Back in 2012, Nick Clegg went on Newsnight in the wake of the Savile revelations to ask the following question:
“I just keep asking myself why did this remain buried for so long…There must have been just so many people who knew what was going on”
It’s the question that crops up every time there is a high profile sexual abuse story in the media. Why did no one believe the Rochdale girls? Why did no one believe the women accusing Cosby? Why did no one believe the girls accusing Savile? Why did it take so long for it all to come out?
I’ve been thinking about this in the last few days, as a flurry of articles have appeared in the mainstream media defending the late Edward Heath from the allegations that have been made against him. I’ve been thinking about this as anti-VAWG campaigners have spoken about the women who called rape crisis helplines to allege that Heath raped them.
From Dan Hodges saying that the allegations against Heath constitute a ‘witch hunt’, (could that headline be any more click-baity? I mean, FFS!), to Matthew Parris claiming that he can’t believe something so awful of someone so great, to the absurd spectacle of convicted sex offender Jonathan King ranting on about the sex abuse allegations industry, man after man has lined up to pour scorn on the idea that the allegations made against a powerful man could possibly be true.
They all seem to have forgotten that in the event of women and men accusing someone of rape and sexual assault, our justice system has a duty to investigate those allegations. And they have a duty to do that even when the accused is a former PM, a champion yachtsman, and someone that Matthew Parris thought was a good egg. That is all that is happening here. The police are listening to alleged victims, and they are investigating the alleged crime. That’s not a ‘witch hunt’, or an ‘industry’ of ‘sex abuse allegations’. That is a criminal investigation being carried out by the proper authorities.
Should the police simply not do this, because the accused was a distinguished statesman? Are these journalists really advocating that the law doesn't apply to the once rich and powerful? Should we only pursue allegations against the people we think 'look like they might be a bit dodgy/fit our preconceived ideas of what a rapist might look like'?
Haven't we learned anything, from the last few years?
When Nick Clegg went on Newsnight and asked why the Savile story remained buried for so long, the answer was because no one wanted to believe the girls who accused a powerful and influential man.
When New York magazine put the Cosby accusers on their front page, we asked why the story had remained buried for so long. The answer was because no one wanted to believe the women who accused a powerful and influential man.
When the Guardian revealed 1,400 girls had been abused in Rochdale over 16 years, we asked why the story had remained buried for so long. The answer was because no one wanted to believe the girls who accused powerful men in their community (and when I talk about power here, I mean power in relation to the girls they were exploiting).
So when people ask why the Heath allegations have remained buried for so long, the answer is still the same. Because no one wants to believe women and men who accuse a powerful and influential man.
Haven’t we learned anything?
Why is the default position of these columnists and many, many more people across the land to disbelieve those who accuse powerful men of rape, sexual assault and abuse? I believe it is because of a colossal fail of empathy. It's men closing ranks.
Of course, the principle of innocent before proven guilty applies to these allegations - as it does to all allegations of every crime. But that principle applies to the alleged victims too. The alleged victims are innocent of the crime of ‘making a false allegation’ until proven guilty. And yet, we forget this. In our flurry to protect the accused, we instead accuse the victim.
We don't do this in any other crime. We don't tell mugging victims that we don't believe them - even if they got mugged on a deserted street. We don't tell burglary victims that we don't believe them. We don't tell fraud victims that we don't believe them. We say that they are innocent of making a false allegation until proven guilty. We are able to hold that principle towards accused and victim for all these other crimes. And yet, when it comes to rape and sexual assault, we default to disbelief.
We know that rape is astoundingly, horrifyingly common. We know that refusing to believe alleged victims in the past has meant that men like Savile got away with rape and abuse on a mass scale. We know that most rapists get away with it, that most men who commit sexual assault will never face justice. We know that the women, girls, boys and men that they rape and assault will live with the impact of that crime their whole lives, and never see the perpetrator of that crime go to jail. We know that false allegations of rape are rare. And we know that it is convicted sex offenders who tend to accuse women of ‘trying to make lots of dough’ when they make allegations.
We know all of this.
So the next time a story like this breaks - and there will be a next time because men are still raping women and girls with impunity - people will ask the same questions. They will ask why did it remain buried for so long?
And we will find the answer in our response to the Heath allegations, when man after man stood up and publicly told the women and men making the accusations:
‘we don’t believe you.’
The next time a story like this breaks, and we shake our heads and wonder why no one believed the women and girls coming forward, we will find our answer in our response to the Heath allegations. We’ll find our answer in a culture that tells women and girls they won’t be believed. That tells women and girls to shut the fuck up. That tells women and girls that a man’s reputation matters more than their safety, than their right to justice.
So don’t be surprised when a story like this breaks again. Because as long as we tell women and girls that we won’t believe them, then this will keep happening. And as long as we show men that we won’t believe women and girls when they allege violent crimes, then this will keep happening.
Rape Crisis Helpline: 0808 8029999