MPs have recommended anonymity for those accused of sexual offences. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Why rape suspects should not remain anonymous

In ignoring the injustice of bad bailing procedures and instead recommending anonymity for rape suspects, MPs are promoting the fallacy that a man accused of rape is a victim in the same way as a woman who has been raped.

It’s different for rape. Sexual offences are a kind of violent crime, but they are also unlike other crimes of violence in specific and essential ways. And before we can answer the question of why the rules of anonymity around rape allegations are as they are and why they must be defended, we have to understand what that difference is. This is urgent business, because apparently there are a lot of people who don’t get it – in particular, the home affairs select committee, which has recommended anonymity for those accused of sexual offences.

There are at least two reasons to find this recommendation baffling. Firstly, it’s not a new idea: from 1976 until 1988, the accused was granted the same anonymity as the complainant. We have already tried this, and we already know it doesn’t work. Secondly, the Select Committee report was purportedly nothing to do with anonymity – it was actually hearing evidence on the abuse of police bail. Moreover, the witnesses it heard from included two lawyers, one accused man, the Director of Public Prosecutions, a chief constable and no advocates for victims. Anonymity was never within the Committee’s remit.

The Committee’s recommendation is deeply and frighteningly flawed, but likely to be popular: in a YouGov survey from the beginning of this year, 74 per cent of the public agreed with the statement “People accused of rape should have their identities kept secret and not reported by the media unless they are found guilty.” The YouGov results weren’t entirely grim, however: a substantial majority agreed that: “People who have been the victim of rape should have their identities kept secret and not reported by the media.”

In fact, 74 per cent agreed with that assertion. And while they’re not exactly the same 74 per cent who supported anonymity for the accused (unsurprisingly, more women than men support anonymity for victims, and more men than women support anonymity for the accused), there’s clearly a lot of overlap. There’s a widespread belief that a woman who is raped and a man who is accused of rape experience equivalent harms and deserve equivalent protections. The select committee even urges that the legal system should “stop shaming suspects” as though “accused rapist shaming” were a thing in the same line as “slut shaming”.

This belief is wrong, and it demands examination. The act of rape is singularly destructive. Other kinds of violence might harm the body more, but few things can destroy a person as extensively as rape. In her 2009 book The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism, Ellie Levenson made the astonishing, obscene claim that “we do women an injustice when we say that rape is the worst thing that can happen to a woman. It is, after all, just a penis.” Let’s think about that. Just a penis, pushed into you when you said no. Just your no, ignored, disregarded, swallowed up by the air like nothing. Just your safety in your own skin, obliterated. Just your self, shattered, silenced and torn.

There is nothing inadvertent about the fact that rape does this. It is what rape is supposed to do. Penetration as destruction is built into the grammar of male dominated society. We know this because it is in the language we use: when something is utterly ruined, we call it “fucked” or “screwed”. When we assume mastery over something, human or nonhuman, we say we have “made it our bitch”. The exemplary condition of the woman in this society is to be sexually terrorised into submission.

And this terror is not completed in the individual act of violence, but is repeated over and over through the systematic humiliation of the rape victim. Her behaviour is scrutinised – was she slutty, was she drunk, did she give “the wrong signals”, is she just a liar? Her name is trashed, the whole world seeming to conspire in her rapist’s opinion that her word counts for nothing and her body is not her own anyway.

When a man is accused of rape, none of this happens. The select committee report claims that being accused of rape carries “a particular and very damaging stigma”, but this is simply untrue. Although rape is extraordinarily damaging to the victims, as far as the suspects are concerned, it is no more damaging than any other crime, and there is no reason to treat them differently to suspects in any other cases. A man can be accused of, charged with and even convicted of rape, and after a legal hiatus, his life can resume with minimal disgrace.

This is not to say that those accused of rape do not suffer injustice. Paul Gambaccini, who gave evidence to the Select Committee, was kept on police bail in relation to allegations of historical sex offences for almost a full year, and in that time he was re-bailed six times. This is a heinous condition to place on someone who has not been charged, never mind convicted, of a crime – but it is the abuse of bail that is the wrong here, not the release of Gambaccini’s name. After the police finally decided to take no action, Gambaccini returned to hosting his Radio 2 show. While the investigation was undoubtedly painful and punishingly costly for him, he still had his reputation at the long-overdue end of it.

This is true too for men whose cases make it to court. On 6 Music, you can hear Craig Charles, who was acquitted of rape in 1995 and back in acting roles the next year. Coronation Street star Michael Le Vell was found not guilty of rape in 2013, and returned to the show immediately. It is very difficult to see these men as permanently harmed, and this is as it should be – the purpose of a trial is to determine who is guilty and punish or rehabilitate them accordingly, and those found not guilty of a crime should not be subject to the ad hoc penalties of public ruin.

But in fact, there is so little stigma attached to the status of rapist that even convicted sex offenders are joyfully re-embraced by the public. Mike Tyson, for example, was found guilty of rape in 1992, and has subsequently been valorised with a cameo in knockabout bro-bonding comedy The Hangover. When feminist campaigners and football supporters offered organised resistance to Ched Evans’ return to professional football following his rape conviction, Sheffield United seemed genuinely confused: it simply did not appear to have occurred to the club that there might be something tasteless or ill-conceived about a convicted sex offender having his name roared from the stands every Saturday of the season.

Anonymity allows a woman the possibility of a space in which to rebuild herself. It’s understandable that the men who are accused would prefer to negotiate the legal system in privacy, but in practice, this would simply lead to rapists escaping justice. As Willard Foxton pointed out in an excellent article on this issue from last year, many rapists are serial offenders who can only be convicted because they have been publicly identified, which enables multiple victims to come forward and corroborate each other’s accounts. The “fly paper tactic” that Keith Vaz MP is so disparaging about in the select committee report is a valid and necessary method of investigation, when used appropriately.

And women are telling the truth about the violence done to them. In 17 months between 2011 and 2012, there were 5,651 prosecutions for rape. In the same period, there were only 35 prosecutions for making false allegations of rape; meanwhile, somewhere in the region of 110,500 people were raped, most of them women (extrapolating from these these figures).

It is astonishing that the select committee has preferred to downplay the transparent injustice of indefinite police bail, ignore the appalling way the judicial system fails victims, and instead promote the fallacy that a man accused of rape is a victim in the same way as a woman who has been raped. Male violence and female accusations are not equal and opposite forces in any sense, and we would never accept such an assumption about any other kind of violent crime. But then, it’s different for rape: no other crime is so indispensably a part of the power that owns the world.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496