Misogyny and the Law: Confronting America’s Rape Culture
The institutionalized rape culture in the United States goes well beyond Steubenville. In an even more blatant display of our legal system’s failings, a judge in Nebraska in 2008 prohibited a woman from using the words “rape” or “sexual assault” or describing herself as a “victim” or the defendant as an “assailant,” in her testimony against her alleged rapist. The judge, who is not the only one to have issued orders of this manner, explained his decision by citing the defendant’s right to a presumption of innocence. This reasoning is absurd, of course: a judge would never prohibit a witness from using the word “thief” in the case of an alleged theft. But the judge’s order speaks volumes about our society’s tendency to excuse rape, belittle rape accusations, blame the victim and protect the criminal. When men observe a legal system that refuses to take rape charges seriously, coupled with a fetishizing of aggression, rape is encouraged, not deterred. The institutionalization of misogyny in the courts, as well as slut-shaming attitudes in society, result in the shockingly low percentage of reported rapes, despite the fact that 1 in 5 women in the U.S. say they have been sexually assaulted.
Our failure to provide justice to women who are victims of gender-based violence is not confined to situations involving rape. A strikingly parallel situation can be seen in the way our society tries battered women in courts of law. In a 1984 New Jersey Supreme Court ruling, expert testimony on battered woman’s syndrome was found to be relevant to the case of a woman who killed her husband during a fight after enduring seven years of abuse. Statements by the prosecution in that case were condescending to the defendant and blatantly misogynistic, but the ruling could have given one hope that this type of injustice would no longer be tolerated. Apparently that hope would be naïve and ungrounded: battered women are still mistreated by the judicial system and unfairly prosecuted. In a murder trial that began in 2005, Nancy Seaman was convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison. When a U.S. District judge ruled for a retrial on the grounds that the defense should be able to construct a self-defense claim based on battered woman’s syndrome, a federal appeals court overturned his decision, explaining that battered woman’s syndrome is not a defense under Michigan law. The Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project conducted a study of homicide convictions in Oakland County from 1986 to 1988, concluding that “Overall, a white female defendant with no criminal history who was convicted by a jury of killing a white person could expect an average sentence of 10 to 30 years. However, if the woman was a victim of domestic violence, her predicted sentence increased to life.” That’s blaming the victim with a vengeance.