Wednesday, 11 September 2013

On two dangerous and persistent rape myths

Trigger warning for rape and rape myths

I’ve been thinking about two rape myths today, and what they mean for our understanding of rape in and out of the courtroom. 

The first myth is the idea that there is a ‘correct’ way to respond to being attacked, and that response is to scream. And the second is that a if the jury acquits a man accused of rape, the accuser is immediately guilty of the crime of ‘false accusation’ or perverting the course of justice – despite not being found guilty in the law courts. 

The ‘she didn’t scream’ myth is a persistent one. It’s the belief that a woman or girl would always scream or fight back if they were attacked, and that if they didn’t scream or fight back, then there was no attack. It is based on the idea that ‘rape is the worst thing that can happen to a woman, and therefore a woman would do everything in her power to stop it’. Responding to this statement, CWASU writes on their rape myths page: 

 Many women assess their attacker, and make moment by moment decisions about their survival. In many circumstances, women being sexually assaulted fear for their lives. When rapists have a weapon, or threaten the victim, most will strategise for their own survival by not unduly alarming or aggravating their attacker; they follow his instructions in order to stay alive, and this may include not making a noise or resisting. Being raped is not worse than being dead or permanently injured - opting to submit is a rational decision, made in a context where there are very few choices or options.

Some women may scream and fight. Some women may freeze, from fear or because they believe it may keep them safe from additional, physical violence. No one should apply a moral judgement to either response. No one should tell a woman that she responded ‘the wrong way’. And yet, we hear this all the time. Women who scream may find themselves told they ‘put themselves in more danger’. Women who freeze are told they ‘should have fought back’. 

One of the problems I see here is our skewed understanding of consent. We see consent as the ‘absence of a no’, not the presence of an ‘enthusiastic yes’. Freezing and not screaming is not an indication of consent. Consent does not rely on silence, and the fact we continue to believe it does leads to the rape myth that if she didn’t vocalise no, she must have meant yes. This myth then leads to women blaming themselves for not saying no. 

When I interviewed TV writer Emilia di Girolamo about this issue, she said: 

‘It was something that I felt had happened to me and I didn’t understand – I grew up thinking that I was in the wrong and that I should have fought and should have shouted no, and I didn’t. It was only when I started reading about freeze response that I realised that’s exactly what happened to me. That’s how I felt, I couldn’t move and I couldn’t shout or scream.’

Freezing and silence is not an indicator that no assault happened. It is a survival tactic and it is a normal response to being attacked. It should be respected and understood to be so. 

Every time we repeat the myth that there is a correct way to respond to rape, then we are telling women who don’t respond that way that they are to blame, that they were in the wrong. As with every single rape myth out there, it moves the focus from the perpetrator’s behaviour onto the woman’s. It says that it is up to the victim to behave in an approved manner, and that her response is then ‘proof’ of her innocence or guilt. We ignore the responsibility of the perpetrator not to rape, we ignore that it is up to him to prove that the rape didn’t take place. It is his behaviour that should be under scrutiny and yet time and time again we return to the woman’s actions.  

The CPS has started to challenge the defence that if a woman didn’t behave in a pre-approved manner, then it wasn’t rape. In their guidelines on rape myths, they write: 

If she didn’t scream, fight or get injured, it wasn’t rape.

Implications:

Disbelieves and re-traumatises victim
Invalidates the experience of the victim
Discourages him or her from seeking help
Facts: 

victims in rape situations are often legitimately afraid of being killed or seriously injured and so co-operate with the rapist to save their lives;
the victims perception of threat influences their behaviour;
rapists use many manipulative techniques to intimidate and coerce their victims;
victims in a rape situations often become physically paralysed with terror or shock and are unable to move or fight; and
non-consensual intercourse doesn't always leave visible signs on the body or the genitals.

The CPS is right. Accusing a woman of not responding in the ‘correct’ way to rape invalidates the victim, brings back trauma and tells them that they shouldn’t report because no one will believe them or respect their experience. And so the terrible cycle continues where reporting rates stay low, and those who do report risk being disbelieved, and the rape myths infiltrate the public imagination and the conviction rate stays low. 

That’s what makes this myth so dangerous. 


The second myth I want to talk about is on how when a man is found not guilty of rape, the woman is found guilty in the court of public opinion of making a false accusation. 

Making a false accusation of rape is a serious crime which results in a jail term if an individual is found guilty. It is perverting the course of justice. 

If you believe in the principle that everyone is innocent before proven guilty, then you MUST extend that right to women who make a rape complaint too. They are innocent of the crime of making a false accusation unless the courts prove otherwise. 

Here’s an infographic of false accusations against incidents of rape:



It really seems to confuse people, the idea that the principle of innocent before proven guilty applies to women who make rape complaints too. 

A not guilty verdict of rape does not equal a guilty verdict of false accusation. The belief that it does fosters the rape myth that false accusations are incredibly common and rape is rare. We know this is not true. According to Keir Starmer, in the period of 17 months there were 5,6751 prosecutions of rape, and 35 prosecutions for false accusations of rape. In the same period, there were 111,891 prosecutions for domestic abuse and 6 for false allegations of domestic abuse. Every year, according to the BCS, there are 1.2 million incidents of domestic abuse and 500,000 incidents of sexual assault – up to 90,000 of which are rape. False accusations are incredibly rare and rape is incredibly, terrifyingly common. 


Last night I was talking with a friend of mine about these rape myths. We said we both believe that in the future, perhaps in the next generation, we will look back at society today in horror. We will be horrified that we were a society that allowed rape to happen. We will be ashamed that our response to rape was to find ways to blame and accuse the victim. It will be as ridiculous and embarrassing as witch burning or other historical disgraces. Our grandchildren will look at us and ask how we dared to allow this, how we dared to tell a woman that she should have screamed, she should have said no, that she is guilty of a crime she hasn’t been convicted of because she made a rape complaint. 

I believe this will happen because things are changing, and they are changing because of feminists. Two years ago, when a group of men group raped a 12 year old girl and they got out of jail on appeal because the judge said she was sexually experienced and wanted sex, there was silence. This year, when a lawyer called a 13 year old rape survivor ‘predatory’ and the judge gave her rapist ridiculously low sentence, David Cameron got involved and action was taken against the lawyer. Feminists didn’t get any credit despite Everyday Victim Blaming leading the march on this case, but at least there was uproar. At least people said it wasn’t ok to victim blame a child. 

Things are changing. Feminists are leading this change. We are having an impact. We are facing a helluva backlash as a result. But the day when we are ashamed of our attitude to rape and survivors is coming. It is coming. 


Rape crisis helpline: 0808 802 9999

9 comments:

massivehassle.com said...

This is a great post! I would add to the refutation of the "she would have screamed" myth by saying that the most common weapon used by rapists, by far, are date rape drug and good old-fashioned alcohol. Predators rely on substances to make sure their target is incapacitated and deliberately target women who are already drunk, usually by encouraging them to get drunker. You can't scream if you're disorientated and blacking out every two minutes and you can't fight back if you can barely stand or hold your head up.

That said, this probably feeds into two other prevalent rape myths, a) that all rapists are shady men who hold their victims at knife point in dark alley and never charming men who hang out at bars plying women with drinks and b) women who go to bars and drink alcohol are asking for it. Oh, any my favourite, c) consent is sooooo haaaaard to understand when there is alcohol involved!

Sigh. It's depressing, but you are very right, feminists NEED to keep talking about these myths and explaining WHY they are myths if we ever want anything to change.

Jim Wiz said...

The first one, indisputable. The second however you're going to have to clarify for me.

— "a man is found not guilty of rape, the woman is found guilty in the court of public opinion of making a false accusation."

We have two things here, legal fact and public opinion. Which is important.

— "Making a false accusation of rape is a serious crime which results in a jail term if an individual is found guilty. It is perverting the course of justice."

Now it's legal not opinion.

— "If you believe in the principle that everyone is innocent before proven guilty, then you MUST extend that right to women who make a rape complaint too. They are innocent of the crime of making a false accusation unless the courts prove otherwise."

On legal technical grounds yes, but as common logic or opinion based on the outcome of the original case and without any legal influence, why?

Can someone actually be innocent of false rape accusation while the person who was accused also not guilty of that rape? Not technically, I understand how the law does not blur these things. But from the point of view of someone using simple logic.

Also how would someone be found guilty of making a false accusation? Who moves this forward? The person found not guilty of rape, or is it an extension of the previous case?

— "It really seems to confuse people, the idea that the principle of innocent before proven guilty applies to women who make rape complaints too."

Perhaps this is because it does not make sense that someone is innocent of one thing while the person they accused is also innocent of what they were accused of?

— "A not guilty verdict of rape does not equal a guilty verdict of false accusation."

Well sure, on technical grounds.

— "The belief that it does fosters the rape myth that false accusations are incredibly common and rape is rare."

Only if the person misunderstands the law and the way courts work.

quiteirregular said...

This is surely based on the distinction between the uses of the word "false", isn't it? It can sometimes be used to mean "not the case, inaccurate, not aligning precisely with the facts as discovered" - as in "a falsifiable hypothesis." However, we also use it to mean "false" as in "wicked, deceitful, malicious, lying" - as in "a false friend", "a false front", "thou shalt bear no false witness".

The charge can be not found to be the case in court, without the alleged victim of the crime being "false" in the second sense. (This is why we make the very necessary distinction between "not guilty" and "false accusation".) We might even speak of a "false accusation" without saying that someone was a "false accuser".

More broadly, (and borrowing from a friend I talked this over with at lunch) I think Sian's point is that those who want to identify the outcome of an adversarial legal process with reality (he was found not guilty so he is innocent), as so many keyboard warriors do, cannot then ignore the fact that the legal system does NOT regard the complainant as having made a false accusation. They don't get to play it both ways: insist that a legal judgement is the same as absolute certainty, and then ignore what the legal judgement says. Indeed, the space the law allows between "not guilty" and "she was lying" might be read - by someone using the common sense and logic you quite rightly propose - as an admission that there is no direct equivalence.

Leopard said...

Jim Wiz - "Can someone actually be innocent of false rape accusation while the person who was accused also not guilty of that rape? Not technically, I understand how the law does not blur these things. But from the point of view of someone using simple logic."

The thing is, when someone is pronounced 'not guilty', it does not mean that they have been proven innocent. It simply means that there is insufficient evidence to say for sure that they have committed the crime.

In the eyes of the law, pronouncing someone guilty when they are in fact innocent (and thus sending an innocent person to jail) is far worse than pronouncing someone innocent when they are in fact guilty (letting a guilty person go free). Thus, the default position will always be the non-guilt of the accused, unless there is enough evidence to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that they are guilty.

To apply it to this case, LeVell found not guilty of rape does not mean that his innocence has been proven beyond all doubt, and hence does not mean that the woman is lying. So yes, it's perfectly possible that someone can be innocent of a false rape accusation while the accused is pronounced 'not guilty', both legally and from the point of view of "simple logic".

Marina S said...

-- "Also how would someone be found guilty of making a false accusation? Who moves this forward?"

The state, as is the case with all crimes (including rape). If the police have reason to suspect a fraudulent claim has been made, they will instruct the CPS and the CPS will then decide whether to take it forward to trial. Happens all the time, it's not some super exotic thought experiment feminists have dreamt up.

Jim Wiz said...

@Leopard

— "The thing is, when someone is pronounced 'not guilty', it does not mean that they have been proven innocent."

Why do we assume people are innocent until proven guilty if you cannot be innocent? If someone is found not guilty of the crime then surely it is also possible for them to be innocent of the crime?

— "It simply means that there is insufficient evidence to say for sure that they have committed the crime."

Unless there is evidence, no?

— "To apply it to this case, LeVell found not guilty of rape does not mean that his innocence has been proven beyond all doubt…"

But you've said we don't prove innocence so how does this even come into the equation?

— "and hence does not mean that the woman is lying. So yes, it's perfectly possible that someone can be innocent of a false rape accusation while the accused is pronounced 'not guilty', both legally and from the point of view of "simple logic"."

This is what confuses me. The impression I'm getting is the accused can never be considered innocent, before, during, after, whenever. They are simply found not guilty. While the accuser can be innocent, before, during and after.


@Marina S

— "The state, as is the case with all crimes (including rape). If the police have reason to suspect a fraudulent claim has been made, they will instruct the CPS and the CPS will then decide whether to take it forward to trial."

Thanks.

— "Happens all the time, it's not some super exotic thought experiment feminists have dreamt up."

Why be like this? People are always like this when all I do is try to understand the situation better. Surely you want to explain these things to people who either don't understand or don't agree, otherwise what's the point?

j_444 said...

The "she would have screamed" myth is false on a number of levels. Intentional use of drugs and alcohol by the perpetrator can act as inhibitors, but there is also the totally invalid assumption that if a woman doesn't scream or holler she is therefore complicit in the act. This simply isn't true. Fear can shut down a lot of responses... for instance apprehension about provoking violence. None of this means the woman is either compliant or "willing."

Elizabeth Woodfield said...

I enjoyed reading your thoughtful post. It put me in mind of a BBC documentary, I think it was called 'Rape: the unspeakable crime' or something similar. It followed a rape survivor through the grueling process of going to court. The man was found guilty.

Before the verdict was announced she said something like 'if he gets found not guilty does that mean my rape didn't happen?'. That has stayed with me ever since.

A not guilty verdict is not the same as a false accusation.

danfactor said...

Sian I bet u believe in the not guilty doesn't mean innocent line. in other words all men found not guilty of rape got away with it!