To Catch a Sex Thief: The Burden of Performance in Rape and Sexual Assault Trials

48 Pages Posted: 12 Apr 2005


Despite decades of efforts to reform American rape law, prosecution and conviction rates remain low compared to similar crimes. While activists led legislatures to adopt important statutory changes for rape and sexual assault, only modest effects in the levels of sexual violence have been observed. Nonetheless, reform-minded scholars continue to focus on statutory and rule tinkering as a means to quell rape.

This article argues against the commonly held belief that the crucial factors in determining the outcome of rape trials are substantive and procedural in nature. Rather, the issues of performance, representation, and language often pre-determine the outcomes of rape trials. When a complainant testifies on the stand, she is forced into one of several roles by jury attitudes and defense narratives. These roles fit defense scripts and create a heavy burden of performance on the accusers.

This burden of performance operates to put a complainant's gender identity on trial and results in the incorporation of dangerous societal myths into the fact-finding process. The way by which this process works is analogous to that of disaster pornography. Academics have observed that compassion fatigue has resulted because of overexposure to disaster imagery. Similarly, as society has become saturated with rape narratives, it has become desensitized and dissociated from complainants' stories of rape. Because of this phenomenon, there needs to be a fundamental rethinking concerning rape law reform. Otherwise, success in the fight against rape will be as rare as it has been for the last thirty years.

Keywords: rape, sexual assault, performance, burden of proof, rhetoric, gender

Suggested Citation

Yung, Corey Rayburn, To Catch a Sex Thief: The Burden of Performance in Rape and Sexual Assault Trials. Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, Vol. 15, p. 436, 2006, Available at SSRN: or

Corey Rayburn Yung (Contact Author)

University of Kansas School of Law ( email )

Green Hall
1535 W. 15th Street
Lawrence, KS 66045-7577
United States

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