Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Gender, "deception" and the law, pt. 1

Last week, a Colorado jury sentenced Allen Andrade to life in prison for the brutal murder of 18-year-old Angie Zapata. The jury rejected Andrade's attempt to mitigate his crime by arguing he was provoked into a crime of passion following the discovery that Zapata, with whom he'd had a sexual encounter, was a transgender woman. Queer and transgender blogs covered the story of the trial quite thoroughly (I've mentioned it previously too), and I won't recount all that here. Suffice to say that whatever my usual qualms about our criminal justice system, the Zapata verdict was reassuring in its rejection of the desperate but nonetheless vile victim-blaming defense strategy. Still, a number of commentators have predictably placed the blame on Zapata for her own gruesome death by condemning her supposed "deception" about her gender history. (The local paper covering the trial even ran the headline "Andrade: Stunned Victim or homophobe?") Some have gone so far as to suggest that such "deception" of a sexual partner could constitute criminal sexual assault.

The suggestion that transgender people who fail to disclose their gender history to sexual partners are themselves perpetrators of sexual violence owes more to horror of transgender people themselves, and of perceived "homosexual" acts, than to legal interpretation. Yes, many rape and sexual assault statutes state that deception vitiates consent. But the inherently malleable concept of deception has rightly been narrowly interpreted by courts. In this and a subsequent post I hope to sketch out some of the how and why of that interpretation, and why extending it to situations like the Zapata case would be legally untenable and morally unacceptable.

American and British courts have interpreted the concept of deception in rape and sexual assault statutes narrowly, to account for a few obvious situations in which the defendant's conduct obviously vitiates consent and fits within, or closely resembles, the common law concept of battery. See, e.g., David P. Bryden, Redefining Rape,
3 Buffalo Crim. L. Rev. 317, 457-75 (2000). This is a sensible approach, given how malleable and potentially limitless the concept of deception is.

Nature of the act. Courts have regularly said that fraud concerning the "nature of the act" vitiates consent, but by that they mean something very specific: the defendant causes the victim to believe that an otherwise unwanted sexual contact is something else entirely. The classic examples are medical professionals purporting to conduct a clinical examination or deliver a medical treatment.

Mistaken identity. Courts have also recognized identity fraud as vitiating consent, and this also means something very specific: the defendant causes the victim to believe that the defendant is actually some other person altogether. The classic example is the defendant posing as a person's spouse.

Infection, fertility and common-law battery.
Several states now criminalize exposure of unwitting sexual partners to a sexually transmitted disease, but this is not classified as a species of rape. Rather, it is considered akin to common-law battery; liability is based not on whether the sexual partner would have consented given certain information, but rather on the potential physical injury. One could also imagine liability for lying about having had a vasectomy, but in this scenario, too, liability would be based not on the notion that consent to sex was vitiated as such, but that the victim would probably have insisted on using contraception. It was not the sex that was unwanted, but the consequences. These statutes are controversial, of course, both as a matter of justice and of public health.

In a follow-up post I intend to sketch the debate over extending the deception concept to other scenarios, and argue that doing so is unwise; and to discuss briefly the handful of cases in which transgender people have been prosecuted for "deception" of sexual partners.


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