It’s not naive, sexist OR stupid to say, ‘I believe her’.

The Presumption of Innocence is a cherished principle of the British people, embedded in the national consciousness as a (near) constitutional right; a bedrock upon which all criminal justice procedures have been built. Early Islamic and Roman scholars introduced the idea to British common law maintaining that, ‘the proof lies upon the one who affirms, not the one who denies, since, by the nature of things, he who denies a fact cannot produce any proof’. You can’t prove a negative: innocent until proven guilty. The French distilled into law that the burden of evidence must be on the State, since most people are, after all, not criminals.

Giving the benefit of the doubt to the accused, therefore, has both moral and empirical validity. Because of this, we extend this presumption outside of the courtroom. We quote it to each other, we warn gossips who talk of, ‘no smoke without fire’, that we must keep an open mind. So whilst it is a legal concept, it has currency in how we shape our thoughts, our media reporting, our opinions, our voting: our culture. However, precisely because the crime of rape is different to other crimes, uncritical adherence to the principle creates an issue we need to at the very least be aware of, and arguably, should actively correct.

Most crimes start from the position that a malicious act has undeniably happened. The first step in a burglary, murder, mugging, fraud or car-theft, is to catch the perpetrator; the house is ransacked, the person shot or beaten, the bank account empty. When we extend the presumption of innocence to an alleged perpetrator in this instance, it revolves around whether we believe he or she carried out the accepted crime. Do we have the right person here? When the crime happened, was that person in the vicinity? Do they have a motive? Did they leave forensic evidence? Until the police investigation has taken place, the CPS have agreed to bring the case to trial and a jury of twelve men and women have decided beyond reasonable doubt that this person indeed is the perpetrator, we accord them the presumption of innocence. In short, first the crime is established, then the presumption of innocence is accorded to the suspect.

Rape is different. Since the definition of rape is to force a person to have penetrative sex against their will, there is often either no evidence, or ambiguous evidence that a crime has happened at all. The test is whether consent was given or withheld – a moment in time which is neither recorded, nor possibly remembered. The presence of semen could be the result of consensual sex, as could bruises. Any amount of force used could have been consensual – as internet-weary adults we know that if you can imagine a sexual act, there’s a group of people who enjoy it, no matter how deviant it seems. So with rape, as the crime is different, so is the sequence of events and reactions following its report. A rape victim asserts she was raped and names the alleged perpetrator, since in the majority of cases he is known to her. Extending the presumption of innocence to him at this point has an (almost) unique ramification. We presume he is innocent of the rape she says happened.  Therefore, in doing so, we simultaneously presume no crime occurred. 

This is where extending the presumption of innocence to him conflicts with how we view her at the moment in time where the case is reported. Thus, unlike the majority of other criminal cases; his beneficial state of presumed innocence has a direct, negative impact on hers – not judicially yet, but socially. Make no mistake however – this is not without dramatic cost to her life, health, reputation and potentially even the verdict further down the line. More so, it can perpetuate a culture in which women are permanently disadvantaged. So, unlike the majority of other criminal cases, this brings a tangibly larger burden to the victim. She has to fight two battles now, in the court of public opinion as well as the criminal court – one to prove this aggressor committed a crime and concurrently to prove that she isn’t a liar. She is two points down. Her aggressor is at worst one point down – he only needs the court of opinion to believe he’s not lying..and in court, he need do nothing at all. That burden is on the State.

I said this state of affairs is almost unique. That is because there are of course other crimes that leave little evidence, or rely on a difference of opinion or intent (eg regarding consent) or one person’s word against another’s. Fraud is notoriously difficult to prove – did the salesman mislead the victim behind closed doors when he sold her a policy she actually didn’t need?  Did my car really get stolen, or was I committing insurance fraud? No one doubted my word when I simply said it was missing. Because there are two vital dissimilarities: Firstly, we, in society, readily accord the victims of these crimes the presumption of innocence when we discuss them or report on them. There is no suspicion that the bankrupt widow is lying about not needing that policy, or the irritated middle-aged woman drove her own car off Beachy Head. We were flabbergasted when the kidnapping of Shannon Matthews turned out to be a fraud orchestrated by her parents for financial gain. It took a long operation of surveillance to convince people that Alan Knight was pretending to be in coma to receive extra benefits.

Our starting position was one of belief. Why is this? Possibly because rape is still viewed as a spectrum, with, ‘rape rape’ at one end – down an alley, at knifepoint – and, ‘risky’ sex at the other…a drunken encounter that goes wrong, a woman who usually likes rough sex changes her mind at the last moment, etc. The other crimes are binary in our collective minds – we can clearly see who is right, and who is wrong and we identify with the obvious victim. With rape, despite the fact that it IS as binary in definition as any other crime, the prevailing sense of, ‘degrees’ of rape, (a hangover perhaps from only very recent changes in the law that outlawed marital rape, court cases we all know where the victim was told she was, ‘asking for it’ because she wore a short skirt, current campaigns which tell you how to, ‘not’ get raped, rather than ‘not’ to be a rapist) mean our culture sees the crime as virtually an occupational hazard of living in society with men.

Secondly, these cultural anomalies above weren’t created randomly. They are the result of a profoundly patriarchal society where for millennia men have made the decisions, run the institutions held the power and had an unquestionable right to sex, how, where and when they want. In a world where prostitution is treated as a leisure industry, men’s orgasms are accorded a validity which one day may even attract its own trading index. If a woman is used by a man to orgasm, it’s how the world turns. From Shaggy singing, ‘It wasn’t me’, to Vicomte de Valmonte, ‘It’s beyond my control’ – men can’t help it, especially powerful men. Therefore, if a man’s reputation is ruined, as the hapless victim of a strong libido and the present incumbent of all power, it’s catastrophic. We will sacrifice the woman to preserve this natural order – witness the sympathy towards Ched Evans, the rapist, compared to his victim.

So, the victim isn’t two down to her aggressor’s one. She’s scores of points down. Her handicap is off the scale. Proving she’s not lying is to swim upstream, against the vast undercurrent of socialisation that favours the man’s position and excuses the act of rape. She’s not so much on the back foot, as not in the race – a place that many women choose to remain rather than compete against impossible odds. Too few women are reporting rape and those that do face a flattening wave of disbelief, aggression, suspicion and malice to progress past the first step. Consider a world where this tweet would have been posted in response to a as yet un-investigated claim of fraud, or medical malpractice.  (‘Jackie’ is the UVA student who alleges gang rape).

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Or a world where a woman who claims a famous footballer stole her car has to move house three times and change her identity, such is the backlash of hate and violence against her.  Or a world where a crime which attracts such low rates of false accusations (0.62%*, and a proportion of these were from women suffering from mental health issues) but the media, including the BBC, continue to report it at best in legally inaccurate terms

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and at worst openly assert the victim is lying. You can’t. It wouldn’t happen. Police read papers. Jury member are normal workers who talk in the office. Our legal system is exposed to the same cultural forces as you or me.

So a social presumption of either innocence or guilt has importance. It indirectly but definitively contributes to the judicial process, given that the process is managed by impressionable, fallible humans. I believe in assertive action to correct cultural wrongs which are too slow to correct themselves – women are being failed, suffering breakdowns, letting rapes go unreported and therefore putting their future health and wellbeing at risk, and at times, are driven to committing suicide.

When rapes go unreported, other women are raped. The status quo cannot be accepted. I believe there is a valid political position to occupy in loudly and firmly stating, ‘I believe her’ at the moment she reports assault. I believe the media should receive mandatory training and advice in believing victims, as should juries and the police. I believe women deserve to be supported and believed from the moment they state a rape occurred, to when it is reported in the press, to when it comes to court. This is in no way incompatible with the notion of a thorough investigation and trial- it is a start point, not an end point. This is a cultural adjustment which is long overdue and statistically extremely low risk.  If the CPS can prove the rape did occur – that is their job and they must do it. But just like the accused, the raped woman can’t prove a negative either. She can’t prove she isn’t lying about the absence of consent. The principle was founded on the belief that most people aren’t criminals, and that has to go for her too. She desperately and immediately deserves the presumption of innocence.

I believe her.

 

March 2015.

The Select Committee is proposing that those accused of rape are granted anonymity at arrest, pre-charging. This will prevent police collecting adequate evidence to charge, as no other women will know to come forward. Most rapists rape multiple times. If they’re not charged, they will keep on raping and existing victims will see no justice. No other crime, other than those committed by minors demands anonymity. Remember – being raped is worse than being asked if you raped.

Please sign the petition and write to your MP.

http://everydayvictimblaming.com/activism/please-email-your-mp-re-anonymity-for-suspects-in-rape-cases/

BBC: Be the language expert you say you are.

I heard a fascinating piece on the PM show on Radio 4 last week about an internal English Language department, staffed by a handful of linguistic experts. Their job is to ensure the BBC’s published and broadcast news maintain high standards of grammatical accuracy and a consistently impartial, authoritative yet approachable tone of voice
across its multiple channels.

There was a fun segment where the head of department took Eddie Mair to task over a slip between the usage of ‘among’ rather than, ‘amongst’. Minutes of prime broadcasting time were spent examining this quirk and we all nodded along, pleasingly distracted from the tedious rush-hour traffic.

I liked this piece because I love linguistics. I love it because language changes the paths of life. It is the vehicle upon which we load all the meaning we wish to communicate, before sending it out into the world. From parental ‘phone calls in Mandarin, love-letters in Swahili, to testimonies in a Dutch court, the choice of words matters; sometimes it matters dramatically. (Derek Bentley’s tragically ambiguous, ’Let him have it’; Kennedy’s near diplomatic slip, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’.)

We know this. The BBC knows this, that’s why they (we) fund a department to ensure the news they impart reaches our ears, eyes and brains with all meaning intact, authentic pronunciations of difficult, rare or foreign words perfected, and a neutral perspective which allows us, the recipient of the news, to come to our own individual, personal value judgements.

Despite all political persuasions accusing the BBC of bias, their Mission Statement remains,

To enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain.” And to do this, “independently, impartially and honestly’.

Moreover, they promise, to, ‘respect each other and celebrate our diversity so that everyone can give their best.’

Language sets the culture. We no longer say, ‘coloured’ people, because that was the term of Apartheid South Africa and carries with it connotations of oppression. In the seventies however, it was seen as a perfectly legitimate term and confusingly for people for whom English is not a first language, appears quite lexically near to, ‘People of Colour’. But culturally they are miles apart; the abbreviation, ‘coloureds’ was dehumanising, the noun has become redundant. The BBC will have updated their style guide accordingly.

Why then, are they incapable of taking advice from other groups – not minority groups here, but MAJORITY groups; just as there are more POC on the planet than white people, there are more women than men – and adapt language referring to the oppression of women and girls?

Witness today’s headline, ‘Bristol Sex Gangs Jailed for Grooming Girls’.

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When you read the word, ‘sex’, your eyes process the symbols, S E X and your synapses fire off images and connotations. They will include; interest (because sex is interesting to human beings), maybe even some sexual interest, (let’s face it – sex with young women, often called, girls, looms large in our cultural stimulus), and a degree of normality. It’s no big deal! People have sex. We see it on the telly, we read about it in our daily newspaper, we may have had it ourselves last night.

But. The girls are girls – real girls – for once the term is being used accurately. They are underage.

Therefore, legally they cannot consent to sex. Therefore, it is rape.

Rape is nothing to do with sex. Rape is a non-consensual act of power, in the vast, vast majority of cases from an empowered male over a subjugated female. It is an act of violence and oppression. It is under-reported, socially stigmatising, but can ruin a woman’s life. The girls were raped. They weren’t, ‘groomed for sex by gangs’, they were raped by multiple perpetrators.

If you use the wrong words, you create the wrong connotations, you alter behaviour. This diminishes an act of terror in the eyes of the BBC’s readers. These readers are law-makers and enforcers. They are the policeman a girl runs to after a rape, a member of staff at the hospital carrying out the rape examination, a person at the CPS evaluating whether to bring a case, a jury member settling down to come to a verdict.

Take your resources, BBC and divert them to listening to survivors of violence against women and girls and to women’s groups. Tell the Language Department to re-write the language of abuse. Stand them down from arguing over, ‘less and fewer’, ‘while and whilst’ and uphold your mission statement for the sake of the millions of women who fund your entire organisation.

An Ode to Ched

A fairytale I wish to tell

Of a famous ne’er do well

His name was Ched, of Evanshire

A man of note, of fame! (a liar..?)

But first, let’s pause to understand

How people live in Menzerland

The men are fierce, and brave and strong

They live life proud, they sing their song

of wine and girls and what is theirs

(Or what they take), for who would care

They run the courts, the trade, the schools

The women work within these rules

And if perchance a girl speaks out

They call their trolls to take her out.

Bitch slut or cunt or rancid whore

Just laugh it off! You’re such a BORE

And there I fail, this honest voice

I live there too, who gets a choice?

I can’t see life outside the lens

Of life and love run by Teh Menz

We paint our nails to stop the rape

Wear Borstal knicks to help escape

the wretched bog of lust and hate

That’s been our lot since seven or eight

It’s sort of cool. It is. It’s FUN

To hare off home and when you’re done

Record your win, you weren’t attacked

She got raped but you got back

So climb your tower, pull up your hair

Stay down, stay small, don’t try, don’t dare

to break these norms, they’re water tight

Rules are rules and men are RIGHT

that rape’s not rape unless you scream

Outside works best, down alleys a theme.

A knife can help cos that’s more certain

That what’s in store involves you hurting

With blood and bruises as your proof

A broken mind can’t tell the truth

to satisfy the crowds that come

around the man – you’re over. Done.

So change your name, move house, move town

You got your way, he’s going down

You fucking bitch look what you did

You wrecked his life, he’s just a kid

And whilst you start your life anew

Remember what you put him through.

What’s that you say – you’re not the same?

Turn up the box, time for The Game.