Judges play a critical role in one of the most important stages of a criminal case’s adjudication—sentencing. While there have been substantial limitations placed on the discretion judges can exercise in devising punishments, there are little to none on what judges say at such hearings when articulating their rationales for the sentences they impose on convicted defendants. This Article examines the language judges use when sentencing defendants convicted of rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse that describes victims of those crimes and the harms they have sustained, especially language that describes victims as “ruined,” “broken,” or “destroyed.” The use of such language, while apparently meant to be empathetic, only serves to uphold misogynistic understandings of rape and sexual assault and actively harms victims. Judges trying to justify harsh sentences for defendants convicted of sex crimes also engage in shaming and exploitation of victims when saying that defendants have left victims “ruined” at sentencing.
In this Article, I use traditional scholarly methods of reviewing and analyzing cases and legal doctrine to show why the use of such language is harmful to victims and flouts the purposes of criminal punishment. However, I also engage in autoethnographic methods, relying on my own experiences of rape and sexual assault, as well as prosecuting such cases. This Article considers how other fields such as medicine and public health have approached destigmatizing other historically stigmatized conditions such as substance use and mental illness, arguing that judges should take similar steps to destigmatize being a victim of rape and sexual assault by more carefully considering their language use at sentencing. I conclude by reflecting on the use of personal narrative in legal scholarship and in the classroom and argue that it can be a powerful tool that scholars should more openly embrace.
Continue Reading “Ruined.”Romero, Ruined