Professor Sharon Cowan completed an LLB (Hons) from Strathclyde University, and an MPhil in Criminology from the University of Cambridge. She undertook two years as a researcher at the London School of Economics before going on to complete a PhD at Brunel University, London. Sharon was a lecturer at the University of Warwick for three years prior to her arrival at Edinburgh. She joined the University of Edinburgh in 2004.
Ph.D. supervision interests
I would be happy to supervise projects in the following areas: gender, law and sexuality, including transgender legal issues, and queer legal theory; criminal law, particularly projects on sex work, sexual offences, domestic violence and criminalisation theories; medical law and ethics, particularly reproductive issues; and asylum and refugee law.
Her research interests include: Gender, Sexuality and the Law; Feminist Legal Theory; Criminal Law; Criminal Justice; Asylum studies. Recent and current projects include a national empirical project, along with Helen Baillot of the Scottish Refugee Council, and Vanessa Munro of the University of Nottingham, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, looking at the the way in which women asylum claimaints whose applications are based on a claim of rape, are treated by the Asylum and Immigration Appeal Tribunal. Sharon is presently working on a comparative socio-legal project looking at the impact of law on transgender people. Along with Dr Chloe Kennedy (Edinburgh) and Professor Munro (Warwick), she is a co-editor of the new Scottish Feminist Judgments Project @ScottishFemJP.
Professor Cowan is currently the School of Law's Director of Research and Knowledge Exchange. She has also previously served as the Senior Tutor and Director of the Centre for Law and Society.
Contemporary Issues in Medical Jurisprudence (LLM)
Global Crime and Insecurity (MSc)
Sexual Offending and the Law (LLM)
Casey Lynn Bevens 'A Cross-Cultural Examination of Men: The Relationship Between Viewing Objectifying Media and Attitudes Towards Rape Victims Attempts'
Chiara Cooper 'Explore the way in which both survivors of sexual violence and participants in 'lad culture' at UK universities understand the relationship between the two'
Rebecca Hewer 'The conceptualisation of prostitution as a form of violence against women'
Mei-Ling McNamara 'The Liminal and the Invisible: Trauma and the Human Trafficking Survivor in the UK'
P. Trent Olsen 'The inclusive guise of gay asylum: a socio-legal analysis of sexual minority asylum recognition in the United Kingdom'
Zoe Picton-Howell 'What Does the Law Bring to Difficult Medical Decision Making on Behalf of Children with Complex Health Problems and Disability?'
Emily Postan 'Defining Ourselves: self-construction and the governance of personal biological information'
Andre Prado Fernandes 'MARICAS SUDACAS1 AND THE PROMISE OF HUMAN RIGHTS: can we not want them?'
Books and Reports
Helen Baillot, Sharon Cowan, Vanessa Munro, Research Briefing: Rape Narratives and Credibility Assessment (of Female Claimants) at the AIT, (The Nuffield Foundation, 2012)
Abstract: Although exact figures are elusive, a significant proportion of women seeking asylum in the UK will have experienced, or will claim to have experienced, rape in their country of origin (Ceneda 2003). For many women, this will form a key part of the narrative as to why they fled. In addition, although it will not be a determining factor in all asylum applications, a woman’s claim of rape may be relevant to a range of crucial considerations, including the seriousness of past harm suffered and thus the future risk and prospects for safe return ‘home’.Despite this, to date, both the ways in which such alleged experiences of rape are disclosed by asylum-seekers, and the ways in which such disclosures are then responded to and evaluated by UK decision-makers have received little attention.
Sharon Cowan, A. C. Hunt, Mason's Forensic Medicine for Lawyers, (Tottel Publishing, 2008)
Abstract: Mason's Forensic Medicine for Lawyers, 5th edition comprehensively covers all aspects of the relationship between forensic medicine and law. Providing you with detailed medico-legal knowledge, this book will enable you to authoritatively evaluate and question expert medical and forensic scientific witnesses.This new fifth edition details the medical and legal considerations that must be faced by forensic pathologists, from the point of reporting a death to investigating and diagnosing the cause of death. It examines forensic issues relating to non-lethal violence, mental health and public health, and also gives consideration to general issues relating to medical ethics, negligence, and the regulation of the medical profession.All relevant legislation and case law coveredEvery chapter has been revised and updated to cover the numerous legislative changes and case law developments since the last edition, including:Human Rights Act 1998Sexual Offences Act 2003Human Tissue Act 2004 and Human Tissue (Scotland) Act 2006, and their impact upon the system of disposing of bodies, and on transplantation of organsGender Recognition Act 2004Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Act 2001, Mental Health (Care and Treatment) (Scotland) Act 2003 and Mental Capacity Act 2005, Mental Health Act 2007The cases of Sally Clarke and Angela Cannings, which prompted a rethink of aspects of child deathsThe impact of the Shipman InquiryNew proposals relating to the reporting of death and the coroners system more generallyImportant new contentAdditional new material covers:The criminal law's regulation of bodily harm occurring through the transmission of HIVThe law of evidence, particularly relating to the retention of DNA samplesDrug misuseAssisted reproduction, protection of children and family lawThe problems of death in infancyRadiology - modern imaging techniques and their applicationAsphyxia, with an emphasis on the difficulties involved in diagnosis and mechanisms of deathControversial aspects of deaths occurring during restraintAn essential addition to your bookshelfBy consulting this book, lawyers in both civil and criminal cases will be in a position not only to understand medical and forensic science witnesses, but also to evaluate and question their evidence from a position of strength. Expert witnesses consulting it will be able to appreciate the legal implication of their findings and opinions.
Sharon Cowan, Rosemary Hunter, Choice and Consent: Feminist Engagements with Law and Subjectivity, (Routledge-Cavendish, 2007)
Abstract: This volume presents new thinking and new directions in feminist legal scholarship. Rethinking key concepts in legal feminism, Cowan and Hunter provide a unique examination of key socio-legal concepts in law, jurisprudence and legal and political theory. Written by an international cast of contributors, offering different cultural perspectives as well as doctrinal and theoretical knowledge, this collection of essays presents a dialogue between different feminist positions and approaches to a common theme. It addresses a range of questions, including: Can 'consent' be rethought and infused with different meanings in a post-liberal feminist politics? And, Can the concepts of 'choice' and 'consent' have consistent meanings and functions between different areas of law, or whether they prove to be highly contingent when viewed across the broad field of law? Exploring the deeply gendered concepts of 'choice' and 'consent' and examining the philosophical and jurisprudential issues surrounding them as well as how 'choice' and 'consent' operate in particular areas of law, including criminal law, medical law, constitutional law, employment law, family law and civil procedure, this volume is a key resource for postgraduate law students studying jurisprudence.
Sharon Cowan, Chloe Kennedy, Vanessa Munro, 'Scottish Feminist Judgments Project ', (2017), SCOLAG Legal Journal, Vol 482
Sharon Cowan, 'In search of connections: Reading between the lines of Nicola Lacey’s In search of criminal responsibility', (2017), Critical Analysis of Law, Vol 4, pp 211-221
Abstract: Through the lens of feminist legal theory, this essay aims to draw out the connections be- tween Lacey’s In Search of Criminal Responsibility and her other work and the work of interlocutors on issues relating to law and gender. Lacey’s work is placed into conversation with a broader community of ideas that challenge dominant discourses, not only in theory, but also in academic institutions and practices themselves. In doing so, the essay highlights the importance of taking critical approaches to law—and life—seriously.
Ilona Cairns, Liz Campbell, James Chalmers, Sarah Christie, Andrew Cornford, Sharon Cowan, Antony Duff, Peter Duff, Sarah Elliston, Lindsay Farmer, Pamela Ferguson, Chloe Kennedy, Fiona Leverick, Claire McDiarmid, G Maher, Sandra Marshall, Donald Nicolson, Joanne Ramsay, Elizabeth Shaw, Andrew Tickell, Shanti Williamson, 'A Troubling Lack of Clarity in Scots Law Regarding Assisted Suicide ', (2015), Herald (Glasgow)
Helen Baillot, Sharon Cowan, Vanessa E. Munro, 'Reason to Disbelieve: Evaluating the Rape Claims of Women Seeking Asylum in the UK', (2014), International Journal of Law in Context, Vol 10, pp 105-39
Abstract: Asylum applicants in the UK must show, to a ‘reasonable degree of likelihood’, a well-founded fear of persecution, on the basis of race, religion, political opinion or membership of a particular social group, in the event of return ‘home’. This requirement presents myriad challenges both to claimants and decision-makers. Based on findings from a three-year national study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, this paper explores those challenges as they relate to women seeking asylum in the UK whose applications include an allegation of rape. The study explored the extent to which difficulties relating to disclosure and credibility, which are well documented in the context of women's sexual assault allegations in the criminal justice system, might be replicated and compounded for female asylum-seekers whose applications include a claim of rape. Findings suggest that the structural and practical obstacles faced in establishing credibility, and the existence of scepticism about rape claims and asylum-seeking more generally, mean that decision-making can often be experienced as arbitrary, unjust, uninformed or contradictory, making it difficult for women asylum applicants who allege rape to find refuge in the UK.
Sharon Cowan, 'Offenses of Sex or Violence?: Consent, Fraud, and HIV Transmission', (2014), New Criminal Law Review, Vol 17, pp 135-161
Abstract: Given the current criminalization trend, the motivating question of this article is whether or not sexual transmission of HIV, without specific consent to the risk of such transmission, should be categorized as an assault or a sexual assault, and what difference that (re)categorization might make. In the argument that follows, the criminalization discourses in Canada and England and Wales that underpin and permeate the debates over HIV transmission will be explored. These jurisdictions have been chosen as examples of two regimes, at almost opposite ends of the criminalization spectrum, in which recent changes have set new benchmarks for criminal responsibility. One (England and Wales) has set rather narrow limits on the criminal law, whilst the other (Canada) has set far broader parameters, and lately has begun to include other sorts of cases (such as deception about the absence of birth control) as analogous to the HIV cases, drawing the boundaries of the criminal law even more widely. Beginning with a brief description of the law in each jurisdiction, this article analyzes the gendered and (hetero)normative role of consent in HIV nondisclosure offenses. Through a comparison with the law on sadomasochism, the article questions whether such offenses are rightly categorized as assaults or as sexual assaults. Following a critical engagement with the reasoning in recent Canadian jurisprudence in the area, the article will conclude by addressing the question of how future HIV transmission cases should be tackled. It is argued that in the absence of a policy that precludes criminalization of nondisclosure, the position in England and Wales is to be preferred.
Helen Baillot, Sharon Cowan, Vanessa E Munro, 'Second-Hand Emotion?: Exploring the Contagion and Impact of Trauma and Distress in the Asylum Law Context', (2013), Journal of Law and Society, Vol 40, pp 509-540
Helen Baillot, Sharon Cowan, Vanessa Munro, '"Just a Story": Rape Narratives and Credibility Assessments of Women Seeking Asylum', (2012), Women's Asylum News, pp 1-5
Sharon Cowan, 'Motivating Questions and Partial Answers: A Response to Prosecuting Domestic Violence by Michelle Madden Dempse', (2012), Criminal Law and Philosophy
Abstract: Michelle Madden Dempsey’s compelling book sets out a normative feminist argument as to why and when prosecutors should continue to pursue prosecutions in domestic violence cases where the victim refuses to participate in or has withdrawn their support for the prosecution. This paper will explore two of the key aspects of her argument—the centrality and definition of the concept of patriarchy, and the definition of domestic violence—before concluding with some final thoughts as to the appropriate parameters of feminist prosecutorial decision-making. The paper argues that Madden Dempsey could offer a more detailed and nuanced argument about the role that patriarchy plays, particularly its relevance in marking out appropriate cases for pursuit; and that her thesis requires a more convincing exposition of the precise reasons for offering such a narrow account of domestic violence.
Sharon Cowan, Helen Baillot, Vanessa Munro, '‘Hearing the Right Gaps’: Enabling and Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Violence within the UK Asylum Process', (2012), Social and Legal Studies, Vol 21, pp 1-28
Abstract: The barriers that prevent or delay female victims of sexual assault from disclosing to criminal justice authorities, and the obstacles that often disincline professional and lay decision-makers from finding such narratives credible, have been well documented. This article explores the extent to which such difficulties may be replicated, and compounded, in the case of female asylum-seekers; it will examine the complex ways in which the structure and processes, as well as the heavily politicised context, of asylum decision-making may contribute towards a silencing of sexual assault narratives. The article will explore the ways in which the intersection of race, ethnicity, gender, culture, religion, language and nationality present distinct challenges to women asylum applicants for whom an alleged rape is a part of their claim, and reflect on some of the difficulties this presents in terms of assessing the credibility of sexual assault allegations, and of the overall asylum claim.
Sharon Cowan, 'To Buy or Not to Buy?: Vulnerability and the Criminalisation of Commercial BDSM', (2012), Feminist Legal Studies, Vol 20, pp 263-79
Abstract: This paper examines the interaction of law and policy-making on prostitution, with that of BDSM (bondage and discipline, sadism and masochism). Recent policy and legal shifts in the UK mark out prostitutes as vulnerable and in need of ‘rescue’. BDSM that amounts to actual bodily harm is unlawful in the UK, and calls to decriminalise it are often met with fears that participants will be left vulnerable to abuse. Where women sell BDSM sex, even more complex questions of choice, exploitation, vulnerability, power and agency might be thought to arise. Does the combination of activities take two singular behaviours into the realm of compound harm? Are those who sell BDSM doubly vulnerable in a way that would justify criminal intervention? This paper argues that in imposing categories of vulnerability, the state engages in the heteronormative construction of risky sexual subjects who must be rehabilitated, responsiblised or punished. Through an examination of existing empirical studies on BDSM, the paper offers a feminist critique of the potential criminalisation of commercial BDSM and calls for more research on the lived experiences of those who buy and sell BDSM.
Sharon Cowan, 'Review of 'Scots Criminal Law: A Critical Analysis' By Pamel Ferguson and Claire McDiarmid ', (2011), SCOLAG Legal Journal, pp 242-243
Sharon Cowan, 'The Elvis We Deserve: The Social Regulation of Sex/Gender and sexuality through Cultural Representations of ‘The King’', (2010), Law, Culture and the Humanities, Vol 6, pp 221-24
Abstract: This paper analyses the way in which the image, masculinity and sexual identity of Elvis Presley have been recently culturally deployed by particular social groups. It explores the way in which the image of Elvis is used by lesbian drag king performers who try to queer the cultural stereotypes which underpin the social regulation of gender roles; and the use of Elvis’s image by the UK fathers’ rights campaign group Fathers 4 Justice, as a sign of unthreatening familiarity to support traditional heteronormative ideas of masculinity and gender roles. These cultural re-appropriations of Elvis raise questions for contemporary understandings of sex/gender and sexuality; as the motto of the San Francisco-based Elvis impersonator 'Extreme Elvis' suggests, 'Every generation gets the Elvis it deserves'.
Sharon Cowan, Helen Baillot, Vanessa Munro, 'Seen But Not Heard?: Parallels and Dissonances in the Treatment of Rape Narratives across the Asylum and Criminal Justice Contexts', (2009), Journal of Law and Society, Vol 36, pp 195-219
Abstract: A significant proportion of women seeking refugee status in the United Kingdom will claim to have been raped in their country of origin. Even where this is not the sole basis of an asylum claim, it may be relevant to its determination. While criminal justice responses to rape have been the subject of extensive academic criticism and legislative reform, the processes of disclosure and credibility assessment in the asylum context have received little attention. This article explores possible parallels and dissonances in the treatment of rape across the asylum and criminal justice contexts, drawing in particular on the findings of a 2007 pilot study. It considers how problems such as the under-reporting of rape, the inability of the victim to 'tell the story' in her own words, a hostile adjudicative environment, and the tendency to regard factors such as late disclosure, narrative inconsistency, and calm demeanour with suspicion may be replicated and compounded in asylum cases. It also acknowledges the complex intersection of race, gender, culture, and nationality in this context.
Sharon Cowan, 'We Walk Among You: Trans Identity Politics Goes to the Movies', (2009), Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, Vol 21, pp 91-118
Abstract: Recent legal and social acknowledgement of (some) trans citizenship claims demonstrates the continuing evolution of trans politics and identity, and the relationship between socio-political identities and popular culture. This article examines current debates over trans citizenship and identity, and argues that certain kinds of identity and citizenship claims have cultural currency in contemporary representations of sex/gender. In order to address these issues, this article highlights key disputes and tensions in contemporary debates about transgender identity, citizenship and claims to legal rights, by examining the ways in which sex/gender identity is portrayed in three films – Cabaret, Transamerica and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Each film demonstrates various ways of interpreting and reworking the constraints of heteronormative binary notions of sex/gender, and these struggles over meaning are also reflected in the ways in which different articulations of trans identity and citizenship claims have been legally and culturally recognised. The article explores the ways in which particular accounts of trans identity are given primacy within law, and how film can help us to reflect upon questions about which sexed/gendered people get to count as legal citizens. The paper concludes by reminding us that despite discourses of recognition, it is important to remember the exclusionary as well as inclusionary tendencies of law.
Sharon Cowan, 'Looking Back (To)wards the Body: Medicalization and the GRA', (2009), Social and Legal Studies, Vol 18, pp 247-52
Abstract: Discusses the extent to which the requirement of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 that a transsexual person obtain a diagnosis of gender dysphoria before being eligible for a gender recognition certificate, legally recognising their reassigned gender, retains the medicalised approach that has in the past subjected transsexual people to misunderstanding and injustice. Considers how it perpetuates the heteronormative binary notion of gender by establishing a dichotomy between a transsexual person's mind and body.
Sharon Cowan, 'Review of Sexual Assault and the Justice Gap: A Question of Attitude by Jennifer Temkin & Barbara Krahé ', (2008), SCOLAG Legal Journal, pp 266
Sharon Cowan, Gillian Calder, 'Re-imagining Equality: Meaning and Movement', (2008), Australian Feminist Law Journal, Vol 29, pp 109-30
Sharon Cowan, 'The Trouble with Drink: Intoxication, (In)Capacity and the Evaporation of Consent to Sex', (2008), Akron Law Review, Vol 41, pp 899-922
Sharon Cowan, 'The Headscarf Controversy: A Response to Jill Marshall', (2008), Res Publica, Vol 14, pp 193-201
Abstract: This paper argues that Article 8 of the ECHR, as applied to the protection of a person’s right to wear a headscarf, is an inappropriate locus for thrashing out arguments about the right to protection of religious freedom, and that Article 9 allows for a broader legal and political analysis of the multiple meanings and impacts of religion in our lives. However, the law should not prohibit women from wearing the headscarf. Legal regulation of the headscarf should be replaced with robust political debate about the many diverse and intersecting ways in which it is possible to experience womanhood, sexuality, culture, religion, race, nationality and economic security in the twenty-first century.
Sharon Cowan, Victor Tadros, 'Open Letter to the Scottish Law Commission ', (2006), Scots Law Times, Vol 25, pp 157-67
Sharon Cowan, 'Beyond the War on Crime: Personhood, Punishment and the State', (2006), Buffalo Criminal Law Review, Vol 9, pp 655-90
Abstract: Reviewed work: VICTIMS IN THE WAR ON CRIME: THE USE AND ABUSE OF VICTIMS' RIGHTS. By Markus Dirk Dubber. New York and London, New York University Press, 2002. Pp. xii, 412. $50 cloth; $24 (paper).
Michele Burman, Gillian Calder, James Chalmers, Juliette Casey, Sharon Cowan, Rowan Cruft, Michelle Dempsey, Antony Duff, Louise Ellison, Lindsay Farmer, Pamela Ferguson, Conor Hanley, Jackie Hodgson, Lynn Jamieson, Liz Kelly, Michal Królikowski, Sandra Marshall, Clare McGlynn, Vanessa Munro, Alan Norrie, Sian O'Hara, Helen Power, Fiona Raitt, Mike Redmayne, Stephen Shute, Bob Sullivan, Victor Tadros, Bjarke Viskum, 'Open Letter to the Scottish Law Commission's Consultation Document ', (2006), Scots Law Times, pp 157-67
Abstract: Presents the text of an open letter to the Scottish Law Commission, written by those attending a workshop at the University of Edinburgh in April 2006, with regard to the Commission's review of Scots law on sexual offences, particularly rape. Considers issues regarding: (1) the actus reus; (2) the status of the indicators; (3) the mens rea; (4) evidential provisions; (5) the evidential burden of proof; (6) the corroboration requirement in the Scots law of evidence; and (7) the law regarding sexual history evidence. Highlights the key recommendations of the workshop.Other participants were present at the workshop who did not wish their names to be added to this letter.These participants were members of the legal profession, and one representative from Rape Crisis Scotland, who either felt that they did not want the contents of the workshop discussion to be taken as representing the views of their employers, or, as in one case of a legal practitioner, that the workshop discussion did not fully reflect their views as a practitioner in the field.
Sharon Cowan, ''Gender is No Substitute for Sex': A Comparative Human Rights Analysis of the Legal Regulation of Sexual Identity', (2005), Feminist Legal Studies, Vol 13, pp 67-96
Abstract: UK regulation of sexual identity within a marriage context has traditionally been linked to biological sex. In response to the European Court of Human Rights decisions in Goodwin, and I, and in order to address the question of whether a transsexual person can be treated as a 'real' member of their adoptive sex, the UK has recently passed the Gender Recognition Act 2004. While the Act appears to signal a move away from biology and towards a conception of sexual identity based on gender rather than sex, questions of sexual identity remain rooted in medico-legal assessments of the individual transsexual body/mind. In contrast, because transsexual people in some parts of Canada have been able to marry in their post-operative sex since 1990, contemporary debates on the sexual identity of transsexual people in British Columbia and Ontario do not focus on the validity of marriage, and more frequently centre upon the provision of goods and services, in human rights contexts where sex is said to matter. Currently in Canada this is prompting questions of what it means to be a woman in society, how the law should interpret sex and gender, and how, if at all, the parameters of sexual identity should be established in law. This article seeks to compare recent U.K. legal conceptualisations of transsexuality with Canadian law in this area. As human rights discourse begins to grow in the U.K., the question remains as to whether or not gender will become an adequate substitute for sex.
Sharon Cowan, ''That Woman is a Woman!': The Case of Bellinger v Bellinger and the Mysterious Disappearance of Sex', (2004), Feminist Legal Studies, Vol 12, pp 79-92
Abstract: In the case of Bellinger v. Bellinger the House of Lords has for the first time exercised the power to make a declaration of incompatibility under s. 4 of the Human Rights Act 1998, finding that U.K. law on marriage is in breach of Articles 8 and 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This case note argues, however, that despite this decision, and despite also recent judgments of the European Court of Human Rights upholding the rights of transsexual people, the principles applied in Bellinger demonstrate that judicial discourse on transsexuality remains bound within the heterosexual and biological framework of Corbett v. Corbett.
Sharon Cowan, Stuart Elden, 'Words, Desires and Ideas: Freud, Foucault and the Hermaphroditic Roots of Bisexuality', (2002), Pli: The Warwick Journal of Philosophy, Vol 13, pp 79-99
Sharon Cowan, Liz Campbell, 'The relevance of sexual history and vulnerability in the prosecution of sexual offences ' in Peter Duff, Pamela R. Ferguson (ed.) Scottish Criminal Evidence Law (Edinburgh University Press 2017)
Sharon Cowan, 'Sex/Gender Equality Taking a Break from the Legal to Transform the Social' in David Cowan, Daniel Wincott (ed.) Exploring the ‘Legal’ in Socio-Legal Studies (Palgrave Macmillan 2015) 115-134
Sharon Cowan, 'What a Long Strange Trip It's Been Feminist and Queer Travels with Sex, Gender and Sexuality' in Margaret Davies, Vanessa E. Munro (ed.) The Ashgate Research Companion to Feminist Legal Theory (Ashgate Publishing 2013) 105-25
Sharon Cowan, Suzanne Bouclin, Gillian Calder, 'Playing Games with Law ' in Zenon Bankowski, Maksymilian Del Mar, Paul Maharg (ed.) The Arts and the Legal Academy (Ashgate Publishing 2013) 63-86
Sharon Cowan, 'Criminalizing SM Disavowing the Erotic, Instantiating Violence' in R. A. Duff, Lindsay Farmer, S. E. Marshall, Massimo Renzo, Victor Tadros (ed.) The Structures of the Criminal Law (Oxford University Press 2012) 59-84
Abstract: In England it was held under R v Brown and subsequent sadomasochistic (SM) cases such as R v Emmet that injuries, including those inflicted during sadomasochistic sex, amounting to or more serious than actual bodily harm cannot be justified by consent. This chapter presents some thoughts on the regulation of SM. It explores the criminalization of SM by examining the ways in which the debate appears to be plagued by a series of problematic and challenging dichotomies (for example, harm/consent, sex/violence, public/private). Questions about the criminalization of SM are deeply embedded within the framework of opposing dichotomies, furthering the tensions that arise when the views of those engaging in a practice that they see as non-criminal come into conflict with those of the state, which labels their acts as criminal offences. Problematizing the binary nature of this conversation implicates the very structure of the criminal law — is consent part of the offence definition or is it a defence to sado-masochistic sex? The chapter brings feminist and queer critiques to bear upon the criminalization of SM, so that the criminal law might acknowledge the ways in which sexual behaviours and desire defy neat binary categorization. In so doing, it aims to problematize the offence/defence distinction, while promoting respect for and protection of bodily integrity and sexual intimacy within the criminal law.
Sharon Cowan, Helen Baillot, Vanessa Munro, 'Crossing Borders, Inhabiting Spaces The (In)credibility of Sexual Violence in Asylum Appeals' in Sharron FitzGerald (ed.) Regulating the International Movement of Women (Routledge 2011) 111-32
Sharon Cowan, 'The Pain of Pleasure Consent and the Criminalisation of Sado-Masochistic 'Assaults'' in James Chalmers, Fiona Leverik, Lindsay Farmer (ed.) Essays in Criminal Law in Honour of Sir Gerald Gordon (Edinburgh University Press 2010) 126-40
Sharon Cowan, 'All Change or Business as Usual? Reforming the Law of Rape in Scotland' in Clare McGlynn, Vanessa E. Munro (ed.) Rethinking Rape Law (Routledge 2010) 154-69
Sharon Cowan, ''Freedom and Capacity to make a Choice' A Feminist Analysis of Consent in the Criminal Law of Rape' in Vanessa Munro, Carl Stychin (ed.) Sexuality and the Law (Glasshouse Press (Routledge-Cavendish) 2007) 51-71
Sharon Cowan, 'Choosing Freely Theoretically Reframing the Concept of Consent' in Rosemary Hunter, Sharon Cowan (ed.) Choice and Consent (Routledge-Cavendish 2007) 91-105
Sharon Cowan, Helen Baillot, Vanessa Munro, ''Hearing the Right Gaps': Enabling and Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Violence within the UK Asylum Process' 2013
Abstract: The barriers that prevent or delay female victims of sexual assault from disclosing to criminal justice authorities, and the obstacles that often disincline professional and lay decision-makers from finding such narratives credible have been well documented. This article explores the extent to which such difficulties may be replicated, and compounded, in the case of female asylum-seekers; it will examine the complex ways in which the structure and processes, as well as the heavily politicized context, of asylum decision-making may contribute towards a silencing of sexual assault narratives. The article will explore the ways in which the intersection of race, ethnicity, gender, culture, religion, language and nationality present distinct challenges to women asylum applicants for whom an alleged rape is a part of their claim, and reflect on some of the difficulties which this presents in terms of assessing the credibility of sexual assault allegations, and of the overall asylum claim.
Sharon Cowan, ''We Walk Among You': Trans Identity Politics Goes to the Movies' 2013
Abstract: Recent legal and social acknowledgement of (some) trans citizenship claims demonstrates the continuing evolution of trans politics and identity, and the relationship between socio-political identities and popular culture. This article examines current debates over trans citizenship and identity, and argues that certain kinds of identity and citizenship claims have cultural currency in contemporary representations of sex/gender. In order to address these issues, this article highlights key disputes and tensions in contemporary debates about transgender identity, citizenship and claims to legal rights, by examining the ways in which sex/gender identity is portrayed in three films -- Cabaret, Transamerica and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Each film demonstrates various ways of interpreting and reworking the constraints of heteronormative binary notions of sex/gender, and these struggles over meaning are also reflected in the ways in which different articulations of trans identity and citizenship claims have been legally and culturally recognized. The article explores the ways in which particular accounts of trans identity are given primacy within law, and how film can help us to reflect upon questions about which sexed/gendered people get to count as legal citizens. The paper concludes by reminding us that despite discourses of recognition, it is important to remember the exclusionary as well as inclusionary tendencies of law.
Sharon Cowan, 'To Buy or Not to Buy?: Vulnerability and the Criminalisation of Commercial BDSM' 2013
Abstract: This paper examines the interaction of law and policy making on prostitution, with that of BDSM (bondage and discipline, sadism and masochism). Recent policy and legal shifts in the UK mark out prostitutes as vulnerable and in need of ‘rescue’. BDSM that amounts to actual bodily harm is unlawful in the UK, and calls to decriminalise it are often met with fears that participants will be left vulnerable to abuse. Where women sell BDSM sex, even more complex questions of choice, exploitation, vulnerability, power and agency might be thought to arise. Does the combination of activities take two singular behaviours into the realm of compound harm? Are those who sell BDSM doubly vulnerable in a way that would justify criminal intervention? This paper argues that in imposing categories of vulnerability, the state engages in the heteronormative construction of risky sexual subjects who must be rehabilitated, responsiblised or punished. Through an examination of existing empirical studies on BDSM, the paper offers a feminist critique of the potential criminalisation of commercial BDSM and calls for more research on the lived experiences of those who buy and sell BDSM.
Sharon Cowan, Gillian Calder, 'Re-Imagining Equality: Meaning and Movement' 2013
Abstract: In this paper we argue that by using our bodies we can reflect on our thinking about legal concepts and tools, such as the notion of equality. We consider the ways in which our understanding of equality can be enhanced by re-imagining equality through the medium of physical performance. We also offer an articulation of how we tried to operationalise this more embodied approach to equality, exploring our collaborative experience of trying to present, in a conference setting, the impact of law upon the body, through physical theatre rather than the usual format of oral presentation of written work. In so doing, we reflect upon the experience of standing before an academic audience and using our bodies to enter into dialogue about contemporary debates on equality, with particular attention to this mode of engagement as feminist methodology and feminist critique. Our broader reflections about what we have learned through this project are tied to an understanding of the dynamism of both equality and inequality, and the acknowledgment that substantive learning can result by pushing our own comfort levels as to what is, and what should properly be, the subject, the object and the method of legal knowledge.
Sharon Cowan, 'The Trouble with Drink: Intoxication, (In)Capacity and the Evaporation of Consent to Sex' 2011
Abstract: Feminists have analysed the problematic way in which rape law has evolved in the shadow of the mind/body dualism. This paper will extend this analysis to the problems arising when consent to sex is “intoxicated consent”. One central question is the whether consent is a state of mind or a set of actions or behaviours, performed in certain way, to signify consent. Whether one believes consent to be a state of mind or an action, adding intoxication to the mix renders the problem yet more intractable for criminal law. If consent is a state of mind then being in an intoxicated state can make it extremely difficult to come to a settled state of mind about consent since intoxicants clearly affect the cognitive capacities and it is often also of course, difficult for others to ascertain one’s state of mind. However if consent is an action, alcohol/drugs again can impair the physical and verbal abilities to the extent that action is either impossible or, again, difficult to read. Either way intoxication can render consent obscure. This paper offers a feminist critique of the criminal law’s treatment of the parameters of consent when the person giving consent is intoxicated.
Sharon Cowan, 'The Elvis We Deserve: The Social Regulation of Sex/Gender and Sexuality Through Cultural Representations of 'the King'' 2009
Abstract: This paper analyses the way in which the image, masculinity and sexual identity of Elvis Presley have been recently culturally deployed by particular social groups. It explores the way in which the image of Elvis is used by lesbian drag king performers who try to queer the cultural stereotypes which form the basis of the social regulation of gender roles; and the use of Elvis's image by the U.K. fathers' rights campaign group 'Fathers 4 Justice' as a sign of unthreatening familiarity to support traditional heteronormative ideas of masculinity and gender roles. These cultural re-appropriations of Elvis raises questions for contemporary understandings of sex/gender and sexuality; as the motto of the San Francisco based Elvis impersonator 'Extreme Elvis' suggests, 'Every generation gets the Elvis it deserves'.