There is no great stigma attached to being a rapist. Of course, it’s not a word anyone wishes to see applied to themselves. We’d all hate to be called rapists, just as we’d hate anyone close to us to be accused of rape. But when it comes to committing rape – actually having sex with someone who is not consenting? It seems a lot of us are totally cool with that. Go ahead, rape away, just make sure no one calls it by that name.
A 2010 survey reported by Sky News revealed 46 per cent of men aged 18 to 25 do not consider it rape if a man continues to penetrate a woman after she has changed her mind. Last week a survey conducted by Rape Crisis and Reveal magazine showed a third of women do not believe a rape to have taken place if an alleged victim did not fight back. It’s only eight years since a poll by Amnesty International suggested 8 per cent people believe a woman to be totally – that’s totally – responsible for rape if she’s had many sexual partners. The truth is, an alarming number of people are very comfortable indeed with the idea of rape in certain circumstances. Like George Galloway, they merely see it as “bad sexual etiquette”. Rape doesn’t horrify them, not a bit; rape accusations do.
Take the case of the actor Michael Le Vell, who was this week found not guilty of 12 charges relating to rape, sexual assault and sex with a minor. During the trial, the press pored over details of Le Vell’s private life, caring not one bit for the reputation of a man who had not (and still hasn’t) been convicted of anything. And yet it’s only now, once the trial’s over, that we discover the true horror of it all: the fact that Le Vell was accused at all.
Soon after the verdict Phillip Schofield tweeted his outrage, proclaiming it “bloody ridiculous a mans [sic] life & reputation can be so comprehensively trashed in this way” (it’s probably churlish to mention Lord McAlpine at this point, but still). Calls were swiftly being made for anonymity to be granted to those accused of rape, with Christine Hamilton helpfully suggesting “it’s outrageous that we should know who the accused is but not the accuser, whom the jury obviously think is a serial liar”. Similarly keen on making up allegations about other people’s allegedly made-up allegations, men’s rights campaigner Peter Lloyd wrote in the Mail that “even UK charity Rape Crisis admit that almost 1 in 10 rape allegations are false” (Rape Crisis have of course refuted this false allegation). Amazing though it is, one acquittal has made it open season on rape allegations. Just what is going on?
Having no interest in his private life and no reason to question his acquittal I have a great deal of sympathy for Michael Le Vell. I don’t, however, feel I am in a position to call his accuser a serial liar (maybe the wives of disgraced Tory MPs have special instincts for these things). I pity all victims of rape whose credibility is undermined by insinuations such as those made by Hamilton, just as I pity the small number of men who are falsely accused of rape. It’s a mess. Yet what strikes me as particularly bizarre is that in a society so tolerant of rape, in which significant numbers of people believe many forms of assault don’t even count, it’s being suggested that rape defendants need anonymity because so much shame and stigma is attached to being a rapist. This is nonsense. We’re far less likely to excuse shoplifting or benefit fraud than we are rape. We’re fine with rape. We just don’t like those who accuse and we don’t like those who are accused, either.
Rape culture is so endemic that an actual rape trial doesn’t just put the accused in the dock; broader cultural attitudes are on trial, too. Unless we’re talking about the Yorkshire Ripper or John Worboys – those extreme, nowt-to-do-with-us types – an accusation of rape doesn’t just point the finger at an individual. It challenges the widespread assumption that sex without the consent of another person isn’t really a crime. I can’t help feeling there’s a serious amount of wilful distancing in our shunning of those on trial for rape. We might not have done the things they’re accused of, but we’re way too close to them for comfort.
Hence the stigma but hence, too, the relief and triumphalism following an acquittal. Phew! So it wasn’t them – it wasn’t us – after all! Even though a not guilty verdict does not itself demonstrate that a complainant was lying (sorry, Christine), in terms of the fury it releases it might as well do. A litany of entirely implausible reasons for making a false accusation – such as a need for attention and fame – pour forth, together with contradictory demands that the fame-hungry attention-seeker’s anonymity be revoked. Yet there’s little to be gained from “crying rape” (as it’s so tastelessly called). Four fifths of assault victims responding to Mumsnet’s We Believe You survey had not made a report to the police, with most feeling that the media, the legal system and society at large are unsympathetic to rape victims. Oddly, we seem to think that if those accused of rape are losing out, those doing the accusing must be winning. This is rubbish.
Attitudes to those accused of rape can be terrible but let’s not pretend for one moment that this is because we’re overly sympathetic towards those making complaints. We’re not. Both complainants and defendants face speculation, suspicion and dismissal. Whenever there’s reasonable doubt, rather than support those we believe, we denigrate those we don’t. This isn’t because we’re disgusted by rape. On the contrary, we just don’t like anything that reminds us how tolerant we are of something we ought to despise.