Peter A Allard School of Law

The Sexual Assault of Women and Girls with Mental Disabilities: the Perils of Infantilization

Event Description

It is well documented in the research literature that women and girls with mental disabilities are targeted for sexual violence at rates at least 2 to 3 times higher than other women. Yet there is nothing about these women that makes them inherently more rapeable. Rather, it is because perpetrators know that complainants are less likely to be believed when they do come forward, and because our criminal justice system creates barriers to access to justice for that small percentage of cases that get to trial. The criminal justice system is designed entirely around the able-bodied and intellectually able complainant with an intact memory who is able to withstand the pressures of what is often a brutal cross-examination. When the legal system does recognize the existence of disability, it does so by treating these complainants as being somehow “like children”. The testimonial accommodations for this group of witnesses, for example, were simply copied from those available to children without any analysis of whether these accommodations would serve their needs.

Professors Benedet and Grant have published extensively on sexual assault against women and girls with disabilities and have demonstrated how the infantilization of these women has contributed to barriers to access to justice. They returned to this area to complete a Knowledge Synthesis Report for SSHRC in the spring of 2023. In this presentation, they examine three (of many) areas where barriers to access to justice are significant for these women. First, they examine the disregard for the privacy rights of these complainants in the sexual history context. Second, experts are allowed to testify about every aspect of the complainant’s life even though this would never be allowed for other witnesses. Third, infantilization affects the assessment of capacity and consent. 

Please contact Michelle Burchill if you would like the Zoom link. The link will be emailed no earlier than 11:45 am on the day of the lecture.

This lecture is co-sponsored by the Centre for Feminist Legal Studies at Allard School of Law. 


Janine Benedet

Janine Benedet joined the law school faculty in 2005 and served as Dean pro tem. Her first stop after her L.L.B. graduation from UBC was a clerkship with fellow UBC alumnus Justice Frank Iacobucci at the Supreme Court of Canada. That was followed by graduate studies – leading to both an LL.M. and an S.J.D. – at the University of Michigan, where she also taught as a Visiting Faculty Fellow. She practiced labour law in Toronto from 1997 to 1999, and was a member of faculty at Osgoode Hall Law School from 1999-2005. She is a member of the British Columbia bar and engages in pro bono litigation in sexual violence cases.

Isabel Grant

Isabel Grant's main research interests lie in the areas of criminal law. She is particularly interested in the law and policy issues surrounding violence against women, sexual assault, homicide, and HIV non- disclosure. She is currently working on two SSHRC-funded projects: one on sexual assault across the lifespan and one examining sentencing for the crime of murder. She teaches in the areas of criminal law, homicide, sentencing and mental health law. She has also worked with advocacy groups representing women and people with disabilities on more than 20 interventions in the Supreme Court of Canada and other appellate courts. Professor Grant is currently the Associate Dean, Academic Affairs at the Allard School of Law.

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