11. Feminist Criminology

11.4 Sexualised Violence 

Dr. Rochelle Stevenson; Dr. Jennifer Kusz; Dr. Tara Lyons; and Dr. Sheri Fabian

The majority of victims who experience sexualised violence (e.g., sexual assaults, sexual harassment, unwanted touching, revenge pornography) are women. Young women and girls face greater rates of sexual violence, representing nearly nine out of every ten (87%) survivors of sexual assault (Rotenberg, 2017). Age plays a role as well, with 12- to 17-year-olds comprising approximately one-third of victims, and 18- to 24-year-olds comprising 21% of victims (Rotenberg, 2017, p. 13). In data collected from 2009 to 2014 on sexual assaults against men and women, men were the perpetrators of sexual assault in 98% of the cases where charges were laid (Rotenberg, 2017).  As with all other forms of victimisation, women’s experiences depend on their interlocking social identities. For example, women with disabilities reported double the rate of sexual assaults in the last 12 months compared to women without disabilities (Cotter, 2018). Moreover, bisexual women were close to four times more likely to experience sexual violence in the past year compared to heterosexual women (Jaffray, 2020). Bisexual women are also more likely to report sexual assault and unwanted sexual behaviours online and in public compared to heterosexual and gay women and men (Jaffray, 2020). Similarly, transgender people are more likely to report unwanted sexual behaviour online and in public compared to cisgender people in Canada (Jaffray, 2020).  As with other forms of violence, certain groups of women are more likely to experience sexual violence due to racism, colonialism, transphobia, and ableism (Government of Canada, n.d.; Lyons et al., 2017b). The risk of violence also increases for gender and sexual minorities, particular for those who are Black, Indigenous, or racialized. Griner et al.’s (2020) survey of US college students found transgender people were much more likely than cisgender people to experience violent victimisation and especially sexual assault (p. 5716). The 2018 Statistics Canada Survey of Safety in Public and Private Spaces shows similar findings that “a higher proportion of transgender Canadians … had experienced physical or sexual assault in their lifetimes than cisgender Canadians” (Jaffray, 2020, p. 12).

Not only do women experience sexualised violence at disproportionately higher rates than men, women are also much more likely to be blamed for their own victimisation, such as in cases of sexual assault.  One of the more glaring examples of the pervasiveness of victim-blaming can be seen in the judgment delivered by Robin Camp, an Alberta judge who asked a sexual assault complainant in a sexual assault trial why she couldn’t simply “keep her knees together.”  Camp subsequently resigned his position as a judge because of the social outcry over his attitude towards sexual assault victims (for more on this case, see ‘Knees together’ judge in sexual assault trial says he will resign from the bench), however he was reinstated as a lawyer in Alberta less than a year later (see ‘Knees together’ judge Robin Camp wins bid to be reinstated as lawyer in Alberta). Victim blaming has also been found to be pervasive when women report sexual assaults to police. The Globe & Mail Unfounded investigation (see Unfounded: Police dismiss 1 in 5 sexual assault claims as baseless, Globe investigation reveals) revealed that police dismiss 20% of sexual assault claims because they do not believe a crime has been committed (Doolittle, 2017). Fear of victim blaming is also one of the reasons for the underreporting of sexual assaults (and other forms of sexualised violence). Assessing self-reports of victimisation from the General Social Survey, Conroy and Cotter (2017) reveal that over 8 in 10 sexual assaults are not reported to the police, a proportion that has remained constant over several decades. Reasons for the lack of reporting include feelings of shame, guilt, and worry about what people will think of them should their assault be known (Conroy & Cotter, 2017).

What feminist criminology does, then, is point to the role of patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism and other social structures and relationships in our broader society regarding the disproportionate victimisation of women. While patriarchy privileges men and the male experience over women and the female experience, establishing men as more important and more valued and positioning women in a perpetual state of vulnerability, third wave feminism, which spans from the mid-1990s to approximately 2010 (Delago, 2021), and critical race scholars established the vital importance of intersectional analyses of gender-based violence (Bruckert & Law, 2018).

Feminist criminology challenges social institutions including police, courts, and corrections within the criminal justice system to acknowledge and address the disproportionate impact of gender on women’s victimization. Feminist criminologists acknowledge that due to systemic factors, including violence, colonialization, and inequality, women are much more likely to suffer from childhood sexual abuse than men. They also acknowledge that alcohol or substance use is often a coping mechanism that may result in increased likelihood of contact with the criminal justice system. Lastly, they understand that there is a high proportion of incarcerated women who have experienced trauma (Comack, 2018; Shdaimah & Wiechelt, 2013). In essence, feminist criminologists ask us to examine how the criminalisation of women is intertwined with the victimization of women. The question becomes: how can the criminal justice system respond to the unique needs of women given this victimisation-criminalisation continuum (Chesney-Lind & Pasko, 2004; Comack, 1996)?



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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Rochelle Stevenson; Dr. Jennifer Kusz; Dr. Tara Lyons; and Dr. Sheri Fabian is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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