Sunday, 23 February 2014

Sex crimes are against people, not 'purity'

By Jolene Tan, Published The Straits Times, 22 Feb 2014

UNTIL recently, Morocco allowed rapists of minors to escape charges by marrying their victims.

Many of us recoil from such laws, because we recognise rape as a crime against a person, whose bodily autonomy has been attacked. We see instinctively that pushing a minor into an ongoing intimate relationship with their assailant causes trauma rather than recovery.

The Moroccan law, which has fortunately been repealed, was rooted in a different view of rape. For some, rape is a crime against the "purity" of the victim, a kind of sexual virtue.

Since this virtue is tied to reserving sexual relations exclusively to married couples, the wrong in rape may also be seen as potentially repaired by marriage.

The idea of the victim as a person with a right to make choices, particularly when it concerns her own body, features only secondarily in this way of thinking, if at all.

Troublingly, in recent cases involving sex crimes, some against minors, statements by the authorities in Singapore have also demonstrated purity-based attitudes.

For instance, in January this year, a case involving the rape of an eight-year-old saw a prosecutor emphasising the "loss" of the victim's "chastity". This points to concern with the prior absence of sexual experience rather than the plain fact of a violent assault.

Likewise, a few weeks ago, in pressing for punishment of a man who non-consensually distributed sex videos of his former girlfriend, another prosecutor placed stock on the idea that, "a woman's reputation, once tarnished, is gone forever and can never be repaired".

And only a few days ago, a judge sentencing a teacher who sexually abused her pupil described her as having "defiled and corrupted" the boy.

Such statements suggest - possibly unintentionally - that the main damage inflicted by sex crimes is a sort of stain on the victims' sexual virtue, rather than the physical and emotional harm done to them and the degrading denial of control over their own bodies.

This attitude places a moral quality allegedly connected to sexual inexperience at the centre of the violation. The uncomfortable implication is that the state and society can or should take sexual assaults seriously only when the victims are deemed "pure enough" by some ill-defined moralistic yardstick.

Indeed, in another criminal case this year, a judge cast aspersions on the minor victim, who had made contact with the perpetrators online, and suggested that the law is only "to protect really innocent minors".

The dehumanising logic of "purity" also explains apathy towards sexual violence committed against sex workers. Because they consent to paid sex while working, they are believed to no longer possess the "purity" that rape laws are thought to protect - even though their experiences of sexual violence are no less severe or harmful.

In our view, the absolute right to refuse unwanted sexual contact - and, in the case of minors, to be protected from adult exploitation - should apply equally to everyone. The authorities should not be in the business of judging some victims as "good", thus deserving protection, and others as "bad" - a process that itself can worsen victims' trauma.

Encouraging a view of victims as irreparably damaged or otherwise diminished by rape, rather than harmed, may also be harmful to their recovery.

Fortunately, as a prosecutor reminded the judge in the case involving online contact, it is "established law" that the sexual experience of the victim is "irrelevant" to sentencing.

The law also took a welcome step forward with the repeal in 2011 of Section 157(d) of the Evidence Act, under which victims of sexual assault could be discredited based on their sexual histories. Removing this provision was in line with a legal ethos that aspires to fully and equally protect all people from violence and violation, without reference to moralistic judgments on their private lives.

We call upon everyone in society, especially those concerned with the making and enforcement of criminal law, to embrace and uphold a more people-centred justice system. We ought to focus on protecting the welfare of human beings rather than theoretical ideas about "purity" and sexual virtue.

The writer is the programmes and communications senior manager of Aware, a gender equality advocacy group.

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