How should we watch Annie Hall now? After the film-maker Woody Allen was given the lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes, his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow told the New York Times the story of how he had allegedly sexually abused her when she was a child. The accusations against Allen are 20 years old and were never brought to trial but he takes his place in a grim roll-call of well-known men whose work and achievements are being called into question because of how they are said to have treated women and children. (Allen denies the charges against him.)
It seems that the whole world is a mess of abuse allegations. In Britain, Operation Yewtree has marched a procession of beloved household names – some of them deceased, some of them merely half-deceased – through the spotlight. And there are others: politicians such as the late Liberal MP Cyril Smith; respected activists such as Julian Assange. It is uncomfortable to watch. I like quality cinema and digital rights as much as the next lefty hipster but the allegations against Rolf Harris were even more disconcerting. I’m never going to be able to watch Animal Hospital in the same way again.
There are people, not all of them men, who believe there is a conspiracy going on. When I speak to them as a reporter, they tell me that women lie about rape, now more than ever. They say women lie to damage men’s reputations and “destroy their lives”, even though popular culture is groaning with powerful men who have been accused of sexual abuse and whose lives remain distinctly undestroyed: men such as the boxer Mike Tyson and the singer R Kelly.
The women and children who make the accusations, however, risk their relationships, their reputation, their safety. Anonymity in the press is no protection against the rejection of family, friends and workmates. We have created a culture and a legal system that punish people who seek justice so harshly that those who do come forward are assumed to have some ulterior motive.
Rape and abuse are the only crimes in which, in the words of 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 we must assume that he is innocent and she is lying. The problem is that, in this society, “he said” is almost always considered more credible than “she said”.
The rule of law cannot be relied on when it routinely fails victims of abuse. As the Woody Allen case demonstrates, the law courts aren’t the only place where questions of sexual power – what men may and may not do with impunity to women, children and other men – are played out.
No judge can legislate for the ethics of the Golden Globes judging committee. And no magistrate can ensure that a young girl such as the Missouri teenager Daisy Coleman, who came forward two years ago to say she had been raped by a classmate at a party, is not hounded out of town, along with her family, until she makes attempts on her own life.
When feminists talk of “rape culture”, they mean more than just a culture in which rape is routine. They mean a society that believes two different things at once: that women and children lie routinely about being raped, but that they should also behave as if rape will be the result if they get into a strange car, walk down a strange street, or wear a sexy outfit. Oh, and that if we are raped, it is our own fault.
However, 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. Either thousands of women and children are lying about rape, or rape and sexual abuse are endemic and have been for centuries. Facing up to the latter is a painful prospect.
Many of the allegations that are surfacing, such as those made against Woody Allen and the Yewtree defendants, are not new. What is new is that on a cultural level we are beginning 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, say, a great film-maker. 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. 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.
If we are to accept the enormity of rape culture – if we are to understand what it means that one in five girls and one in ten boys are sexually abused – it will not be just painful. It will force our society to reimagine itself. As Jessica Valenti writes in 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.
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 today I see men and boys as well as women and girls speaking up in protest. 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 yes – that gives me hope.
Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman