Canadian Background Information

For the past 20 years Professor Renner has done research, service, and social action in the area of sexual assault and child sexual abuse.

The work began in Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada with the establishment of the Service for Sexual Assault Victims by his community psychology class at Dalhousie University (Renner & Keith, 1985). The work continued when he become a Research Professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, ON, Canada. Over this period of time, Professor Renner's research group, often in collaboration with local sexual assault services, have made numerous scholarly contributions to the field. In September of 1998 they launched a National Social Action Program (NSAP, 1998) in Canada to press for reforms in the criminal justice process. To data, this work has resulted in:

The legal issues which we have address through our research in Canada are virtually identical to the legal issues victims of sexual assault and child sexual abuse face here in the United States. Despite the similarity of issues, our work has gone largely unrecognized in the US.

As a retired professor, a US citizen, living full time in the United States, Professor Renner has adapted the work on sexual assault and abuse to the United States, and introduced a parallel National Action Plan Against Sexual Assault (NAPASA) here.


Basic Research Findings

Our empirical data came from the cases of the sexual assault service (2,500), the court records (n=1,050), and from transcripts and direct observations of trials (n=105). We compared the information reported directly by victims to the profile provided by cases which reached the criminal justice system. Among the cases reaching the criminal justice system we compared the treatment of sexual assault and abuse cases with the treatment of robbery and assault cases (Yurchesyn, Keith & Renner, 1992; Renner & Yurchesyn & Renner, 1994; Renner, Alksnis & Park, 1997; Renner, 2002).

The clear picture was one of selectivity and disparity to the disadvantage of women and children who are victims of sexual assault. Only atypical sexual assault and abuse cases selectively reach the criminal justice system, and once into the system those case are treated differentially. Three factors of relationship, harm and danger accounted for the selectivity and disparity which denied women and child victims of sexual assault and abuse equality and justice.

Relationship. When ever there is a relationship between the victim and the offender the victim is held partially responsible for the offense and the court is more lenient.

Harm. When ever there is no clear evidence of physical harm to the victim the offense is treated as less serious and the court is more lenient.

Danger. When ever the offender has good character and is not associated with a criminal or underclass life style the offense is treated as less serious and the court is more lenient.

These three factors which determine which cases are selected into the criminal justice system and which ones are treated as serious are also the three primary social conditions which define the relationship of women and children to the men who sexually assault and abuse them. In short, the criminal justice system has confounded the social nature of sexual assault and abuse with the legal criterion for leniency. Thus, the reality of women and children who live socially normative lives is to receive less than the full protection of law from sexual assault and abuse.

Our observations of court cases and the formal analysis of transcripts identified 24 distinct mechanisms (themes and tactics concerning relationship, harm and danger) which regularly occur in the court room and account for the selectivity and disparity revealed by the discounting of severity. These mechanism distort the true nature of sexual assault for adult women and hold children responsible for their sexuality. These are procedural failures of justice that can be directly challenged in the court room (Renner, 2002).

National Social Action Plan

Our conclusion that these outcomes represent a failure of "social" or "fundamental" justice require forms of social action to bring about the necessary reforms. We have proposed a three prong social action plan that can be carried out by local grass roots groups (NSAP, 1998). These are:

Document the Outrageous. Sexual assault and abuse cases receive extensive local coverage, but only rarely national coverage of some sensational case. Consciousness raising of the issues must take place a the local level. Our court observation system is transferable and may be downloaded free. A few courtroom observers at the local level can record the mechanisms through which relationship, harm and danger operate to discount the treatment of sexual assault and abuse by the criminal justice process. This step addresses injustice to women and children as a social issue by providing advocates a unifying vocabulary and objective data to speak about local cases.

Challenge the Legal System. Each community group has access to the local State Attorney who is responsible for prosecuting local cases. The material enables a willing prosecutor to raise objections to the troublesome themes and tactics we have identified, and to appeal those cases where the objection is not sustained. Because the arguments rest of matters of fundamental justice (equity and fairness) no immediate new legislation is required (L’Heureux-Dubé,2001; Murphy, 2001). Forcing the legal issues of selectivity and disparity into the appeal process is a direct route to reform. (Some clarifying legislation will be required at some time, but the starting point is the appeal process to isolate the ways specific current practices are incompatible with the constitutional requirements of equality and fairness before the law (Alksnis, 2001; Renner, 2002).)

Supporting Victims. Because there are a finite number (24 identified in our research) of mechanism through which the distortions take place, adult victims in particular can be prepared to avoid falling into the traps which result in discounting the severity of the offense. In the case of children, other third parties, and in particular judges, can assume this role by intervening to ensure that the court in the process of protecting the child from sexual exploitation by an adult do not in turn allow the legal process to exploit the child in a similar way (Park & Renner, 1998).

Media Attention

Our conclusion that the criminal justice system "discounts" male sexual violence against women and children, and thus contributes to the very problem for which it is the supposed remedy, confirms the subjective claims of women and children who have been victims and the observations of sexual assault services. This face validity for the empirical evidence is both news worth and readily comprehensible to those who provide direct service. In Canada, our work has received front page treatment in the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star (Canada’s national newspapers) as well as many local newspapers, and prime time news coverage by CBC radio and television. My essay series appeared as full page in the Montreal Gazette on June 23, 1997, as well as in other newspapers. There is an important story to be told, a receptive media, and a large audience of women and children who have directly experienced the selectivity and disparity of which I speak, and who are desperately in need of validation and vindication.


Alksnis, C. Fundamental Justice is the Issue: Extending Full Equality of the Law to Women and Children. Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless, 2001, 10, 69-86.

CPA. CP Article in National Spotlight. Psynopsis, Summer, 1997 a.

CPA. From News to Social Action: CP Article Stirs National Debate. Psynopsis, Fall, 1997 b.

Department of Justice, Canada. Child Victims and the Criminal Justice System: A Consultation Paper. Author: 1999 a.

Department of Justice, Canada. Child Victims and the Criminal Justice System: Technical Background Paper. Author: 1999 b.

L’Heureux-Dubé, Madame Justice Claire. Beyond the Myths: Equity, Impartiality, and Justice. Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless, 2001, 10, 87-104.

Murphy, W. The Victim Advocacy Research Group: Serving a Growing Need to Provide Rape Victims with Personal Legal Representation to Protect Privacy Rights and to Fight Gender Bias in the Criminal Justice System. Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless, 2001, 10, 123-138.

NSAP. National Social Action Program., 1998.

Park, L., & Renner, K. E. The failure to acknowledge differences in developmental capabilities leads to unjust outcomes for child witnesses in sexual abuse cases. Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health, 1998, 17, 5-19.

Renner, K. E., & Keith, A. The establishment of a crisis intervention service for victims of sexual assault. Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health, 1985, 4, 113-123.

Renner, K. E., & Yurchesyn, K. Sexual Robbery: The missing concept in the search for an Appropriate Legal Metaphor for Sexual Aggression. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 1994, 26, 41-51.

Renner, K. E., Alksnis, C., & Park, L. The standard of social justice as a research process. Canadian Psychology, 1997, 38, 91-102.

Renner, K. E. Re-conceptualizing sexual assault: From an intractable social problem to a manageable process of social change. In Debra Kelley & James Hodgson, eds., Sexual Violence: Policies, Practices and Challenges. In Press. Greenwood Publishing: 2002.

Yurchesyn, K., Keith, A., & Renner, K. E. Contrasting perspectives on the nature of sexual assault provided by a service for sexual assault victims and by the law courts. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 1992, 24, 71-85.