Supreme Court rape myths violate women’s rights

By: Rebecka Koziomtzis and Bryan Dennis Gabito Tiojanco@inquirerdotnet

Philippine Daily Inquirer / 12:16 AM May 19, 2017

The Supreme Court should be ashamed of its recent rape decisions. Like sidewalk fortune-tellers who rely on playing cards to determine the future, the Court relies on debunked rape myths and false stereotypes to determine guilt. It has acquitted proven rapists as a result. This is not only tragic for rape victims, it also violates the Philippines’ human rights obligations under international law.

In a case decided in February, the victim testified that she fell asleep from dizziness while drinking alcohol with the accused and another friend. She was roused from sleep when the other friend started having sex with her. She was afraid that a knife atop a nearby table “would be used to kill her if she resisted,” so she cried. She was still dizzy, frightened, and shivering when the friend left and the accused approached her to ask if he could also have sex with her. She did not answer as she was still shivering, but the accused nevertheless raped her.

Both the trial court and the Court of Appeals found the victim’s testimony “credible, natural, convincing and consistent with human nature and the normal course of things,” and so held the accused guilty. But the Supreme Court acquitted the accused. It held that the victim gave the accused “the impression thru her unexplainable silence of her tacit consent” because “she did not, and chose not to utter a word or make any sign of rejection.”

The Court repeated this reasoning last month, when it acquitted an accused rapist because there was no evidence that the victim “resisted in that whole time,” and held that “[w]hat she did not do was eloquent proof of her consent.” This reasoning follows the common misconception that victims instinctively scream and physically resist their rapists. That is simply untrue. Victims rarely react to rape this way. In fact, psychological studies consistently show that the brain’s usual response to a violent or threatening situation is to paralyze the body—a state called “frozen fright.” Physical resistance is consequently often beyond the conscious control of rape victims. The Court’s reasoning thus conditions justice on a requirement that defies human nature. To expect victims to scream and physically resist their rapists is to expect them to override the brain’s inherent survival mechanism. To find consent in the victim’s nonresistance is therefore outrageous.

An international human rights body has in fact castigated the Philippines for adhering to this rape myth. Ten years ago, a Filipino woman went to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to claim that the Philippines violated her right to nondiscrimination when her rapist was acquitted based on several rape myths, including the myth that rape victims naturally resist their rapists. The Committee agreed with her, stating in 2010 that “to expect [the victim] to have resisted in the situation at stake reinforces in a particular manner the myth that women must physically resist the sexual assault. In this regard, the Committee stresses that there should be no assumption in law or in practice that a woman gives her consent because she has not physically resisted the unwanted sexual conduct.” The Committee concluded that the Philippines failed to comply with its obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and recommended that the Philippines compensate the woman and “[e]nsure that all legal procedures in cases involving crimes of rape and other sexual offences are impartial and fair, and not affected by prejudices or stereotypical gender notions.”

Seven years after these recommendations, prejudices and false gender stereotypes still grip our courts. And the Supreme Court still follows the same debunked myth that rape victims instinctively resist rapists. Meanwhile, police records show that one woman or child is raped in the Philippines every hour. To help deliver justice to these victims, the Court must recognize the reality of rape and stop anchoring its decisions on rape myths.

Rebecka Koziomtzis is a PhD candidate at the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law. Her dissertation is on rape and international law. Bryan Dennis Gabito Tiojanco is a JSD candidate at Yale Law School. He graduated cum laude from the University of the Philippines College of Law.