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Jeanne Zaino Headshot

Judge's Light Sentence for Convicted Rapist Sparks Outrage for the Legal Community

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Accusations of slut-shaming against members of the legal profession are nothing new. In 2012, for instance, defense attorney Steve Taylor was widely denounced for telling a jury that "like the spider and the fly. Wasn't [the victim] saying, 'Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly?" The victim in this gang rape trial was just 11-years-old at the time of the assault.

But recently accusations of slut-shaming have been made against a judge and attorneys in two very different and very public cases.

The first involves the judge in a rape case in Texas. In that instance the accused, Sir Young, admitted in court that he raped a 14-year-old girl at her school. While he could have gotten 20 years in jail, Judge Jeanine Howard gave him just 45 days and probation. Her explanation for the light sentence sparked outrage. As Howard told The Dallas Morning News the young girl not only had three sexual partners prior to the assault, but she had given birth and "wasn't the victim she claimed to be."

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The second case involves lawyers hired by NJ Governor Chris Christie's office to investigate the "Bridge-Gate" affair. After releasing their findings, attorneys for the firm Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher were publicly accused of "slut-shaming" because the report contained personal information about the sexual relationship and emotional state of a key woman in the case, Bridget Anne Kelly.

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Speaking on The Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC reporter Andrea Bernstein noted that people close to Kelly felt "that she is being slut-shamed... she is being discredited because of her relationships and her behavior." Similarly, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow said, "What they've printed throughout the report is gossip about what they heard about their relationship... this is called slut-shaming." And both The Daily Beast and Raw Story led with stories referencing the "slut-shaming" of Bridget Kelly.

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The fact that these charges are being made against members of the legal profession in two very different and very public cases raises a question: What is "slut-shaming" as it pertains to the law? When, if ever, is it okay for a lawyer or judge to discuss a victim's actual or perceived sexual behavior? Is it justified when it is done to defend the accused? When do you cross the line from good defense work to shaming?

As common as charges of slut-shaming have become, few in the legal profession have stopped to address them. In the academic journal American Speech, linguist Ben Zimmer defines slut-shaming (or what is sometimes known as "slut-bashing") as "publicly deriding women who engage in sexual activity the speaker considers taboo, usually to modify behavior by inducing guilt or to assign blame." But as useful as this is as a general definition, it does little to address the ethical issues surrounding when, if ever, it is acceptable to address a person's sexual activity, behavior, past, relationships, etc... in the context of the law? When is it ethical for a lawyer or a judge?

Few have come out in defense of Judge Howard, but some have voiced support for Christie's attorneys. They have questioned whether the inclusion of details regarding Kelly's personal life really amounts to slut-shaming? After all, if the details of Kelly's personal life help support the Governor's version of events, don't his lawyers have an obligation to include them? Moreover, in this case, she wasn't accused of engaging in sexually taboo behavior, merely of having a relationship with a consenting adult.

The points are well taken. And while I don't agree with the conclusion, the fact is the line between what is acceptable and what is not as it pertains to shaming in the legal arena is murky at best. In the interest of not just those in the legal profession, but more importantly victims and the accused, it is time we get some clarity on these issues.