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Laurie Penny on rape discourse: the way we talk about rape and abuse is changing

To preserve rape culture, society at large has to believe that women systematically lie about rape.

Woody Allen performs with his New Orleans Jazz band in California
Woody Allen performs with his New Orleans Jazz band in California on 23 December. Photo: Mark Davis/Getty Images.

How should we watch Annie Hall now? After filmmaker Woody Allen was given the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes, his former foster-daughter, Dylan Farrow, now 28, told the New York Times the story of how he sexually abused her as a child. The charges against Allen are 20 years old, and were never brought to trial. But he takes his place in a grim roll-call of famous men whose work and achievements are being called into question because of the way they are said to have treated women and children.

It seems like the whole world is a mess of rape allegations. In Britain, Operation Yewtree has marched a grim procession of beloved household names – some of them deceased, some of them merely half-deceased  – through the spotlight of public approbation, on charges of child abuse. And there are others: politicians such as the late Liberal MP Cyril Smith; respected activists such as Julian Assange. It is extremely uncomfortable to watch. It might challenge us to rethink art and ideas that we hold extremely dear. I like highbrow cinema and digital rights as much as the next lefty hipster, but the allegations against Rolf Harris were even more upsetting - I’m never going to be able to watch Animal Hospital the same way again.

This week, the fightback seemed to be on. In America, Woody Allen publicly responded to Dylan Farrow's accusations by accusing Dylan's mother, Mia Farrow, of maliciously making up the whole thing. In Britain, the acquittal of Coronation Street actor Bill Roache on rape charges made the Daily Mail holler: “How Did It Ever Get To Court?”

There are people out there, not all of them men, who believe that a conspiracy is going on. When I speak to them as a reporter, they tell me that that women lie about rape, now more than ever. They lie to damage men and to “destroy their lives”. This is despite the fact that the fraud rate for rape remains as low as ever, and despite the fact that popular culture is groaning with powerful men who have been accused or even convicted of sexual abuse and whose lives remain distinctly understroyed. Men like boxer like Mike Tyson, or singer R Kelly. Men like Woody Allen. 

Women and children who bring those accusations, however, risk their relationships, their reputation, their safety. Anonymity in the press is no protection against the rejection of family, friends and workmates. Dylan Farrow is living somewhere out of the public eye, under a new name. We have created a culture and a legal system which punishes those who seek justice so badly that those who do come forward are assumed to have some ulterior motive.

Rape and abuse are the only crimes where, in the words of legal scholar Lord Hale, “It is the victim, not the defendant, who is on trial.” They are crimes that are hard to prove beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law, because it’s a case of “he said, she said”. Nobody can really know, and so naturally we must assume that he is innocent and she is lying – because that’s what women do. The trouble is that in this society, “he said” is almost always more credible than “she said”, unless she is white and he is not. 

There is a growing understanding that 'wait for the ruling' is an insufficient answer when the latest celebrity is hauled up on rape charges. The rule of law cannot be relied upon when it routinely fails victims of abuse. Rape and abuse cases have come to be tried in the court of public opinion, for better or worse, precisely because the official courts are understood to be so hopelessly unfair.

As the Allen case demonstrates, the law courts aren’t the only place where the nature of sexual power, of what men may and may not do to women, children and to other men with impunity, is played out. No judge can legislate for the ethics of the Golden Globe Committee. And no magistrate can ensure that a young girl like Missouri teenager Daisy Coleman, who came forward last year to describe how she was raped by classmates at a party, is not hounded out of town, along with her family, until she makes attempts on her own life.

Rape culture means more than a culture in which rape is routine. Rape culture involves the systematic silencing of victims even as women and children are instructed to behave like potential victims at all times. In order to preserve rape culture, society at large has to believe two different things at once. Firsty, that women and children lie about rape, but that they should also act as if rape will be the result if they get into a strange car, walk down a strange street or wear a sexy outfit. Secondly, if it happens, it’s their own fool fault for not respecting the unwritten rules.

This paradox involves significant mental gymnastics. But as more and more people come forward with accusations, as the pattern of historical and ongoing abuse of power becomes harder to ignore, the paradox gets harder to maintain. We are faced with two alternatives: either women and children are lying about rape on an industrial, organised scale, or rape and sexual abuse are endemic in this society, and have been for centuries. Facing up to the reality of the latter is a painful prospect. 

Many of the allegations that are surfacing, like those against Woody Allen, Bill Roache and the Yewtree defendants, are not new. What is new is the attitude. We are beginning, on a cultural level, to challenge the delusion that only evil men rape, that it is impossible for a man to be a rapist or an abuser of children and also an epoch-defining filmmaker. Or a skilled politician. Or a beloved pop icon. Or a respected family man. Or a treasured friend. We are beginning to reassess the idea that if a man is any of these things, the people he hurts must stay silent, because that’s how power works.

An enormous change in consciousness is taking place around consent, and it threatens to change everything. At some point between 2008 and 2014, the collective understanding of what rape and abuse are, and what they ought to be, changed forever. At some point we began to talk, not just privately, cowedly, but in numbers too big too ignore, about the reality of sexual violence and child abuse, about how victims are silenced. Survivors of rape and abuse and their loved ones had always known this toxic truth, but we were forced to hold it close to ourselves where it could fester and eat us from within. In case you’re wondering, yes, I do have intimate experience of this, and so do a lot of people you know. We just didn’t talk about it in quite this way before.

Something has changed. When the allegations that Woody Allen sexually abused Dylan Farrow first surfaced in the early 1990s, his defenders swamped the mainstream press and that was more or less the end of it. Now the people who have always been on Team Dylan get a say, too. Without wanting to sound like a headbanging techno-utopian, this is happening because of the internet. It is happening because a change in the way we communicate and interact has allowed people who have traditionally been isolated – say, victims of rape and child abuse – to speak out, to share their stories without mediation, to make the structures of power and violence we have always known were there suddenly visible, a thing that can be challenged. And that changes everything.

If we were to truly accept the enormity of rape culture, if we were to understand what it actually means that one in five girl children and one in ten boys are sexually abused, it will not just be painful. It will force our culture to reimagine itself in a way that is uncomfortable even to contemplate. As Jessica Valenti writes at The Nation, “It will mean rethinking institutions and families and power dynamics and the way we interact with each other every day.” It will mean looking with new eyes at our most revered icons, our social groups, our friends and relatives. It will involve hard, difficult work. It will change everything. And it is already starting to happen.

Every time an inspiring activist or esteemed artist is charged with rape, abuse or assault, I feel that awful, weary rage: not him too. But behind the rage is hope. Because rape culture hasn’t changed, but the way we talk about it has. Silencing victims does not stop rape and abuse. It just stops us having to deal with the implications of a culture where rape and abuse are routine. And today I see men and boys as well as women and girls speaking up in protest, and I see a future where all of those people will understand power and violence in a new way. Today, everywhere, survivors and their allies are finding the collective courage to look rape culture in the face, call it by its name, and not back down. And that is cause for hope.

Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman