The actor Michael Le Vell has been found not guilty of rape and crikey, this makes some people angry. If only he’d been a convicted rapist! Then we could all sleep easy at night.
According to Phillip Schofield, “it’s bloody ridiculous a man’s life and reputation can be so comprehensively trashed in this way”. Is it just me, or is this an odd way of portraying what “being a rape defendant” means? It’s as though being on trial should be considered a crime itself. While I don’t doubt it’s horrible, not everything that is horrible is horrible in quite the same way. No one should be falsely accused of rape, but accusing someone of rape — even without securing a conviction — is evidence neither of malice nor criminal intent.
Whatever the impact, making a complaint of rape or sexual assault is not an act of aggression on a par with committing rape or sexual assault. It’s not even an act of aggression. It’s just making a complaint. And why do women make such complaints? By and large, it’s not because being able to make rape complaints is one of life’s bonuses for womankind (guys, you can do it too!). It’s not as though women wander round thinking “well, if all else fails, I can accuse the next bloke who annoys me of rape”. There is no feminist superhero called False Rape Accusation Woman. The main reason women make rape complaints is because they’ve been raped.
Making a complaint is no walk in the park. It can be hugely distressing and humiliating. There are serious consequences if a woman is found to have been lying. She can be imprisoned for perverting the course of justice, which is a crime. Merely accusing another person of rape, on the other hand, is not an offence. I think this needs to be emphasised. Rape is the one crime where making the accusation is itself seen as a form of equivalent attack. It is ludicrous. Men get to rape, women get to accuse men of rape, so the story seems to go. Fair’s fair. Except then it’s not fair, at least not for those in the dock.
On the one hand rape complainants are told not to expect too much from the legal system (after all, there are “grey areas” — what if it’s all “he said/she said”?). On the other, a “not guilty” verdict is seen as proof positive that women are vindictive liars. We tell women that you cannot always prove a rape has taken place, yet we tell men that you can always prove when a rape has not taken place (no “grey areas” for the victimhood of the man acquitted of rape). This makes no sense.
I don’t think those ranting about Michael Le Vell’s accuser really care all that much about the actor’s reputation. If they did, they’d be asking why, for instance, newspapers see fit to go over the details of Le Vell’s private life. His drinking habits and whether or not he has had affairs are none of our business. We don’t know what the motives of Le Vell’s accuser were. We do know what the motives of the Daily Mail and the Independent are. They are the ones naming and shaming.
Meanwhile, attacks on the court case reek of aggressive sexual entitlement. They suggest, effectively, that women should not complain about rape because rape complaints damage reputations. If every single “not guilty” verdict is seen as evidence of a grave injustice, then millions of possible rape victims are cast as aggressors. If whenever a woman makes a complaint, she is seen as the one committing an assault until a “guilty” verdict proves otherwise, then it’s not perjury but female sexual autonomy that we’re opposing.
Many rape victims live with the fact that they will never gain redress for what happened to them. The crime will never be formally acknowledged. Those accused of rape and subsequently acquitted also have to live with the fact that their “not guilty” verdict doesn’t necessarily imply that another person is guilty of something. It would be better not to have these uncertainties, but there we are. Uncertainty isn’t the same as tabloid- and twitter-driven driven suspicion, and uncertainty — followed by silence — is better than aggression, victim-blaming and hate.