By Emily Whiteside
Last week, an absent-minded scroll of my news feed revealed that one of my Facebook friends had ‘liked’ a Tab article with the headline ‘A girl falsely accused me of rape and it almost ruined my life’.
The noise of exasperation I made in response, which sounded something like nnnnnggghhh, was so loud that my boyfriend, on tea-making duty in the kitchen, rushed back to the living room to ask what was wrong.
We all know that The Tab is full of shit – it is like Klute in its ability to be simultaneously loved and hated by Durham students. Sometimes I embrace it – after all, in the midst of a heavy procrastination session, what is more comforting than a guide to the five stages of a dissertation breakdown? But I feel that The Tab has reached a new low of ‘journalism’ through this ‘article’.
Everyone has the right to tell their story, of course, but this article is depressingly, unapologetically one sided. I hope this blog post fills in the other side of the story. However, because I’m responding to this specific article, a lot of the statements I make below are very heteronormative, and I recognise that in general, sexual violence encompasses a much broader spectrum of individuals than a male perpetrator and female victim.
The whole ‘article’ serves to constantly reinforce an all-too-common myth: that it is extremely common for women to falsely accuse men of rape. This is despite estimates that put false rape allegations at around 2%, and despite the fact that statistically, a man is more likely to be raped than to be falsely accused of rape. People seize upon this kind of article, and they read it thinking ‘God! Look at how this poor man’s life has been ruined by an awful, manipulative woman! The phenomenon is sweeping the land! It’s happening everywhere! No innocent man is safe!’ Later, when they see a story about rape in the news, they may think ‘God, that poor man who’s been accused of rape’ before they think ‘God, the poor individual who has been raped’. When we empathise with the perpetrator before the survivor, we begin to victim-blame, to doubt survivors’ stories, to question motives and in doing so we contribute to a culture of silence and stigma that surrounds the survivors of sexual assault.
It’s especially upsetting seeing another woman jump on the patriarchal bandwagon. Nick’s fiancée Megan’s belief that women cry rape when they ‘wake up the next morning and regret it’ is based on the misconception that women are capricious, manipulative, malicious. But we know from numerous studies that the problem is not false reports but underreporting. Rape Crisis England and Wales estimates that 15% of those who experience sexual violence choose to report to the police. This is echoed by the 2010 NUS Hidden Marks survey found that amongst women students who had experienced serious sexual assault, only 4% reported the incident to their institution and only 10% reported it to the police.
While I have sympathy for what Nick has gone through, I also think his experience needs to be put in perspective. He seems to feel that the measures the police and university took when dealing with the accusation were excessive, even draconian. No, getting locked in a cell and being interviewed for two hours doesn’t sound fun, but I firmly believe it’s the most appropriate action when someone has been accused of such a serious crime.
I also think the university response to the accusation sounds proportionate and surprisingly reassuring – Durham, take note! I’m in total support of requiring the perpetrator to change accommodation either to minimise any further risk to the student population or prevent contact between perpetrator and victim. I’m similarly impressed by Manchester University’s policy that, had Nick been found guilty, he wouldn’t be allowed to continue studying there: rapists represent a very real threat to the student population and shouldn’t be allowed to endanger any student ever again. I can’t really pass judgement on his not being allowed to “go certain places and do certain things”, mostly because of the extreme vagueness. But I’m not convinced that Nick was owed any kind of apology for the way he was treated, apart from for an unfortunate admin error.
Nick’s frustration with the lengthy and inefficient process is one shared by many survivors – a two and a half year trial is only slightly longer than average. If Nick’s story stirs some sympathy with you, then I entreat you to walk in a survivor’s shoes through a criminal justice system that is often stacked against you. Survivors have to recount a deeply distressing event to complete strangers, and reliving this memory can lead to secondary trauma. In addition, they face brutal and personal cross-examination that casts doubt over their character and their story – as though it were them on trial. It’s little wonder that many survivors choose not to pursue their case in court. The statistics aren’t promising for cases that do go to trial: last year’s Crown Prosecution Service report into violence against women and girls showed that in 2015, the conviction rate for rape cases fell by 3% to 57%.
My sympathy for Nick is somewhat tested by his sweeping, uncritical and unthinking statements. He insists that he was ‘basically under house arrest for three years’…but was able to have a job, start at a new university, holiday in France and go to gigs. He wasn’t allowed to go to clubs – but imagine, as a survivor, not being able to go to a club because you get panic attacks in big crowds and you see every man who looks in your direction as a threat. Nick had to do everything with his dad – imagine depending on a parent not because of a police order, but because you are suffering from depression or anxiety after your attack. Nick has been diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder – almost one third of rape survivors suffer from Rape-related PTSD (RR-PTSD). Nick went to France to ‘get away from it all’ – survivors can’t escape so easily from a memory that may stay with them for the rest of their lives. Finally, Megan’s claim that ‘the victims [are] getting all the support, and the falsely accused are getting nothing’ just doesn’t ring true when the majority of women in the UK don’t have access to a Rape Crisis centre.
As a society, we are obsessed by the notion that men are constantly being falsely accused of rape, sexual assault, even sexual harassment and we find it almost impossible to believe that women are telling the truth. Just look at the backlash against those brave enough to speak up against Jian Ghomeshi, Bill Cosby, Louis Richardson, James Dean. When I worked at The Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust last summer, the Director told me that in 20 years as a counsellor at the organisation, she had seen just two women ever lie about being raped. Both were 16 year old schoolgirls forced to report an early consensual sexual encounter as rape by overprotective mothers.
I think we should stop worrying so much about the tiny possibility of a man’s life being ‘almost ruined’ and worry about more about the countless perpetrators who walk free every day. I think we should start thinking a little more about the women who have felt as though their lives falling apart after being raped, about the women who have never spoken out for fear of being shamed and doubted. As a society, I think we need to re-examine our priorities.