Written by Irene Krief, Lewis Bernardo, Diana Haptukaeva, Ocean Campbell and Michelle Oluwaleye – members of the Miscarriages of Justice Project
When did the sexual objectification of the game become a reality in the criminal justice system?
Following on from International Women’s Day last week, in recognition of this day, the Miscarriages of Justice team has explored the underlying issues of the treatment of women in legal spaces. Have you ever questioned the double-edged sword beauty holds in the criminal justice system? How can it act as a weapon or as chains of weakness? Is the chivalry thesis still in effect today? We hope to outline the detrimental effects of social norms when it comes to the prosecution of women but also spread awareness of the miscarriages of justice women face in the system.
Halo from the Other Side
When it comes to physical appearance, the courtroom tends to favour women who are more ‘traditionally attractive’ by modern society standards. Simply, juries are less likely to find an attractive defendant guilty, thanks to the ‘Halo Effect’ - when one trait of a person is used to make an overall judgment of that person. Of course, this also means women deemed less traditionally attractive are more likely to be convicted. In other words, people with an average appearance do not enjoy the same effect as attractive people.
Making judgments based on the level of subjective attractiveness in the courtroom of all places is itself a miscarriage of justice. Reasons behind this can be rooted in expectations of women in wider society and the idea that the courts tend to be more lenient towards women due to viewing them as vulnerable and thereby subconsciously being affected by their display of emotions. However, this idea that justice is negotiable or biased rather than fixed (Cicourel, 1968) is based on the level of compliance with gendered expectations. Therefore, women who are ethnic minorities, older and plus size are significantly disadvantaged before the courts due to not fitting the typical western beauty standards.
“bUt ShE wAs AskIng FoR iT” - Rape Myths and Victim Blaming
There are several ongoing issues in the criminal justice system, one of them being the major problems with rape prosecutions and rape myths. Female identifying victims of sexual assault are publicly interrogated about their past sexual history by the lawyers that represent their sexual assaulters. This happened in the Ched Evan’s case in 2016, where the victim was interrogated over what sexual positions she preferred and how many people she had slept with. This is not only a traumatic experience but also wrongfully suggests that a woman’s sexual history might mean she is more likely to consent to sex, so there could not have been rape. Furthermore, if a victim of rape was incapacitated by alcohol or drugs at the time, she would more likely be blamed for whatever happened. Rape is rape, no matter the circumstances.
Engaging in sexual intercourse with someone unable to give consent is rape. Victim-blaming, essentially saying that “women asked to be raped” and blaming women for being raped because of how they were dressed or because they were out late at night, are rape myths which, in reality, could not be falser. In fact, 55% of rape or sexual assault happens in victims' homes, and a woman’s clothing and appearance have absolutely nothing to do with consent. Those and many other rape myths emanate from a patriarchal system present at various levels of society, like religion, the current legal system, and particularly the media. An example of a worrying figure on social media spreading those myths and increasing a trend of extreme misogyny is Andrew Tate, who stated in an online interview that “if you put yourself in a position to be raped then you bear some responsibility for that (…)”. The rise of people who believe in those myths can also be portrayed by the increase in rape and sexual offences in the UK.
These myths have dangerous consequences. Victims and survivors of rape deal with feelings of shame, humiliation and lack of trust in law enforcement, making it difficult for them to seek the support that they need. These myths and the victim-blaming only reinforce these negative feelings. The latest CPS data on rape, sexual offences, and domestic abuse (CPS,2022) reveal the failure of the government to meet its objectives to deliver justice for victims and survivors of rape.
Overall, the power of beauty can either protect women or heighten their vulnerability. In both cases, we understand how pretty privilege can pardon the length of a sentence or be used against them in discussions of rape. As a society, we need to push for more equality in the treatment of the law and advocate for less bias in women's identities.
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