On SAGE Insight: Intersectionality and Credibility in Child Sexual Assault Trials

From Gender & Society

For this study, the authors draw data from sexual assault jury trials involving child victim-witnesses, a group rarely studied within the ethnographic context of the courtroom. The study explores the ways defense attorneys use commonly held beliefs to suggest the “other matters bearing upon credibility” across three common themes: invisible wounds; rebellious adolescents; and dysfunctional families. This analysis demonstrates that these themes are deeply gendered and embedded in highly racialized and aged contexts, often with reference to class. Reconsidering approaches to adjudicating child sexual assault, and challenging the cultural narratives on which the court depends, are essential steps in dismantling the epistemic violence of testimonial injustice, particularly as it relates to children’s intersectional experiences.

 

Abstract

Children remain largely absent from sociolegal scholarship on sexual violence. Taking an intersectional approach to the analysis of attorneys’ strategies during child sexual assault trials, this article argues that legal narratives draw on existing gender, racial, and age stereotypes to present legally compelling evidence of credibility. This work builds on Crenshaw’s focus on women of color, emphasizing the role of structures of power and inequality in constituting the conditions of children’s experiences of adjudication. Using ethnographic observations of courtroom jury trials, transcripts, and court records, three narrative themes of child credibility emerged: invisible wounds, rebellious adolescents, and dysfunctional families. Findings show how attorneys use these themes to emphasize the child’s unmarked body, imperceptible emotional responses, rebellious character, and harmful familial environments. The current study fills a gap in sexual assault research by moving beyond trial outcomes to address cultural narratives within the court that are inextricably embedded in intersectional dimensions of power and the reproduction of social status.

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Article details
Intersectionality and Credibility in Child Sexual Assault Trials
Amber Joy PowellHeather R. HlavkaSameena Mulla
First Published June 26, 2017
DOI: 10.1177/0891243217716116
From Gender & Society

 

     
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