Rape: The rhyming defence

Do you remember that time at school when, if anybody farted, no one would dare say a word? It didn’t matter how ridiculously loud or poisonously stinky it was. You couldn’t say a thing for risk of having the dreaded rhyme thrown at you: “He who smellt it dealt it”.

Of course, we all knew that was bollocks. That’s not how farting identification works. If you’re the one who’s let rip, you do your damnedest to keep your mouth shut (given that keeping the other orifice in check has well and truly failed). You don’t want to draw attention to yourself. And hence, you leave it to someone else to take all the blame, simply by falling foul of a random, meaningless rhyme.

I often think of this rhyme when I hear the phrase “he said, she said” used in relation to rape cases. It brings rape down to the same old trivial classroom level, and it’s got nothing at all to do with the truth.

In today’s Guardian I read a piece on Wikileaks founder and possibly-soon-to-be rape accused Julian Assange, written by his lawyer Per Samuelson. Without going into the legal intricacies of the case , I would like to draw attention to the following argument presented against the extradition of Assange to Sweden:

Detaining and isolating a suspect is appropriate where the crime is sufficiently grave and the indication of guilt clear. Treating Anders Breivik in this way is the right thing to do, for instance.

The allegations against Assange, in contrast, are not nearly so serious, but a case of “he said, she said”. Let us also not forget that Assange has not been charged with any crime, and that the allegations against him were at first dismissed by a Swedish prosecutor.

It seems to me highly inappropriate here to be playing “rank the crimes”. So Assange is not a mass-murderer like Anders Breivik. So that’s alright then, is it? And if the argument is that a one-size-fits-all method of detention does not suit all alleged crimes then yes, overblown comparisons aside, that is a problem with the Swedish legal system. But it’s not one for which potential victims of crime should be asked to pay the price.*

What really bothers me about Samuelson’s words, however, is his use of the term “he said, she said”. So rhymey, so stupid, so trivialising. It sounds like the title of a crap rom-com, one in which an uptight woman and a laid-back cool guy have a one-night stand, before spending what feels like an entire lifetime twatting around before getting back together for good (or at least until the sequel, entitled “he lied, she cried”, or some such bollocks). It is such a deeply inappropriate way to describe the accusations. It suggests, with a lightness of touch, that the whole case is just a matter of two separate narratives, each of equal validity. It suggests that there’s no such thing as truth; it’s all just a matter of opinion. Just a tiff; just a domestic. Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she?

I do understand that sometimes, it is impossible to prove whether an alleged rape did or did not take place. If two people are offering completely different accounts, and there are no witnesses and no clear physical evidence, it may be that nothing can ever be proven. This is a pretty terrifying thought for any woman living in a culture that denies female sexual freedom and treats rape as a joke. But there we are. We can change the culture, but this will take time. In the meantime, might it not be a good idea if those representing the legal system could treat situations where accuser and defendant narratives conflict with the gravity required?

I don’t necessarily think that the Assange case revolves around such a scenario. Sianushka at Crooked Rib has written an excellent post on why this needn’t be so (there is also a follow-up to clarify it further). But even if it did, “he said, she said” is such a casual way to dismiss what is, for someone, the truth. It might be the accuser, it might be the accused. Either way it is belittling and wrong.

With “he who smellt  it, dealt it” we did, eventually, find a get-out clause. Finally people started saying “he who said the rhyme, did the crime”, so then no one said the first rhyme any more (the fact that the second rhyme was also, um, a rhyme, did cause potential complexities, but we let that one slide). But anyhow, it’s one to ponder. Because if a stupid rhyming cliché is your best defence, it’s all sounding, let’s face it, a bit desperate.

* Those getting their wages from such a system should of course feel welcome to do more to promote reform, but they’d probably achieve more if they weren’t so busy being tactless knobs.