Vixens, Sirens and Whores: The Persistence of Stereotypes in Sexual Offence Law

AuthorJack Farrell
PositionSenior Sophister LL.B. candidate, Trinity College Dublin
© 2017 Jack Farrell and Dublin University Law Society
Reductive and corrosive imagery of women rampant within historical
sexual offence discourse persists in contemporary sexual offence law
despite its ostensibly value-free language. Today’s legal language
surrounding sexual offences is not devoid of the prejudice which affected
that of previous years. It is strikingly easy to reflect on historical cases
and pick up on uncomfortable depictions of female victims as insatiable
vixens, seductive sirens or degenerate whores. The misogynistic
overtones of the type of language used are stark and obvious.
Contrastingly, today’s legal language in sexual offence law presents itself
as degendered, neutral and objective. However, misogyny still exists in
sexual offence law. Its residues are not encapsulated as explicitly as they
once were, but they remain, nestled within subtle evocations of the law.
The outmoded ideology of sexual relationships described by our legal
forebears persists, although it has assumed new and beguiling forms.
This article sets out to make a connection between the historical
and contemporary depictions of women in sexual offence law. This will
be achieved first by observing the range of imagery used in 18th and 19th
century sexual offence law and comparing it to contemporary parallels.
Finally, a critique of the way in which it is possible for contentious social
values to exist inconspicuously in legal judgments will be presented.
Part I begins with an exploration of the cultural mythology
surrounding notions of women, men and rape which permeated legal
discourse in the 18th and 19th centuries. It introduces the concept of the
‘ideal victim’ and through analysing two areas of sexual offence law,
draws out the various vignettes which were used to depict women. The
elements of consent and sexual history evidence are used as examples of
the imagery by which women were depicted. Similar to the ‘ideal victim’
* Senior Sophister LL.B. candidate, Trinity College Dublin. The author would like to
dedicate this article to Rosa Lewis for her insight and presence throughout this process. The
author is indebted to Dr Alan Brady for his guidance in this article. The author would also
like to thank Teresa Carty for her comments and assistance on this article.
2017] The Persistence of Stereotypes in Sexual Offence Law
character, discourse surrounding rape also included the character of the
‘heroic rapist’. The trial of John Motherill exhibits this well and will be
examined closely.
Part II is an examination of the world behind the terms used
contemporaneously in sexual offence law. Paralleling Part I, a
contemporary examination of the imagery used within sexual offence
cases concerning consent and sexual history evidence will be provided.
The motif of the ‘ideal victim’ will be considered in her modern-day
incarnations regarding the distinction between ‘stranger rape’ and
‘acquaintance rape’. The recent case of DPP v GK will be analysed to
bring out the persistence of outmoded depictions of women in
contemporary case law.
Similarly, the Canadian judgment of R v Wagar
will be considered.
This case involved startling comments from the trial
judge which revealed an acceptance of a litany of rape myths. This case
will be used to showcase that although outmoded images of women are
usually hidden behind more nuanced language in modern judgments,
examples remain of explicitly misogynistic language and imagery.
I. The ‘Ideal Victim’ In Historical Sexual Offence Law
This section presents the historical treatment of women in rape trials as
misogynistic. Embedded in doctrinal evocations were objectionable
images of women that were constructed and maintained through
literature, culture and the law which bore little resemblance to reality.
Caricatures of women as inherently devious recur frequently in the
annals of legal writing. Women, on disclosure of their previous sexual
experience, became insatiable and sinful sirens. Without corroboration,
rape victims’ stories became instantly dubious, for everyone knew the
irrational and deceitful nature of women. This part explores the
promulgation of cultural and legal depictions of women which played a
major role in rape being a crime that historically was largely unpunished.
A. The Continuum of the Sexual Offence Trial: Then and Now
[2015] ABCA 327.

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