Monday, 24 May 2010
Temperatures are rising at my house...not because of this unexpected dalliance with summer, but because the nation's press has got its collective knickers in a twist about the new Lib-Con coalition plans to allow rape defendants anonymity in court before conviction. Listening to the collective handwringing over this piece of legislation is causing me some angst.
Firstly Julie Bindel savaged the idea in the Guardian on Friday in a startlingly badly written article for Comment is Free. Her tone bordered on hysterical, many of the facts she used to back up her case were inaccurate and the whole thing was dressed up as concern for victims while actually being a feminist point of principle. Usually I avoid the right wing leaning CIF, but upon reading Julie's words and the commenters wailing 'but what about the men'? I felt compelled to comment since no one else seemed to be thinking how this change in the law would affect rape victims.
You can read my original comment at the moment on the front page of the Guardian at the moment (or wade through the comments at the link). But basically in opposition to many of my other feminist friends, I am in favour of this alteration in the law and that's because of my first hand experience of reporting rape. I freely admit I'm as biased as some of the other people who oppose this change, but I feel my bias is grounded in reality rather than principle or idealism.
My experience with rape began in the kitchen of my rented house a few days before Christmas in 2003 when my flatmate's best friend from childhood assaulted me there after everyone else in my house had gone to bed. It was a violent attack, accompanied by threats against myself, my family, friends and particulalrly female flatmates if I told anyone, especially the police. I believed every threatening word he made, especially as his uncle was one of the most powerful political characters in the country and had the money and connections to make sure things went my attacker's way.
Knowing that my attacker would be named (and probably only questioned and bailed) if I reported, I spent the next few weeks traumatised and terrified, but desperate to feel safe again. My mum happened to be coming to London in January and I decided that I would tell her about the attack then and report it to the police. My well laid plans to wrestle control back fell apart the minute she walked in the door...
The rich powerful uncle (who my attacker worked for) was on the front page of the paper she put down on the bed. In fact in a major scandal, he was on the front page of every paper in the country, discussed on every opinion show and on every news bulletin for the next week. If I reported his nephew for rape right then, there was no way on earth the allegation wasn't going to make the front pages in a tabloid frenzy for dirt. The nephew would be identified and this would inadvertantly identify me.
I knew I wasn't lying about the rape, but I also knew I couldn't face the whole country knowing every detail of my life. I had a family to think of, female flatmates to protect, a boyfriend who didn't know anything of the assault and friends and acquaintances to consider. I also lived in a tightly knit community where thanks to my party girl ways most people knew me. There was no way feeling as traumatised and frightened as I was, could I countenance walking down the street with everyone knowing and talking about me. I was also currently unemployed and had an inkling this wouldn't help my career prospects an inch. I felt I had no choice at the time but to keep quiet, even if it meant a self confessed serial sex attacker got away with it.
Several more weeks passed and the scandal passed. My fear did not, and after almost 3 months of lying awake at night scared my rapist would come back and attack me again in my ground floor room, I couldn't take the uncertainty anymore and went to the police. It did not go well from the start, leaving me shaking with fear for 45 minutes in reception while the officers finished a teabreak, then treating me with suspicion for having waited 3 months to report and actually leaving the room and refusing to listen any further when I explained the delay and identified my attacker. I was sent away in tears, told that they would be in touch. The whole experience reeked of indifference, disbelief and scepticism and this is where I begin to part ways with the feminist campaigners opposing the change in the law.
These women (and so far I have only read women's opinions) feel that the change in the law suggests women are lying when they make a rape allegation and the poor men need to be protected from their cruel spiteful ways. This attitude rather suggests to me that these women do not realise the level of suspicion levelled at women reporting rape right now. They seem to think that victims have a level of belief already that will be eroded by changing the law. My personal experience (and those of my many friends who have been raped) is that victims are already viewed with massive suspicion when reporting, especially if their attacker is famous, more powerful than them or is named immediately. There is an all pervading belief by the police that in these cases the women are lying in order to achieve money, fame or revenge. These victims face extra questioning and suspicion as the case is investigated or if it goes to court.
Some of you may ask why this is a bad thing? After all a false allegation of rape is a serious thing. It can have far reaching consequences for the man accused and each proved false allegation makes it harder for genuine rape victims to come forward. The problem is that as every well educated person knows, rape is about power rather than sex. Therefore the attacker is always more powerful than the victim and this means that every woman or man reporting rape is regarded as a liar, unless their rape fits very narrow 'stranger rape' criteria. (Preferably cycling home from the library with a Bible in their bike basket whilst wearing an ankle length skirt and their virginity intact...)
This leads to an environment where the police and CPS are more intent on proving the victim to be liar or a lesser human being than trying to prove the guilt of the alleged rapist through evidence. This is what leads to only 6 % of reported rape cases resulting in a conviction with the highest rate of attrition lying with the police, a view backed up by John Yates, one of the Met's most senior officers with years of experience in sex crimes.
So what if the name of the attacker was kept anonymous (except for open court) unless convicted? I feel that this would level the playing field for victims, minimising the differences between women 'date raped' by boyfriends or co-workers and women attacked by the rich, powerful and famous. If the name of the man cannot be given, the suspicion that the victim seeks retribution beyond justice must be reduced. It's difficult slander the anonymous...unless you happen be Melanie Phillips.
The High Priestess of Batshit Crazy over at the Daily Mail also thinks men should not be granted anonymity in rape cases. Not because she agrees with those filthy feminists you understand, but because she thinks rape victims also shouldn't be granted anonymity in reporting sexual crime. She of course thinks that having privacy at a time of enormous fear and trauma is making false reporting of rape so easy and commonplace that young women are doing it all the time on their lunchbreak while picking up a skinny latte and a muffin at the same time. She manages to tar all rape victims with the slightly illogical belief that if you lie about being raped, you actually deserve it to happen.
However the scary thing is that in many ways Julie Bindel, Women Against Rape and Melanie Philips are closer in common ground than you could ever imagine a hardcore lesbian feminist, a Marxist campaign group and a self loathing loon could ever be. All are asserting their beliefs from some kind of world where rape victims are treated with understanding and helpfulness, while trumpeting the fact they speak to rape victims all the time in the sexual assault equivalent of 'my best friend is black'. There's a lot of speaking going on, and not much listening to the people who have experienced reporting first hand. It's extremely patronising and ultimately treats rape victims as if they are 'damaged goods' too traumatised to speak out for themselves. Instead they should be patted on the head and asked if they take sugar...
And this is where my issue lies with Clegg and Cameron too. This law may make easier for rape victims to come forward without fear of retribution, accidental indentification and becoming the talk of the town for her perceived flaws, but I don't think that's why they have proposed it. I suspect they have suggested this amendment to the law because they still believe that being accused of rape is much worse than being raped. There is still a persausive belief that when a man is found not guilty of rape, the victim was lying, rather than there being a lack of evidence or an unwillingness to convict. While some men are of course innocent, there seems a much higher rate of scepticism and victim-blaming around rape acquittals than any other crime and even otherwise rational people often bend the rules of the British judicial system to fit those prejudices.
While I support these proposals as practical actions that may lessen the stigma and suspicion around reporting rape, I am unhappy with the reasons as to why they have been introduced and the lack of communication with rape victims prior to their passage into law. Despite the appalling experiences I have had with the police, I remain optimistic that reporting a rape can only become a easier, fairer experience and that victims will be treated with respect and belief as rape myths are eroded. I cannot allow myself to believe that the experience can get any worse and that other women will end up like me, homeless, unemployed, terrified and traumatised after reporting a rape at the hands of a powerful man.
I will be supporting these new proposals while questioning the reasoning behind them. I only hope that my voice and the voice of other traumatised and ignored victims are finally listened to in the process. I could get behind anyone suggesting something as important and likely to make a difference as that.