contemporary Reflections

Conference Highlights, Panels and Plenary
Gender and Sexuality, Violence and Society

This panel will address ongoing debates around the efficacy of laws for ensuring justice for victims-survivors of sexual violence in the 21st century. Invited sociologists will present cutting-edge research on institutional and legal responses to gender-based violence in Canada, the USA, and Turkey, and argue for the necessity to recognize sexual violence as a systemic problem. Panelists will offer insights into new sociological questions on law with a focus on the compatibility of feminist discourses that emphasize the need for a large-scale re-writing of cultural and institutional norms with the individual, and increasingly neoliberalized, principles and punitive ethos of criminal law.

Panelists and Presentations:

Tugce Ellialti-Kose, Trent University

Is Trauma the Only Way out for Survivors of Sexual Violence? Legitimate Victimhood in Turkish Courts

The twenty-first century started with a wave of legislative reforms that transformed many aspects of law, including the Criminal Code in Turkey. One of the most contested changes that the new code introduced was the article that stated that if the “victim” suffers physical or mental damage as a result of the sexual assault, the sentence is to be aggravated. In this paper, I examine how the sexual assault law defines, and limits, the legally recognizable subject positions for survivors of sexual assault. Drawing on my fieldwork and specifically my court observations, in-depth interviews with prosecutors, judges and feminist activists, and court documents, I discuss how the article on mental damage in the criminal law is interpreted, defined, and applied in the adjudication process that expects survivors to suffer from, and display, a specific form of damage, excluding other types of harms, such as economic or social harm, from the definition of sexual violence and discrediting the narratives of those who do not fully display signs of permanent mental damage. I argue that, following the legal changes, the legally recognizable and legitimate victim in Turkey is constituted in rather novel ways. In practice the law perceives survivors of sexual violence to be innately and permanently traumatized by the act of sexual violence, as those whose lives are fundamentally affected and disrupted by the assault, and those who are not supposed to continue and maintain their regular lives. On the other side, survivors are also expected to be articulate and consistent in their actions and statements both in the aftermath of the assault and throughout the adjudication process in order to be recognized as credible complainants, constituting them as responsible and resilient subjects of the law. Through these expectations of survivors and constructions of victimhood, the law effectively puts the burden of proof on survivors and their mental states, conduct, and narratives. Lastly, I argue that this construction of legally recognizable subject positions for survivors of sexual violence excludes a view of survivors as citizens who exist within, and navigate through, heteropatriarchal relations of power in different ways and, thus, other possible forms of subjectivity.

Andrea Quinlan, Waterloo University

Shelved: Forensic Evidence and the Policing of Sexual Assault in Canada

Forensic sexual assault kits (SAKs) were introduced in Canada in the 1980s as part of a wave of reforms to criminal justice responses to sexual assault. Dubbed in the media as the “rapist trap,” the SAK was heralded as a tool to standardize forensic evidence collection, increase sexual assault conviction rates, and improve victims’ access to care and justice. Decades later, evidence suggests that SAKs have failed to live up to these promises. While SAKs in the United States have received significant media scrutiny with the introduction of new legislation and criminal justice policies on SAK testing and storage, Canadian SAKs, and how they are used in police investigations, have received relatively limited public attention, despite the substantial resources dedicated to collecting, testing, and storing SAK evidence. This paper draws on data from Freedom of Information requests filed at municipal, provincial, and federal police services across Canada, as well as in-depth interviews with 24 police investigators, to explore how police use SAKs in sexual assault investigations in Canada. It looks specifically at the existing policies, procedures and practices involved in utilizing and managing SAKs in criminal investigations, revealing the variability and lack of transparency in police handling of SAKs across the country, and considers the impact of this ambiguity on sexual assault victims and their access to care and justice. The paper concludes by reflecting on the enduring, misplaced faith in the SAK, and related carceral practices, to reduce sexual assault, and considers the broader implications of this faith on sexual assault prevention and anti-violence activism.

Jamie Small

“You Can’t Rape a Man in Georgia”: Masculine Vulnerability and the Politics of Sexual Assault

Men’s bodies bear a complicated relationship to law, sexuality, and the state of vulnerability. In this paper, I investigate the legal construction of adult male sexual victimization to illuminate the reproduction of gendered citizenship. Examining how men are situated in the shadow of the law in the United States, this project addresses two related questions: How do state legal regimes affect the local processing of crime? How do legal actors construct sexual victimization on adult male bodies? Historically, men as a class have been understood as both the agents and benefactors of an unjust legal system. Feminist legal scholars document many empirical moments at which systemic and intersecting gendered inequalities emerge. Yet occasionally men experience sexual assault and then turn to the state to redress their criminal victimization. These rare cases reveal much about the legal construction of masculine vulnerability. I examine the legal structures in Georgia, Michigan, and Idaho that protect men – or not, as it were – against sexual violence. Each state defines adult male sexual victimization differently, and these linguistic variations in the criminal code produce vast differences in how such allegations are understood across jurisdiction. In turn, the legal structure creates different planes of possibility for processing crime at the local level in each state. Data are two-pronged. First, I collected archival documents related to 67 cases of male sexual assault, including police interviews and reports, preliminary hearing documents, trial transcripts, and appellate decisions. Second, I conducted 75 in-depth interviews with prosecutors and defense attorneys who have worked on a criminal case involving an adult male sexual victim. I argue that the prosecutorial dynamics of male rape cases represent a shifting relationship between the state, ideologies of manhood, and the categorization of vulnerable bodies.

Organizer: Tugce Ellialti-Kose, Trent University