Pub # 16. Introduction to a Special Issues on Sexual Assault and Child Sexual Abuse of the Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless, 10, 2001, 1-4.

Overcoming the Civic Price of Sexual Assault

K. Edward Renner, PhD (1) (2)

Early one evening I was driving alone along a largely deserted downtown street when I saw a woman's unbuckled belt fall from her dress coat. I slowed down, pulled closer to the curb and said: "You dropped your belt." She turned her head away, walked more briskly, and ignored me. I pulled over to the curb saying in a very loud voice: "YOU DROPPED YOUR BELT." She looked angry and perhaps a bit frightened when I stopped my car, and then relieved when my message registered. She managed a "Thank you" and I a neighborly wave. As we both went our way, I was reminded of the deep civic price both men and women pay for our failure to have to come to grips with male sexual violence, including harassment.

My story is not unusual. Each of us has had similar experiences, collectively reflecting the nuances of the gender gap that touches our lives daily. Neither men nor women would consciously choose such a "State" in its political sense or such a "state" in its psychological or social senses. Yet, we have allowed this divide to continue to the point where it is intrusive into our relationships with each other, as if it were a necessary fact of the human condition.

Social distress results when a social problem undermines the psychological and social well being of a significant number of people, and becomes so pervasive that it distorts the personal, social and political levels of the society. When this happens, the effects are felt by everyone, even those not directly involved in any specific manifestation. When effective mechanisms are not available for its resolution, the problem becomes "institutionalized," as if a natural part of the social order, and the resulting social distress fracture mars the quality of civic life.

Sexual assault and child sexual abuse are social problems responsible for considerable social distress. Many victims do not have confidence in the criminal justice system and are reluctant to report offenses to the police. They often feel re-victimized by the process and feel that the courts excuse male sexual violence. The costs of this unresolved social problem are psychological, social and political.

Psychologically, sexual assault and abuse exact a severe toll on the well-being of many women and children. From a stolen childhood, to a restrictively limited adulthood, the pain and personal costs endured by so many for so long can not be calculated by any measure we have. The sum of human suffering has to be so large that, in cumulative total, it ranks side by side with the worst that history has to offer as examples of man's inhumanity to mankind. Not bound by time like many social disasters, we live with the erosion, drop by drop, barely noticing the ocean it feeds.

Socially, despite the last three decades of increased gender sensitivity, we have not yet succeeded in protecting women and children from male sexual violence. Sexual assault is common rather than rare, and it is usually committed by "normal" men with whom women and children interact in the course of their day-to-day affairs. Still remaining are the old issues of separating consensual from coercive sexuality in a clear and respectful way, of ensuring the safety and health of children, and of punishing male sexual violence while protecting the accused from convictions based on false accusations.

Politically, redefining "rape" from a sexual act to "sexual assault" as an act of violence, did not solve the problem. The inability of the law and courts to provide a fair and just recourse to this all too common event, perhaps affecting as many as one-half of adult women and one-quarter of all children by the time they have reached 16 years of age, has eroded the civic trust essential to the democratic process. It is an uncivilized condition in the midst of one of the most self-conscious efforts to achieve a just society.

Certainly, the growing public awareness of the widespread extent of sexual assault and abuse has led to some procedural reforms: Child witnesses are now much more carefully interviewed by child protection officers and the police to avoid contaminating their testimony and they are sometimes allowed to testify behind a screen or on video. Similarly, women no longer by law have to report the offense at the first opportunity and they have some limited protection against the introduction of information about their past sexual history.

But still, the problem of male sexual violence persists much now as before despite these recent efforts to find solutions. As a result of this growing awareness, there is now a much clearer public understanding of th extent of the social distress and it civic price. Hopefully, the increased recognition will allow us to make substantial progress in the near future.

If we are to do this, where is the "button?" What should be "pushed" to cause real cultural change? Obviously, many reforms are possible. Anything that reduces violence and enhances respectful individual relationships is useful. But small positive steps, such as more education around date rape, seem to be off-set by counter forces, such as more and more TV-violence, and teen sexuality pushed younger and younger. Where is the leverage to break the cycle?

While we cannot expect a change in the law to erase psychological and social distress, the law does set a standard, and we know that the current standard is not working. It is, after all, those cases which are brought to trial that define who, in fact, is considered a "legitimate victim," and what is in reality "justice." Only the women and children involved in sexual assault cases that lead to convictions in court are, by definition, seen by society as "legitimate victims." In reality, only a small fraction of all sexual assaults result in convictions and jail sentences despite the fact that the identity of the offender is seldom in question. These outcomes are the ultimate definitions of actual practices and of the need for reform.

Fortunately, it is through the identification of the short-comings found in any measure of helping that allows refinement and humanistic progress. Thus, the study of the ways sexually-assaulted women and children are additionally harmed when they seek legal redress can contribute to real change, allowing informed prescriptions to be written for the nature of the legal reforms which are required.

Of course, legal reforms alone will not eliminate the social problem of male sexual violence. Sexual violence is a complex problem with a long history that will also require changes in attitudes, values and culture before we see any dramatic changes in the incidence. Fundamental reform of legal practices, however, can set a new standard that does not contain the seeds to perpetuate the very problem the standard was intended to subdue, as is now the case. This is a "button" that can be pressed now to help initiate larger social change.

For adults, the legal doctrine has tended to confuse the defining conditions for adult sexuality with the criteria for excusing sexual violence. While this is beginning to change, as the harmful effects of historical myths and stereotypes become more widely recognized, the prosecution is still reluctant to charge, and sentences are more lenient, when there is a relationship between the victim and the perpetrator, and a lack of physical harm to the victim by an otherwise non-dangerous offender. However, these excusing conditions are also a description of the social contexts within which women and children interact with the men who sexually assault them. Women and children are usually sexually assaulted by men to whom they willingly expose themselves in the course of socially expected daily living. The civic price of being assaulted in the "usual" way is a reduction of legal protection.

With children, the standard set by adult sexuality is carried over to the child, and when children are on the witness stand they are all too often asked questions which exceed their developmental level. The child's inability to answer a question they do no understand is then taken as evidence that the testimony of children is unreliable. As a result, in cases of child sexual abuse, the court reverses what is actually developmentally true by holding children responsible for their sexuality but not for responsible testimony. In fact, children are not responsible for their sexuality, but can give responsible testimony when asked age appropriate questions.

How could it be that the legal process intended to protect women and children from male sexual violence actually contributes to the problem in these ways? As the articles in this volume show, the mechanisms are relatively few in number and quite specific. They result in the poor preparation of the witness, the use of inappropriate language in the courtroom, and in legal procedures that, although intended to serve justice, actually limit equality. All of these are correctable without the massive social and political effort required for legislative change. The required re-definitions are an interpretative process which will extend full and equal protection of the existing law to women and children.

The significance of this legal reform is that it flows from a re-definition of the issues without bringing about a conflict between the rights of the accused and the rights of the victim, as many past attempts at reforms have done. The re-definition of the source of the problem as within the legal doctrine itself, places the burden first on the courts to provide fundamental justice and equality, and second on the broader system to provide coordinated training on these issues for investigators, victim-witness workers, prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges.

The papers in this special issue of the journal document the progress which has been made over the past years, as well as the ongoing failings of the current system for both adults and children. These failures require further internal reforms of the legal system, including how adult sexual assault cases are handled by all elements of the system, and changes in the treatment of children to reflect a developmentally appropriate approach. The legal foundations for the required reform in terms of "fundamental justice" and "equity" principles are outlined. And finally, programs for civic social action to bring about the necessary reforms are described.

1. Research Professor, Carleton University, Ontario, CANADA

2. K. E. Renner, Evaluation Research, 14241 - 110th Terrace North, Largo, FL, 33774, (727) 595-3857,,

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