Gender, Race, Class, Rape

I have been thinking about a sexual offences court case whose jury process I was involved with about twenty years ago. This was a case of a mixed race girl of just thirteen against a white man in his early thirties.

I have been thinking about a sexual offences court case whose jury process I was involved with about twenty years ago. This was a case of a mixed race girl of just thirteen against a white man in his early thirties. I don't remember the exact wording of the charges against him, but there were three, out of which the first two were the so-called 'lesser' charges of molestation of a minor and inappropriate sexual conduct. The third charge was of statutory rape.

On the surface, the make-up of the jury reflected something positive about the diversity of British society in terms of age, sex and background. There were many more women than men and amongst the jurors was a very innocent and young-for-her-age 18 year old British Asian girl, a middle-aged first-generation British African woman (nice, but so innocent that she did not know what masturbation was, and who was shamefully sidelined during the deliberation), some girl-next-door type young women and a few men who liked the company of those young women. Then there was an interesting split according to educational background and profession: a British Asian media journalist in her thirties, an English teacher in her early fifties, myself (an Asian academic in her late forties) and a young professional black British woman. The four of us automatically assimilated into a group, united by class, with the 18-year old hovering around us. However, she did not say anything.

The others formed another, much larger, group. At breaks we sat in separate groups. In the mornings, before we went in, we collected in separate circles. The case went on for an entire week and no one changed sides.

The (female) defence barrister's case was based solely on portraying the victim as a liar. During the cross-examination the victim gave some confused responses about a few things and therefore everything she said - according to the defence barrister - was a lie. She was also portrayed as 'sexually adventurous'. On the other hand the prosecution barrister (also a woman - it was a legal aid case) seemed to have little interest in the young girl and made very little effort to stress the severity of her plight. The case had been brought by the girl's parents; she herself saw the perpetrator as a sexual partner rather than an abuser and groomer. Her friend, who also gave evidence, both of them on a video link so we could not see their faces, was more clear about the situation. She was certain that she knew what the perpetrator was doing - such as when he masturbated in front of her and her friend (according to the defence barrister he was merely urinating in front of them) - and she knew that it was sexual abuse.

The evidence was completed in two days with no sign of passion from the prosecution lawyer. I felt, sitting there, that she just didn't try. There was no fiery questioning or dramatic summation as I had seen on TV. But what happened in the jury room was even more interesting. The two groups stuck together in their verdicts as well. Our little group found the man guilty of all charges. The other, larger group was led by a young mother who refused to believe anything the girl said because "she's a bitch and a fucking liar". The 18-year old British Asian girl voted with us and the innocent woman I mentioned at the top voted with the others - neither had had anything to say in the debate. It was hard to bear the fact that the majority of the jurors were women and some of them had children and yet they believed the man. We spent two full days deliberating but could not reach a unanimous decision because neither side was prepared to change their position. We reached a deadlock. Eventually, the judge allowed a majority decision and we managed to come to a compromise. The overall verdict was guilty on the 'lesser' charges and not guilty on the most serious charge, that of rape. We did not hear the sentence.

A number of sociological nuances intrigued me during and after the case. On the one hand, we got segregated very early and automatically by race. All of us non-whites were in one group, and all of us happened to be middle class. Also in our group was the school teacher, who was English; we had befriended each other on our first day. I have worked in academic institutions all my life and I know from experience that most teachers are not racist. However, I have also seen the evidence of natural gravitation and that, for the teacher, would not normally be towards a bunch of entirely non-white people. But the pull of class proved to be stronger than that of colour.

Then there were the men. I do not remember chatting to any of them. One of them was young and looked Asian, the others were white. As far as I understood, for them, the choice was between some strong outspoken feminists and some young, jolly, light-hearted women - they took what they felt to be the easier and the nicer option. There was also the politics of sex. It was convenient for the men to join the group that worshipped them.

That one court case represented the whole of society complete with all its complexities of race, gender and class. Our final decision, despite it being a compromise, reflected the same phenomenon. Here was a mixed-race young girl and an older white man. We did what we were expected to do - we divided ourselves into groups based on social stereotypes and delivered the most likely verdict.

More recently another case was in the news. The thirteen year old victim was described as a sexual predator by prosecuting barrister Robert Colover. Her forty-one year old abuser, Neil Wilson, was given a suspended sentence (now under review) by judge Nigel Peters; Peters remarked that the victim looked and behaved older than she was. We don't know much about the girl's background but we do know that she had been abused before. We know that the case came to light because she spoke to a friend. We can at least say safely that she was socially vulnerable. She was far removed from the nice middle class environment of the lawyers who called her a sexual predator and a man old enough to be her father who saw her as an easy victim. The story followed all the class, gender and race norms I observed two decades ago.

So, in twenty years nothing has changed. Victims of sexual violence are disbelieved. Perpetrators of sexual violence abuse with impunity. Meanwhile, in jury rooms and courtrooms, the nuances of race, class and sex prevent us from working together to do what is best for the victims.

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