One of most painful, soul ripping things to contend with after you've been sexually assaulted is that you might not be believed if you tell. The telling in itself is horrific, exposing, embarrassing, and potentially retraumatising, but once over that hurdle, the next one rushes in - do they believe me? Not the police, or a jury, or a judge, not yet anyway, but will my best friend believe me? Will my boyfriend believe me? Will my parents believe me? Will whoever answers the Rape Crisis helpline believe me?
The fear of not being believed is incredibly, staggeringly powerful and leads to things like our (Republic of Ireland) measly and embarrassing 30% rape reportage rate. It leads to silence. And even if you are believed, there is the high potential of minimisation to deal with: It wasn't rape - rape. It wasn't violent. He's your friend. He was drunk. You were drunk. He didn't mean it. He just got carried away. Can you even remember it? It was so long ago now, does it even matter anymore? It's nothing to cause a fuss over. Minimisation is a false friend. At the time, it is a buffer, a way for us to cope and eek the reality into our consciousness bit by tiny bit. But when everyone else, our society, social commentary, is minimising too, we can internalise these toxic messages. This denial and repression can lead to all sorts of mental health difficulties, eating disorders, suicide, depression, anxiety, self-harm and so on.
Ched Evans' acquittal has re-opened the floodgates to disgusting misogynistic online commentary directed at the complainant, a re-do of four years ago. Then, the (19 year old) woman at the centre of the incident had her name unlawfully spread like wildfire through social media and on websites, she had to move home five times, avoid her home town at Christmas, change her name and she experienced harassment, death and rape threats. The last few days has been deja vu of that time.
The same people who call her a "silly tramp" also claim that "cases like this (assumed false allegation) prevent real victims of rape from coming forward." I doubt that these people are genuinely prioritising victims of sexual violence, and it's also not necessarily true. False rape allegations are not off-putting to people considering reporting rape because they happen at about the same rate as any other false allegation of a crime - very rarely. Unhelpful attitudes and beliefs around rape, however, are widely prevalent in our society and have massive consequences - suspicion of victims, victim blaming, doubting, minimising, mocking, bullying, all of which can and do hinder reporting, and can be extremely damaging to a victim's recovery. False allegations are a non-issue when it comes to rape, but its under-reporting should be reason for a national emergency.
Considering that most rapists walk free from court, or never even make it to court in the first place, what is off-putting, what is frightening, and what is silencing, is the hysterical, gleeful, response from men and women, denigrating the complainant with a level of passion about rape which I never see in response to an actual rape conviction. Peter Reid, for example, silent when Evans was first convicted, tweeted that he was due an apology, presumably from the complainant. There is disgusting vitriol for the woman involved, who has not been found guilty of doing any lying whatsoever (a 'not guilty' verdict does not indicate a false allegation of rape). Such comments include: "Her name should have been published; She should be put in jail for making false allegations; It should be brought into law that if a woman is found to be lying she should be given the harshest punishment possible; The girl should be plastered all over the papers and social media and made to serve the two and a half years they made him do; Lock her up! Now lock the bitch up for lying in court; Jail the tramp for lying; I would sue her and her whole family; This is what happens when you believe the victim 100% of the time; All you need is a story and a few convincing tears to pull it off; No one is safe these days; time to drag her name through the courts in a defamation case; Vindictive, nasty, despicable tramp." The misogyny is rampant with the complainant being repeatedly referred to as a 'cunt', a 'bitch', a 'tramp', a 'slut', a 'slag'. A quick scan of Twitter showed me that people tweeting in support of the complainant or criticising Evans' legal team's tactics are also receiving abuse and rape threats.
Rape victims watch the outcome of trials very closely. They watch reactions to rape trials closely. It's how they gauge their own situations, it's one of the ways they weigh up what they should do. It's how they get a measure of whether it's safe to speak out. If I were a vulnerable person considering reporting a rape, I would think twice after reading this commentary. I would consider the very real possibility that the rapist will get off, and I could end up being accused of lying, or making a false allegation, or looking for money, or any number of assumptions that are made in a case like this. And while it's easier to disregard stranger's views, people in my life might share them; they are prominent, after all, and it could have been any of us in the hotel room that night.
What is helpful in these cases is a dignified, respectful silence from those of us who are not legal experts, which is most of us. Nobody knows the actual truth. The Republic of Ireland has a 6% rape conviction rate. We all know that the rate is far higher than that - rapists getting off scot free is common here (and everywhere). Everyone in this case has been through enough. The woman involved has had to endure two trials, in which two former lovers (procured through barrel scraping means by the defence) gave intrusive testimony about her sexual behaviour. A few years ago her father said she lives her life on the run. I doubt things have improved for her given the re-invigorated vitriol aimed at her.
This whole thing is a double appeal double trial mess, lacking any dignity and respect, compounded by the reaction and misogynistic language used to speak about the complainant. The only power ignorant, vindictive and assumptive commentary has, is that it creates more fear about being believed for victims. That's all they do. So stop it. You don't have to believe rape victims, but you also don't need to arrogantly plaster your disbelief and ignorance wherever you can to potentially silence them. It's not your place to do so.