The Banalization of Torture

Stream: Looking Ahead to Beijing+30: what is challenging our understanding of gendered violence and what should be the research imperatives in the coming decade?
Date: Thursday, 12 February 2015
Time: 4.00 pm – 5.30 pm


Male violence against women is hidden in plain sight in our culture, our governance, our legal system and our social welfare programs. It is so much part of the air that we breathe that we often cannot even name it, let alone devise and pursue effective policy and legislative responses. My research using transcripts from the murder trials of battered women who killed abusive male partners exposed me to the normalization of marital rape recast as “unwanted sex,” near fatal strangulation as “common assault” and wife torture as “unhappy marriage”. Violence against Indigenous women is treated so casually that those who have fought their abusers for their very lives are not recognized as “real battered women.” This research also exposed me, like countless others, to online misogynistic attack and threat-- understood not as hate crime but “cyberbullying” at best. Banalization of male violence is maintained by the silencing and distorting strategies of men’s rights activists and the complicity of our government’s neo-liberal agenda. Canadian activists are challenging normalization by renaming these crimes both domestically and internationally. They have used international fora to put the missing and murdered Indigenous women on the national agenda and to advocate for criminalization of non-state torture. Another campaign aims to include misogynistic crimes against women within the legal and political understanding of “hate crime.” New labels are needed to open up and sustain the public conversation about male violence against women, to redress discriminatory deployment of concepts like “torture” and “hate crime,” to allow us to identify from women’s words and lives the research needed to generate responses beyond criminal models, and to give us a footing to demand that governments invest in women’s security and their corresponding needs for recovery.


Elizabeth Sheehy (Presenter), Vice-Dean Research, Professor, and Shirley Greenberg Chair for Women and the Legal Profession, Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa
Elizabeth Sheehy, LL.B., LL.M., LL.D. (Honoris causa), FRSC, is Vice-Dean Research and Shirley Greenberg Chair for Women and the Legal Profession at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law. She teaches Criminal Law and Procedure, Sexual Assault Law, and Defending Battered Women on Trial. She was co-counsel for the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) in its intervention in R v JA (“advance consent” to sexual assault) (2011 SCC 28) and has participated in the legal work for many ground-breaking cases including the Jane Doe litigation (ONCJ 1998) and the legal intervention by Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter in Mooney v AG of BC (BCCA 2004). Professor Sheehy sits on the University’s Task Force on Respect and Equality (“Rape Culture”) and the Advisory Board for Informed Opinions (a national organization dedicated to including women’s expert voices in Canadian public discourse). She contributes regularly to print and radio media analyses and publishes op eds on legal responses to male violence against women. Her research record includes her most recent books: the edited collection Sexual Assault in Canada: Law, Legal Practice and Women’s Activism (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2012) and Defending Battered Women on Trial: Lessons from the Transcripts (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014).