Sexualizing Victims And Offenders

Rick Garnett blogged yesterday about a recent Eighth Circuit opinion in a sex abuse case. The appellate court reversed a trial court’s decision to close the courtroom during testimony of children allegedly abused by the defendant. A particularly interesting part of Judge Arnold’s short Sixth Amendment decision said:

The government implies in its brief that requiring children to testify in publicin this kind of case could only expose them to voyeuristic or prurient interests.

What did the government mean, exactly? Did it think that the defendant would get sexually excited during trial? Would pedophiles flock to the courthouse to witness the testimony?

I imagine that the government was suggesting that having a child testify about sex has the effect of sexualizing the child. Everyone watching this testimony, intentionally or not, would begin to see the child as a sex object. The government is probably right. Amy Adler has written a compelling piece arguing (in line with Judith Butler) that the criminalization of child pornography transforms images that would not otherwise be seen as sexual into sexual events. She suggests that, once we know child underwear ads might be pornographic, we’ll always look at these ads and ask: “is this this is a sexual image?” And of course once we ask that question, we’ve answered it.

In effect, the mere act of going to trial in a any sex crime case sexualizes the victim. We see that victim in his or her role as sexual object because that is how he or she is presented to us. If the right to a public trial is to have real meaning, Judge Arnold must be right that this phenomenon is no basis for closing a public trial.

This brings to mind an interesting post over at The Smoking Gun. TSG posted a series of mugshots under the heading “Foxy Felons.” One such canid, Casey Hicks, has threatened to sue TSG unless it removes her photo. It seems that she believes – based on blog commentary, no less – that TSG readers are using her photo for their own “private sexual gratification.” Perhaps Alabama, which is ever mindful of the dangers of sexual gratification, will add mugshots to its existing ban on sexual stimuli.

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