Published: 27 October 2016 at 10:00
VIEWPOINT: Anglia Ruskin Criminologist examines the questions posed following not guilty verdict
by Dr Olivia Smith, Anglia Ruskin University
Since the footballer Ched Evans was found not guilty of rape at a retrial on October 14, public opinion appears divided. Much has already been written about the case, in particular the use of the victim’s sexual history in court. These commentaries range from fears that hard-fought feminist reforms have been undone to legal professionals asserting that the law only allows evidence relating to sexual history in rare circumstances.
Inevitably, the truth lies somewhere in between these approaches. My own research shows that evidence regarding sexual history is routinely used at trial to undermine victims, so this is not a step back to the 1970s but rather a grim reflection of current practices.
After the verdict and the reaction to it, the following three questions could help move the debate on rape justice forward.
It is clear that several misunderstandings about rape are prevalent and have an impact on the public’s responses to cases such as the Evans one. This arises partly from our need to feel safe and in control of our lives, making it unnerving to hear about the widespread and indiscriminate impact of rape on a diverse range of victims. In order to convince ourselves that we are not at risk, psychological research has suggested that many members of the public therefore find reasons to “defensively attribute” blame to the victim and argue they could have prevented the violence if in a similar situation.
This is exacerbated by some irresponsible media reporting, where misunderstandings about rape are repeatedly trotted out to undermine the survivor’s experiences focusing on her clothing, her actions or her drinking. Such reporting ignores the realities of rape, or the impact that trauma can have on survivors. Until the public face these realities and recognise that rape is the sole responsibility of the rapist, we contribute to the stigma and victim-blaming that the Evans retrial has highlighted.
This is especially true in relation to the portrayal of rapists as monsters rather than partners, fathers, or friends. If the defendant appears to be a “nice guy” or has a promising talent, like the young men accused of sexual assault in Netflix documentary Audrie and Daisy, their actions are trivialised or excused so that they are not portrayed as being different. Such labelling is also behind calls for defendants to have anonymity in sexual offences (another debate that has resurfaced after the Evans case). So perhaps it is time to acknowledge that rapists are more likely to be the life and soul of the party than the weirdo lurking down an alleyway.
It is clear from responses to the Evans verdict that some parts of the general public do not understand our criminal justice system. A not guilty verdict can cover anything from total innocence to “very probably guilty but I can’t be totally certain”. As the Secret Barrister blogged: “There is absolutely no safe basis for suggesting [the complainant] has lied, or, to quell the more hysterical calls, that she should be prosecuted on the basis of Evans’ acquittal.”
But the criminal justice system is fundamentally flawed in its ability to provide justice for victims of sexual violence. One of the things that victims consistently tell researchers is that they want to be heard and believed, regaining the sense of control that was removed in the rape. The criminal justice system can be a place for this, as a sense of validation can come from having the offender admit their guilt or a jury convict based on the victim’s testimony. However, this is rare and my research shows that our adversarial system presents many barriers to victim justice.
A narrow view of justice as being solely about a criminal trial can therefore silence rape survivors and it is important to provide other places for victims to be heard. One such place is ItsNotJustice.com, developed by activist Pavan Amara as a place for survivors of rape to collect their experiences of the Criminal Justice System in a safe online space. Other sources of victim justice include the support provided by charities such as Rape Crisis.
Amid the inevitable misogynistic tweets and backlash against feminist commentary on the Evans case, it is important to recognise that responses to rape have improved since the 1970s. The very intensity of the debate around this case highlights changing attitudes, even if gendered stereotypes about false allegations remain stubbornly present.
Newspaper coverage of the case has surprised some feminist activists on Twitter. For example, the Daily Mail’s headline read “Why was rape case girl’s sex life revealed?”, representing a shift away from the previous stories the newspaper has run about rape accusations.
Progress has been made and responses to rape are slowly improving. To continue this journey we must look beyond the Evans case and on to the thousands of other rape cases taking place around the country. The push to improve responses to rape cannot stop once this one case is no longer considered newsworthy.