The Guardian has taken an interesting slant on an old issue, but even the title they chose bothers me: “In rape cases, ‘no’ means ‘no’ to everyone except the British public.” Everyone but the British public? Really? I didn’t think so, either. And the article goes on to treat comprehension of what “no” means as the cure-all to sexual assault trials that don’t end satisfactorily for victims. I wish any of it were this simple.
The article reminds us how years ago, judges and the police tended to blame rape victims for provoking their own rapes, thereby taking all responsibility off the shoulders of the rapist, who obviously couldn’t help himself in the face of such overwhelming temptation as his victim, you know, being right there on the same planet with him. Now, the Guardian claims, police and judges have improved, but it’s jurors who still think sometimes it’s your own damn fault you got raped. The author seems to believe juries still largely consider it more important to hold women accountable to standards of propriety than to hold men accountable for their own actions, when it comes to sexual assault.
The article is not very well edited (I am the queen of bad editing, so I should know). It’s difficult to sum it up in any meaningful way (believe me, I just spent the last forty minutes trying, to no avail), but it’s a quick read. I find the article’s premise unpersuasive. I do think the police and judges have improved their handling of these cases, generally, but not to the extent that we should be satisfied and switching all our concerns to uninformed jurors – the problem remains systemic in our culture, which tends to hold women accountable for all activities involving sex organs.
The comments are more interesting, in that they suggest what potential jurors may actually be thinking:
It is very very hard to know who is telling the truth much less know beyond a reasonable doubt. I have also yet to hear convincing arguments why the standard of proof for THIS crime should be changed (why not murder too)?
In light of that, it is obvious we need to educate women on how to protect themselves more. That means saying that getting drunk around men you don’t trust completley is dangerous. We warn people about getting into unlicensed cabs. No, this doesn’t mean women who flirt and get drunk deserve rape. But women who do are in more danger. We need to educate women on how to stay safe.
The second paragraph is based on the usual myths: that strangers assault women more often than people known to the victim (the opposite is true), that any human can ever really know for sure another human is trustworthy (sadistic people know how to feign empathy and conscience until they’ve got victims where they want them), etc. But the first paragraph is absolutely right. Not all sexual assault cases boil down to two conflicting stories, but when they do, it is difficult to consider witness testimony as evidence “beyond reasonable doubt.” On the surface, that’s just plain rational.
What I believe is missing from this multi-decade international conversation is the simple question: why would a person not only lie about consensual sex being non-consensual, but also put herself through the trauma of a trial unlikely to be won? What’s her motive for making all this up? Without that motive, have we any reason not to take her word at face value?
I think this is where the real prejudice comes in: we have a long-standing cultural belief that less privileged people are obsessed with tearing down more privileged people, to the extent they would make great personal sacrifices to accomplish their acts of destruction. We like believing this more than we like believing that one of the entitlements of privilege is to treat the less privileged like your belongings, and then toss them aside.
Consider that most men wrongly convicted of rape are men of color who have often been misidentified by victims pressured by law enforcement to say they’re more sure of identification than they really are (and also by other witnesses who have their own motives for wanting the defendant behind bars, which has nothing to do with the sexual assault in question). Because they are no more privileged than the women who accused them, juries can’t imagine why she’d be lying, and happily convict (and of course, straight-up racism plays a part here, too). Then white middle class (or higher) men moan endlessly on websites about how women make up stories about rape just to hurt them, when white middle class men are rarely convicted rightly, let alone wrongly, of rape.
Sure, juries are often getting it wrong. But I don’t think it’s all due to judging women for not being little ladies. Privilege is all about making less privileged people accountable for the actions of more privileged people. To view a sexual assault case in this light, one need not think that girls who aren’t prudes are “asking for it” to still reach the conclusion that she is responsible for what occurred, or possibly lying about it.
And that, I think, is where any perceived difference between law enforcement improvement and jury improvement is coming from. Law enforcement personnel can hobble their personal prejudices by simply accepting that their job is to collect evidence and put it through certain processes, and many individuals have successfully learned to do this. Jurors, however, are not in a profession where they receive mentoring and long training – except from a culture that teaches them all privileged people are automatically Nice Folks, and accusations against the privileged are automatically suspect.