Unbelievable: dismantling the narrative of the ‘perfect victim’ within the criminal justice system

The ‘perfect victim’ in the criminal justice system is a virgin. She’s never had a drink. She doesn’t post on social media. She’s never sent an intimate message and she’s unmarked in the eyes of the law. She comes forward at the perfect time. There are always witnesses to corroborate her story. She shares just enough with the public to be empathised with, but not too much, or she’s hysterical. Most importantly, she doesn’t exist. She’s an ideal that sets every survivor up for failure, for judgement and to bear the burden of their own victimhood.

At the crux of the perfect victim is unconscious bias, a dangerous and sustained belief of what a victim must look like in order for society to deem them worthy of credibility and subsequently, believability. Our cultural ability to perceive a victim as being authentic in their claim, particularly of sexual violence, is incredibly narrow.

Five years after the #MeToo movement broke open these conversations, are we any closer to dismantling the need for a checklist of believability?

#MeToo created a tidal wave of reckoning, resulting in a sweeping movement to legislate affirmative consent in multiple jurisdictions, to introduce harsher penalties for image-based abuse and see an uptake in conversation around healthy relationships, sexual health, wellbeing and safety. The rise of powerful voices like Grace Tame, Brittany Higgins and Chanel Contos highlights a societal willingness to engage in conversation, and to make change proactively. When we see proactive change everywhere from the national curriculum to a federal election, we are prioritising not just reactive measures, but demonstrating a commitment to stopping an assault before it’s even occurred.

While societal values are shifting, the narrative of the ‘perfect victim’ is still perpetuated to a dangerous extent, extending to our ability to identify who the victim really is. Last month, the Commission of Inquiry into the Queensland police response to Domestic Violence heard evidence from Thelma Schwartz, Principal Legal Officer with the Queensland Indigenous Family Violence Legal Service.

Schwartz succinctly describes a relatively typical domestic abuse scenario: “There will be a woman there, she will otherwise be covered in blood, she might be holding an instrument…they will see a man sitting there very quiet and calm, they will go to him and speak with him. She will become probably irate. They will then treat her as the aggressor.”

In many circumstances where police attend to a domestic violence callout, women acting in self-defence will often be listed as a respondent on police protection notices, because when authorities arrived, the perpetrator often presents as the ‘ideal victim’.The commission of inquiry also heard evidence last month of a senior Queensland Police officer who informed their colleague that they had not investigated the suspicious death of a domestic violence victim as she and her partner were a “pair of scumbags who live in a shit area in a shit house.” These are the attitudes we are up against, and they are coming from powerful positions of law enforcement.

The idea of the perfect victim isn’t limited to credibility or believability, who you are in the eyes of the criminal justice system and by extension, society, can determine whether you will access justice in any capacity. While victimhood is judged on your socioeconomic status and privilege – justice is not blind, it actually does not exist at all.

While the police have the capacity to tangibly enforce narratives just like these, the media are the key drivers of the story in the public sphere. The content we consume across social platforms and media publications lacks nuance, and the takeaway message is often solely dependent on who is delivering the message.

Each time you read a tweet undermining Brittany Higgins. Whenever a family member undercuts the credibility of a survivor. With every remark about what someone had been drinking or what they’re wearing flows a tidal wave of bias that prevents others from speaking up. The desperation to meet this impossible benchmark re-affirms the power of a criminal justice system which is largely stacked against us.

While the burden of change should not be placed on women and minority groups, who are significantly more likely to be victims of a sexual or violent crime, we can choose to take on some responsibility in order to shift the conversation. The changes we are currently seeing are the result of millions of individual actions and conversations that are painful, but can empower the voices of others.

Our vulnerability can be transformative. Each time we have a conversation, each time we challenge the narrative and speak out is incredibly taxing, but communicates a vital message – that ‘the perfect victim’ ideal only serves to feed the perpetrator, to protect them.

We have a long way to go, but don’t forget to look at how far we’ve come. Every time we speak, every time we tell our story, the ‘perfect victim’ starts to look a little more like every one of us, in every circumstance.

Hannah Ferguson (she/her) is the Co-Founder and Chief Content Officer of Cheek Media Co.

Cheek Media Co. is an Australian digital media platform founded and run by three 20-something women who found a gap in the market for accessible, interesting, and entertaining journalism for young people. Cheek provides progressive news commentary and challenging opinions to people who want to make change in their communities and start hard, but necessary conversations.


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