Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999

Ruling Passions: Sexual Violence, Reputation and the Law

Sue Lees
Open University Press: Buckingham
0335196136 (pb); 0335196144 (hb)
12.99 (pb); 40.00 (hb)
vii + 214 pp.

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This book is a collection of nine essays bringing together Lees' research on girls and sexuality, male and female rape, and domestic murder. The overarching theme is the relationship between sexual and physical violence and gendered identities. Throughout Lees explores the manner in which hegemonic masculinities are shored up by and within the web of violence (mostly) heterosexual men abuse and violate women and men.

The first chapter reminds readers where Lees began her exploration of the intersection of sexual reputation and gender. Girls' worlds expose the tensions the duality of 'whore/madonna' poses for the lived realities of everyday life. Balancing reputation in an age of sexual exploration and experimentation is a difficult task indeed. Such a study of the thin line between being labelled a 'slag' or a 'drag' demonstrates the power of gendered (hetero)sexualities for girls.

Lees carries this theme into the courts when she examines how women (and girls) who take the stands in criminal trials as victims are subjected to inquisitions concerning their 'true' sexual reputation. Such a reputation is impugned, founded upon the assessments drawn from past sexual experiences and aspersions cast from situational guesswork. For women, and men, who allege rape and get as far as giving testimony in a criminal trial (and this is a very small proportion of all who report such crimes to the police), the task is to withstand the cross examination aimed explicitly to undermine their credibility in testimony about abusive sexuality. The key question in a rape trial is the separation between consensual sexuality and non-consensual sexuality. It seems from Lees (and other researchers) work, this separation is not only difficult, it favours the assessment of consensual sex on too many occasions. The conviction rate for rape in England and Wales has fallen over the past fifteen years. So much for the illusion that feminist challenges to sexual violence have filtered into the minds and hearts of the judiciary.

Lees' third theme of the book is the manner in which men who kill their partners, girlfriends and former partners are considered 'passionate', unthinking killers by the courts. Lees suggests that the discourses used by judges in considering the lethal actions of men legitimise many patriarchal truisms. That women are considered to be 'naggers, whores, and libbers' is used as justification to minimise the harm (and legitimate the punishment of) women's killers. Quite clearly, the killing scenario of a man killing a former or current sexual partner is a common one in the homicide statistics of England and Wales. Lees' analysis is based on exploring 14 of such cases.

Overall, Lees work sets out a menu for exploration of the manner in which gender intersects with assessments of victim credibility. It demonstrates the importance of thinking about femininities as well as masculinities. Those who read this work should be prepared to take it further into a more detailed empirical assessment of organisational decision-making.

Elizabeth A. Stanko
Brunel University

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999