Update, 14/10/16 : On 14 October 2016, Ched Evans was found not guilty of rape following a retrial. This article was published before this new verdict.
Ched Evans was convicted of rape. He’s also a professional football player with a life to lead following his release from prison, due this coming October. Perhaps it’s not surprising that there have been reports that he’ll be re-joining his old club Sheffield United. After all, he’ll have done his time and you can’t give a rapist – even one who still does not admit to his crime – a life sentence, can you? Whatever my own view on Evans, I want to believe in rehabilitation for any human being who still has a space to occupy in this world.
And yet something sticks in the craw. Where is Evans’ shattered reputation, his ruined life, his permanent ostracism? It’s not that I want these things – what good would they do? – but since they’re part of the standard media narrative, I can’t help feeling that we’re owed them. Otherwise what was all the talk of a career in ruins ever meant to achieve?
We’re constantly told that men’s lives are destroyed by rape accusations, whether they lead to convictions or not. While I’m sure dealing with a rape accusation is enormously traumatic, I do start to wonder what this play-off is meant to achieve. Isn’t it time we asked what the “ruined life” narrative is actually doing? Whom does it help and whom does it harm?
A disproportionate focus on the way men’s lives are affected by rape accusations has an important role to play in rape culture. It reverses the power dynamics, positioning accusers as aggressors. Suddenly it is no longer the alleged crime, but its reporting that is the act of violence. It increases the pressure on victims who might already feel intimidated, asking “are you sure you want to make such a fuss? Are you aware of the damage you’ll do? Haven’t you got enough shame to deal with already?” It’s another form of victim blaming and it’s another way in which victims are seen as less than human, faceless objects in relation to which potential perpetrators have the right to define themselves again and again.
Put simply, a man’s good name – whether he deserves it or not – is ranked higher than a woman’s right to claim ownership of her body. In all the stories about how mud sticks very little is said about the long-term psychological effects of rape itself. Rape is seen purely as an event; a bad thing that happens, something that “we” all abhor. Yet I find it strange that so little thought is given to the inner lives of rape victims in the years that follow, not least given that we have so much time to pity the poor accused. We know that most rapes are not reported, and that most reported rapes do not result in convictions. What does that feel like, coping with that lack of closure, year on year? How does it feel to know that the person who did this to you is free? How does one deal with the lack of trust and the sense of having been utterly devalued? It is horrendous yet for some reason, this does not cause widespread outrage. As the recent twitter hashtag #ididntreport has shown, women who did not report their rapes are hurt, angry and they have not forgotten. Yet somehow these don’t count as lives ruined, presumably because they’re considered lesser lives to begin with.
Following the Steubenville rape convictions CNN reported on how “two young men with promising futures” had “literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart.” The path of these men’s lives is visible; that of their victim is not. She was an event and is now an inconvenience. The matter of how she moves forward is not worthy of consideration; since the life she leads will be that of a woman, perhaps we don’t really believe she moves at all.
This form of erasure, whereby the victim ceases to be a person and becomes a mere plot device in the rapist’s downfall, is heightened when victims of assault are marginalised in other ways and/or subject to other external narratives. In Mapping The Margins, Kimberlé Crenshaw describes how during the Mike Tyson rape trial “racial solidarity was continually raised as a rallying point on behalf of Tyson, but never on behalf of Desiree Washington, Tyson’s black accuser”.
The fact that Black men have often been falsely accused of raping white women underlies the anti-racist defence of black men accused of rape even when the accuser herself is a black woman.
Washington is repeatedly dehumanised: by the rape, by her race, by being a woman and by lacking the back story that rape victims are so rarely awarded unless, of course, it is the story of why they themselves are to blame. But rape victims need better stories than this. These stories have the power to change realities.
When I first went to college in the 1990s the right-wing press seemed convinced that an “epidemic” of so-called date rape accusations was sweeping UK universities, causing untold grief to hapless red-blooded male students. I remember sitting in the common room, flicking through endless tales of poor young men dealing with capricious accusations made by young women who’d later got drunk, or been seen dancing, or had had “slut of the year” pinned to their hall of residence doors. I understood instantly what the media emphasis on these stories meant: know your place, girls. Don’t complain or we will demonise you. You have no right to feel safe and no right to complain if your safety is violated. It’s a form of intimidation, albeit one that pales in comparison to that endured by Tyson and Evans’s victims following their attacker’s convictions.
Katie Russell of Rape Crisis England and Wales worries about the impact Evans’s release will have on other rape survivors asking for help. She notes that the upsurge in survivors coming forward in the aftermath of the Jimmy Saville revelations was followed by an almost immediate backlash, with talk of gold-diggers and witch hunts. As a nation we are, she says, not ready to accept the true extent and magnitude of sexual violence so we focus on the humanity of the perpetrator, not the reality of the victim. A key element in changing this would be more responsible reporting by the media, with particular care taken not to suggest a “not guilty” verdict means an accuser has lied. Even so, this is a bare minimum. Evans’s victim was believed by the court but has still faced trial by twitter and public exposure. The impact this has had on her life is hard to imagine, but it’s no excuse for choosing not to try.
Come October Evans may take to the pitch with thousands cheering him on but there’s someone who deserves support far more than him. Her life matters and she deserves the chance to heal, knowing that she is believed. We can’t put a full stop on Ched Evans’ life nor should we try to, but the woman he raped has a future as well. Even if we can’t know all that she’s up against we should all be rooting for her.
Donations to Rape Crisis can be made via their JustGiving page.