Unpacking The Victim Blaming Defence In The Latest SMU Sexual Assault Case

By Alexis Wong

And yet another university sexual assault case. The script seems to repeat itself with changes in some variables—the assailant is a different guy, and NUS has been swapped out for SMU.

2020 alone has seen an alarming litany of campus sexual assault cases. But this one deserves special attention because of his lawyers’ defence—one which may influence how we talk about sexual violence.

Lee Yan Ru’s lawyer will have us believe that he is not guilty for two primary reasons. The first is alleged inconsistencies between the victim’s accounts in court and elsewhere. Second and more damning, he claims that she willingly engaged in “playful banter” with Lee, which he implies rendered her somehow deserving of the following assault. He argued that Lee’s innocence will rest on his ability to prove both those things.

But he’s missing the point entirely. Whether or not either of those things are true does not matter. Both are distractions from the crux of the case, and even if true, neither will make him less guilty.

Let’s address the first charge of inconsistency. In her cross-examination, Lee’s lawyer sought to poke holes in the victim’s account of their interactions, grilling her over minute details about things that had happened before the assault. We should not be interested in whether or not her account in court was consistent with her account elsewhere. We should be even less interested in demanding an explanation for that inconsistency if it is true.

Trauma is private and personal, and is processed by all differently. We have different ways of shielding ourselves from harsh and unsolicited judgment. Most of us don’t do it with the simultaneous burden of having to prove that an act of sexual violence committed against us is wrong.

Image credit: IAFOR

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated or unique instance of victim-blaming. Know My Name, Chanel Miller’s powerful account of being a survivor of sexual violence sheds light on the fraught experience victims often have negotiating the legal system. Although she writes about her experience with the American legal system, a lot of her observations are also reflected in Singapore.

Particularly, she notes that cross-examinations are designed to confuse, shame, obfuscate, and twist the littlest details for the purpose of exonerating assailants either on the slightest technicalities or through brutal discrediting of the victim. In court, victims are forced to relive their trauma, an engagement that is often undertaken in bad faith. That is what Lee’s lawyer does when he interrogates her choices—both about her supposed conduct prior to the assault and demanding why she did not retaliate to the assault when she could have “easily” done so.

We don’t even have to look as far as Chanel Miller to see the prevalence of victim-blaming—the same logic is also present in the acquittal of the man accused of molesting an air stewardess on an SIA flight, on the basis that the judge found it “entirely unbelievable” that the woman had not drawn more attention to the incident when it occurred.

Ms Shailey Hingorani, Head of Research and Advocacy at the Association of Women’s Action and Research (AWARE) confirmed that this vein of argument is all too common in cases of sexual assault. Victim-blaming as legal defense might come in various iterations, with common forms being questions like “Why did you go out with him in the first place?”, “Why did you send him that photo”, “Shouldn’t you have known that he wanted sex?”.

However, she stressed victim-blaming is not an acceptable line of defence, because contrary to what is implied, none of the questions above provide license to be assaulted.

She also cautions us on the implications of allowing victim-blaming to feature in due process, noting that many survivors of sexual violence are deterred from pursuing justice by how emotionally and psychologically gruelling they anticipate the reporting and legal processes to be. News reports of complainants being interrogated about their own behaviour, appearances, and sexual history can put off many survivors who are on the fence about coming forward.

In previous cases, a perpetrator's 'potential' has also often been used as a defence.

At AWARE’s own Sexual Assault Care Centre, 7 in 10 victims of sexual violence choose not to report their experiences to the police for fear of not being believed, or having insufficient evidence.

At this juncture, it is also important to reiterate that the victim’s character is not on trial here. What is, is whether Lee committed an act of sexual violence against her without her consent.

He has admitted to this, by the way. By Lee’s lawyer’s own admission, he groped her while she was asleep and thus unable to provide consent. He also did not stop immediately when she awoke and asked him to. It is for this reason that although Lee’s lawyer spends a great deal of time trying to prove that she willingly flirted with him before the assault, it is also irrelevant. True or not, it does not matter.

Women are allowed to flirt without owing men sex afterwards. Women are allowed to enjoy casual physical intimacy with men, without owing them anything more than that if they are not comfortable. People are allowed to change their minds about how comfortable they are with sexual contact at any point of an interaction. The onus is on their partners to respect that.

Lee should have respected that. There is nothing inherently immoral about enjoying consensual physical intimacy. Whether or not she rejected his advances prior to the assault will not make him any less guilty.


The “boys will be boys” rhetoric in Lee’s lawyer’s defence perpetuates the tired myth that the onus is on women to regulate their behaviour such that they protect themselves from being violated. Sexual assault is therefore framed as a failure of women to adequately do so. This reasoning implies an inevitability of assault that has justified courses of action we should no longer tolerate.

Boys/men are not animals. They are people who live in a society with laws. Committing acts of sexual violence is not a biological instinct; it is a cognitive action within their control. If they fail to control it, they should be held accountable. Displacing the responsibility of preventing sexual assault onto victims does not address the issue or eradicate the source of violence.

This line of defence is problematic not only because it is designed to distract, but also because it perpetuates the larger cultural myth that there are victims who are to blame for the violence committed against them. That is never true. Over and over again it has been proven that sexual assault is not contingent on what victims were wearing or not wearing, did or did not to, said or did not say, but on whether someone else assumed they were entitled to women’s bodies.

Sexual assault is never the fault of the victim, and we need to unlearn the myth of the perfect victim—that only those with whom no one can fault are deserving of sympathy.

Even as we begin to better understand how victims respond when being assaulted, our culture of victim blaming persists.

While writing this, I am reminded of this Jia Tolentino essay about the insidiousness of the processes of justifying sexual violence which opens with this quote:

“If you have ever experienced sexual assault or harassment, you know that one of the cruellest things about these acts is the way that they entangle, and attempt to contaminate, all of the best things about you. If you’re sweet and friendly, you’ll think that it’s your fault for accommodating the situation. If you’re tough, well, you might as well decide it’s no big deal. If you’re a gentle person, then he knew you were weak. If you’re talented, he thought of you as an equal. If you’re ambitious, you wanted it. If you’re savvy, you knew it was coming. If you’re affectionate, you seemed like you were asking for it all along. If you make dirty jokes or have a good time at parties, then why get moralistic? If you’re smart, there’s got to be some way to rationalise this.”

Here she captures incisively the hopelessness of blaming victims for violence done unto them. There will always be speculation that they could have done things differently to produce a different outcome. There will always be speculation that had you been in the same situation, you would have protected yourself better.

But this is a pointless exercise in muddying responsibility, and its only function is to obscure the sole person with whom fault lies—the assailant.

We should not be taught that assault will likely happen, and it is the job of women to prevent it. When we discuss sexual assault, we should move away from focusing on teaching women to regulate their behaviour to protect themselves; the goalpost for acceptable behaviour has always shifted and will continue to shift.

Yes, learning to protect yourself is important. But a perceived failure to do so should never be weaponised against victims. It does not make them equally culpable as their assailants, or in fact culpable at all. We need to teach men to behave better, and to become the type of people that women don’t constantly need to seek protection from.

This article was first published over at RICE on 26 September 2020. It is reproduced with permission from its associate editor Julian Wong.


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