Evidencing sexual violence: a socio-legal analysis of (gendered) norms and policies

  • Caitlin Murphy
Keywords: Gender; sex crimes; norms; policy


As MacKinnon suggested, ‘women who work with the law have learned that while legal change may not always make social change, sometimes it helps, and law unchanged can make social change impossible.’This paper offers a comparative analysis of several jurisdictions, looking particularly at gendered, often systemic, patriarchal attitudes towards sexual violence. It draws upon a wide range of resources to argue that law and policy reforms alone cannot address the challenges associated with preventing - or prosecuting - acts of sexual violence, given certain socio-cultural attitudes towards victims generally. Clearly, sexual violence may lead to (often highly gendered) public health and human rights violations, with both short and longer-term consequences. Given that, globally, as many as one in five women are likely to be sexually assaulted over the course of their lifetime, female victims may feel that their evidence will be largely or completely discredited, or their experiences simply ignored. And yet, violence against women is not unique to any specific historical period or culture. As Sigsworth has further argued (in relation to South Africa) a perceived need to assert – or reassert - masculinity may also be relevant in many cases. The concept of the ‘vulnerable population’ can often be reflective of social attitudes or of ambiguous laws or policies. (Disabled women, for example, are more likely to be sexually abused, raped, or assaulted that those who are able-bodied. ) Within many criminal justice systems, long delays, judicial or jury bias, and potentially degrading cross-examinations of victims cannot be ignored. Victim-blaming can further exacerbate inherent vulnerabilities. The reporting of sexual violence often varies significantly across jurisdictions: as such, the extent to which victimhood and gendered stereotypes might be either constructed or interpreted by wider society will also be discussed here.