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BLOG: The media has the power to banish the myth that women routinely lie about sexual assault: it’s time it stopped perpetuating it

by Annie McLaughlin

If, like many of us, you’ve relied heavily on TV to help plug the gap left by more sociable activities during the current pandemic, you may have stumbled upon the second series of Netflix’s Criminal: UK while scrolling for new content to binge.

The new season of the police procedural anthology show, which also has versions set in France, Germany and Spain, arrived on the streaming platform this autumn and makes for an intense viewing experience. Each episode is set in the same police interview room, with a team of interrogators working against the clock to determine the guilt or innocence of a suspect on the other side of the table.

Episode 2 centres around Alex, a young professional accused of raping a junior female colleague, Sarah, after a work night out. As the plot unfolds, all signs point to the seemingly foregone conclusion of Alex’s guilt, Kit Harington’s portrayal of the estate agent as an entitled, sexist and arrogant boor combining with the detectives’ foreshadowing of supposedly incontrovertible evidence of his culpability yet to be revealed.

Seasoned viewers of Criminal should have twigged, however, that there would be a twist in the tale. Close to the end of the episode, text messages between Sarah and her friend Claire are revealed which suggest that, when Sarah failed to secure a promotion after consensual sex with Alex, Claire prompted her to falsify the rape allegation by way of revenge.

While Criminal isn’t one hundred percent conclusive on the subject of Alex’s innocence, the detectives are nonetheless obliged to release him due to a lack of evidence and the apparent likelihood that he has been falsely accused.

It’s a conclusion that no doubt sparked fervent discussion in living rooms across the UK, with many viewers likely siding with Alex in his protestations that his reputation has been forever tarnished by the allegation and that he deserves some form of compensation.

This is the kind of debate that Criminal seems to love to foster, leaning heavily as it does towards crimes which apparently have some sort of moral ambiguity at their centre and encouraging viewers to examine their preconceptions of what guilt looks like. Indeed, many reviews of the season singled out Harington’s performance in particular for praise, with The Guardian calling it “pitch perfect” and The Telegraph declaring it the stand out of the series.

What Harington’s admittedly strong performance draws attention from, though, is the fact that the dramatic and narrative choices made in writing and filming this episode in particular have the potential to reverberate outside of the fictional four walls of the interview room, impacting negatively upon real life rape and sexual assault survivors.

In suggesting that Sarah’s accusation against Alex was motivated by a desire to get back at him for a professional slight, Criminal reiterates the pervasive and damaging myth that women routinely lie about being raped and will do so for the most trivial of reasons.

As Rape Crisis Scotland have highlighted, it’s a trope that is repeated with depressing regularity in the public discourse around rape and sexual assault, across both traditional and social media. It featured frequently in the somewhat predictable backlash to the #MeToo movement, with the hashtag #HimToo trending on Twitter in an attempt to centre the idea that false rape allegations against men were so common that they required as high a profile as the global campaign which helped to shine a light on the endemic and systemic nature of men’s violence against women.

It’s a perception, however, that has no basis in reality. As outlined in a report by The Week, a comprehensive Home Office study found that only around 3% of rape cases in England and Wales likely involved false allegations. It’s also imperative to note that these statistics themselves are likely inflated, with some cases being recorded as ‘no crime’ due to a lack of corroborating evidence, not because they have been proven to be false.

Meanwhile, recent reports highlight that, while the number of rapes reported to police in England and Wales have tripled since 2012, prosecutions and convictions have plummeted. In the year up to March 2020, 99% of rapes reported to police did not result in any legal proceedings. Moreover, ONS statistics predict that, due to rape being a notoriously under reported crime, the number of actual rapes in England and Wales could be almost twice as high as those reported to police annually.

There are, of course, a variety of reasons why women choose not to report a rape or sexual assault to police. Not least, however, is a fear that they simply will not be believed, a perception that can only be fuelled by media representations and coverage which focuses disproportionately on supposed false allegations.

Campaigns for rape complainants to be granted anonymity regularly feature in the news, often following cases where an accusation against a high-profile individual has not resulted in a conviction and frequently accompanied by calls for their accusers to be identified.

There can be no doubt that being falsely accused of a serious crime such as rape or sexual assault is a traumatic and potentially life altering experience. However, despite perceptions to the contrary, recorded cases of false rape allegations are no higher than those of other crimes.

Furthermore, as an open letter by the End Violence Against Women coalition emphasised in 2016, granting anonymity to rape complainants would remove the transparency which allows for corroborating evidence, or indeed conflicting accounts, to come to light for alleged crimes of all natures. Meanwhile, answering calls for rape complainers to have legal anonymity removed would likely only increase the percentage of victims choosing not to report, due to feelings of shame and fears of reprisals, amongst other concerns.

Supporters of campaigns for anonymity frequently argue that an accusation of rape is particularly stigmatising and reputation shattering, but it’s highly questionable that unfounded or unproven accusations of other serious crimes such as murder or child abuse are less so.

In prioritising and amplifying calls for rape complainants to be granted anonymity, and for complainers to be stripped of it, the media can perpetuate the myth that women use false rape accusations as a weapon against men, discouraging victims from seeking justice and sowing doubt in the minds of those responsible for enacting it.

Research by Prof. Lesley McMillan, published in the Journal of Gender Studies, found that police officers’ estimate of false rape allegations varied widely from 5% to 90% and that this works to reinforce a culture that sustains sexual violence and gender inequality.

Other studies have found that pervasive rape myths, including the characterisation of rape accusers as being untruthful, influence jurors in rape trials, with research by the University of Huddersfield’s Dr Dominic Willmott demonstrating that jurors who showed high levels of rape-myth acceptance were significantly more likely to find a defendant not guilty.

Some might argue that, even if false accusations of rape and sexual assault are rare, they do happen and therefore deserve to be highlighted. What this argument neglects, though, is that calls for anonymity, often amplified by the press, are frequently a result of the media’s own flawed and sensationalist reporting of sexual violence.

Similarly, in a society where 1 in 5 women experience sexual violence and in which the rape conviction rate stands at around 6%, it’s hard to fathom why a writer of TV crime drama would choose to focus one episode of a four-part series on a rape case, only for that episode to reinforce the damaging but commonly held view that women frequently target men with malicious allegations.

The media cannot be held solely responsible for the scandal of low rape conviction rates, but neither can journalists and dramatists deny the real-life impact of the stories they tell. Rather than give in to the temptation to play devil’s advocate, writers can instead make the powerful choice to advocate for the millions of women who continue to suffer the devastating effects of sexual violence.

Annie McLaughlin works every day to improve gender equality, while in her spare time she is an enthusiastic writer. Shewas the 2017-18 bursary winner of the Zero Tolerance Write to End Violence Against Women Award

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