When I was 17 I was raped by two men. I shouldn’t have got chatting to them but I had no idea of my vulnerability at that point so I did- and twenty minutes later they were dragging me off to a thicket of trees a couple of minutes from my house. Fortuitously we moved house a week after that, from the North to the South, I became 18 and took a job in a bar. It was walking from the bus stop to my home that I was attacked for the second time. It was just a boy this time, maybe 16. He said he had a knife.
The question that’s always puzzled me about these events in my life is why didn’t I scream? I mean, both times I opened my mouth and I tried but no sound would come out. Something inside me was stronger than my survival instinct. The first thing that comes to mind is shame- shame of being caught having sex (consensual or not), being caught partially dressed- and that was there, I felt that- But not enough to quell my most primal of instincts. What stopped me making a sound was deeper than that. It needs a little backstory:
I was raised a strong, intelligent, self sufficient girl. I was just a poor little regional kid but I knew I could hold my own in conversation with the Oxbridge big boys; I could fascinate the most jaded of rock and roll casualties… My work ethic was legendary… But when I was raped my entire self image imploded instantly because I realised that for all that…. Any man who chose to deprive me of my autonomy could do. As easy as clicking his fingers.
That crisis of ego rocked me to the core and led me to question whether I had any real value at all. And it was this, I think, that choked my scream and also prevented me going to the police (in fact I didn’t tell anyone at all about the first attack for several years). I didn’t know who I was or whether what happened even mattered.
So… With that heavy in my breast I start reading the fall out from Michael Le Vell’s acquittal and people saying that it’s ‘too easy’ to accuse innocent people of sexual assault and that the victims right to anonymity is unfair and encourages the kind of mentally unhinged people capable of this kind of malicious act to pursue their nasty little schemes… Now, ok, we can apparently see an example of this with La Vell (whether she would have deviated from her course due to publicity is uncertain- for me) but, the fact is, the police and authorities consistently rate the number of false allegations as a very small minority of cases and actually, with a 6% conviction rate for reported rapes plus my personal experience, I am convinced that the last thing we need to do is make it more difficult for people to report sexual assault.
Alex Brew (spokeswoman: Women Against Rape) says “The system is stacked up against them from the very start of the investigation and in court as well.” Retrieving DNA samples from victims is a traumatic, invasive process that can only work where a woman has had the strength of character and presence of mind immediately after the attack to pursue conviction. The sympathy and support they receive from authorities can vary. Then, on the unusual occasion the case actually makes it to court, the trial is horrendous and guilt has to be proved beyond reasonable doubt which can be difficult in a situation with two versions of events.
Where the victim of Ched Evan’s identity was released on Twitter she faced a barrage of abuse from people calling her a “money grabbing slut” and “slapper” in an example of the situation a named victim can encounter. Nine separate people who originally ‘named and shamed’ her were ordered to pay £624 each to the victim and Judge Andrew Shaw stated “For reasons that I had thought were within the common knowledge of most intelligent people in this country we offer further protection for the victims of rape by prohibiting the publication of their names and personal details”. Nevertheless it is entirely possible that her experience has fed the fear of other people deciding whether or not to press for conviction for crimes against them.
Regardless of all the above, had I known at the time that I would have to reveal my situation to my family there is no way I would have pursued my attackers. For me, this is the primary arguement for victim anonymity. With hindsight, and being a parent, my privacy feels of little value compared to raising awareness. But that is my business and other victims should be able to choose for themselves- whether or not they choose to prosecute.
The other suggestion that is being hawked throughout the media and internet is that the defendant should reclaim the anonymity awarded by the 1976 Sexual Offences (Ammendment) Act which was repealed by the 1988 Criminal Justice Act. On the face of it this is a fair idea promoting equality before the law. In 2010 the coalition government proposed the very same but dropped the proposal… Unfortunately, for the likes if La Vell (who deserve the sanctuary of anonymity) there are real reasons why real rapists must not have this- firstly because it would prevent the police circulating pictures of suspects wanted for questioning or trial and secondly because, time and again, publicity pulls more victims and witnesses out of the woodwork to ensure justice is done for them too. Furthermore it seems slightly incredible to me that this fairly drastic course of action is being called for- despite the aforementioned problems it raises when all it would take from the media and public is a change of attitude- to treat defendants as innocent until proven guilty; to relinquish one major aspect of the stress and hardship innocent men such as La Vell must endure.
Whilst I can only imagine what it feels like to be wrongly accused of such heinous crimes I echo the words of the Association of Chief Police that the “welfare of rape victims needs to remain a priority” and I believe that the law as it stands is appropriate. I think we need to work on our maturity when observing trials with limited information AND I think we seriously need to educate our women about the effects of rape (psychologically), what they should do in the immediate aftermath and put some empathetic support in place to help them navigate the system and the existential crisis that develops from a modern person being exposed to this oldest of violations.