For most of my adult life, my impression of sexual crime and its persecution has been shaped by The Accused. The 1988 courtroom drama, starring Kelly McGillis as a lawyer addressing the case of a rape victim played by Jodie Foster, is loosely based on Cheryl Araujo’s gang rape in 1983, and was considered revealing three decades ago. for the unwavering view of the operation of a system in which misogyny, slut-shame, and victim-humiliation were great.
Many years later, one might think our attitude towards rape cases would be a little more empathetic. The increase in awareness surrounding #MeToo, a string of highly public affairs involving rape, sex trafficking and grooming, and a generational appetite for more sympathetic behavior, especially towards victims, should have improved the way rape victims are now treated.
But it did not really. This week, U.S. District Judge Lewis A Kaplan saw arrange that Prince Andrew should face a civil case in New York over allegations that he sexually assaulted Virginia Giuffre when she was 17 years old. He did so despite the best efforts of the prince’s legal team to destroy her reputation, dismiss her accusations as “unfounded” and suggest that she was looking for a “payday at his expense”. Even at the most high-profile and public hearings, little mercy is shown to victims in the pursuit of justice.
One also looks at the treatment of the women who helped to be convicted Ghislaine Maxwell on charges of, among others, sex trafficking in minors, several of whom were cruelly questioned by Maxwell’s lawyers when they took a stand. One victim, “Jane”, was repeatedly described as someone who was given to performative behavior, whose training as an actress meant that she was well acquainted with “melodramatic and sentimental” storylines.
Harriet Johnson is a lawyer whose book Enough: The violence against women and how to end it will be published this year. While she sees high-profile cases as helping to make people aware of what constitutes a sex crime, she’s concerned about what a U.S. court case like Maxwell’s contributes to our perception of what happens in a British trial.
“The rules are very different here,” she says of the misconceptions. “For example, a lawyer cannot cross-examine a complainant about her previous sexual history without the consent of the judge, and then only if it is explicitly relevant to the case. Complainants regularly testify from behind a screen or on a video link – they do not have to try to tell their story while their attacker is staring at them. And at the end of a rape trial, the judge gives a jury specific instructions on disregarding stereotypes of how they think victims of sexual violence ‘should’ act. “
Nevertheless, Johnson is by no means hopeful about the changing conversation surrounding sexual crime. “#MeToo as a cultural movement may have had a greater impact on the perspectives of jurors. And criminal law in particular has been slowly becoming fairer to people who report sexual violence for some time. But the mistake we make when we talk about improving the justice system for women is to focus on the courts. About two-thirds of rape trials coming to court [in England and Wales] result in conviction. The problem is that only 1.6 percent of rapes reported are ever prosecuted. We can therefore talk about the problems of persuading a jury, and how it feels for victims to give evidence, but it feels like moving deck chairs when 98.4 percent of cases never reach a court. ”
Jayne Butler, CEO of Rape Crisis UK & Wales, echoes Johnson when she says that while demand for Rape Crisis services has steadily increased over the past few years as public awareness around sexual violence and abuse has improved – “We have currently upwards of 10,000 victims and survivors on our waiting lists across the country “- prosecution rates are so low” that rape has effectively decriminalized [in the UK]”.
Butler points to the Crown Prosecution Service as failed rape victims by prioritizing the strongest cases instead of “building cases by looking at the credibility and behavior of the suspect”. She also despairs over a police service that has been so demoralized by abandoning cases that it does not tend to make references to the CPS.
Major public affairs dominating the headlines may change some attitudes, but they obscure the greater truth. Rape victims seeking justice will face a prosecution system that is invariably blocked. Butler speaks only of British victims, but in some respects she speaks a universal truth: “High-profile cases naturally help to bring rape and sexual abuse into the public domain and the increased media attention can enable charities like Rape Crisis to make more victims. and survivors, ”she says. “But these cases do not portray the reality of most sexual violence and abuse – that the majority of it happens in the home.”
Nor can it be a coincidence that such show trials tend to focus on the stories of young, white, teenage girls. Cases involving marginalized women, men and transgender people rarely reach the news, despite the fact, says Johnson, that disabled women are twice as likely to suffer sexual assault as non-disabled women (there is no difference in the statistics for men). “Moreover, a conviction does not mean that the journey of recovery is over,” Butler adds. “Many women and girls will be dealing with life-changing trauma that requires ongoing specialist support.”
Obtaining a conviction can give the public closure of a case that has run through our consciousness. But such a process can offer little comfort to the victim who has to live with their ordeal long after our interest has waned.
Jo Ellison is the editor of the FTs How to spend it
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