Bioethics Blogs

Sexual Harm and Criminal Law

Elaine Craig  cautions against proposed alternatives to the criminal justice system for dealing with sexual violence that fail to address the underlying social problems of misogyny, gender hierarchy, and sex and gender discrimination.


The current legal response to the social problem of sexual harm is located primarily in the criminal law. As recent media attention and public discourse has revealed, this is a system with many flaws. Primary among them is that the criminal justice process remains inhospitable, if not inhumane, to sexual assault complainants. In The Inhospitable Court I examine, through the use of trial transcripts, the ways in which the process of the criminal trial itself – its rituals – creates hierarchical conditions that can further traumatize those who turn to the state to respond to their experiences of non-consensual sex. These rituals include the scripted form of communication demanded of complainants, the physical setting of the courtroom itself, and the highly particularized manner in which complainants are required to recount their experiences.  Unfortunately, the impact of these hierarchical rituals is compounded by the reality that assessments of the credibility of complainants continue to be informed by gender based myths and stereotypes.

Self Portrait, Trauma Scars (2013) by Jane Fox

Given the inadequacies in our current legal response to sexual harm, increased attention to developing alternatives to the criminal justice system is unsurprising. Proposed alternative responses include a diverse spectrum of options including specialized sexual assault courts, restorative justice approaches, increased emphasis on the role of civil law as an avenue through which to provide survivors with access to justice and, in a recent post on Impact Ethics, a reconceptualization of sexual violence as a public health issue.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.