Note to readers: I suggest reading The Drawbridge before Who's a Victim, to understand the background. The whole text below is the original article, and the paragraphs I edited out for the “defanged” version are in red. Both versions were rejected by newspaper editors.
Sexual suspects suffer far more than complainants, but no one with any influence gives a damn.
Who's a Victim
Late in 2019 TV One news ran an item on sexual crimes, stressing how few complaints result in conviction. Survivor “Hannah”, through a dimmed lens, said her abuser was duly convicted but called the system “traumatic”.
No doubt that's true. However, I wonder what Hannah meant when she added, “They don't really view you as a person; it's like you're just a piece of evidence.” Nowadays police follow a manual specifying how to treat sexual complainants with dignity, so if anyone reporting a sexual crime is unfairly treated it can really only be because a rogue investigator discards the rule book, which is surely unlikely.
So Hannah's problem isn't with the people but the process. Yet anyone involved in a criminal case is primarily a piece of evidence, and a contrasting piece resides with the defendant. Hannah might instead celebrate the system she criticises, which did after all allow her testimony to convict an abuser. Police and lawyers should treat any complainant with respect but also put emotions aside and unearth facts. Perhaps Hannah objected to questions designed to elicit those facts. Did she expect simply to be taken at her word? It's a small but fatal step from the compassionate “listen to the complainant” to the unjust “believe the victim”.
Let's make sexual investigations and trials less formidable, but for both protagonists. Suspects are under unbearable stress as well; in fact, probably more because they rightly fear catastrophic consequences. An accuser incurs no costs and will remain anonymous no matter what the outcome. A suspect knows that if jurors decide he's guilty – which they may do based only on his accuser's uncorroborated testimony – he'll lose freedom, savings, reputation, career. Even if acquitted, he'll have suffered terribly. He may receive support from his defence counsel (at a price that could bankrupt him), but nothing whatsoever from the “system”.
Questions asked during an investigation and in court are said to “re-victimise” a sexual complainant. No one should downplay the stress of retelling intimate detail to strangers. The solemn need for justice means the courtroom will always be an intimidating place, but much is already done to soften the process. The complainant is shown the courtroom before the trial to put her at ease in this intimidating environment. She can give videoed evidence remotely, and during the trial she can be screened from the defendant. She and her chosen support person are even paid to attend. In contrast, suspects are supposed to be macho enough just to tough it out.
When the freedom of a defendant is at stake, no lawyer should apologise for asking complainants some challenging questions. They are already treated with as much respect in the courtroom as such a personal and delicate crime allows. In any case, the main effect of browbeating the complainant with vicious questioning would be to win the jury's sympathy for her, which no defence lawyer would want to do. Imagine the justified fear and fury of an innocent defendant if court protocol prevents his lawyer from asking those unsettling questions which Hannah apparently found so dehumanising.
Experience has taught me how abominably sexual suspects are treated. In February 2013 “Verity”, a woman approaching forty, accused her father of raping her when she was young and recruiting his friends, including me, to do the same. I'd never met her, though I knew who she was. She made twenty-eight separate accusations, each referring to a different incident. If the police had immediately treated me as “a piece of evidence” and checked the easily verified facts, they would have closed the case long before they questioned me two years later. After my wife and I had endured seven months waiting for a charging decision, I suggested to “Eva”, my detective, a way of improving conditions for suspects. She just snapped, “We don't operate that way.” Yet any such policy statement about treatment of accusers – that police simply do what they do – would be denounced as inflexible and callous.
By September the police had thankfully seen through Verity's lies and Eva told me in a terse two-minute phone call that I would not be charged. Home free, then? Not quite. We were naturally overjoyed to put sleep back into our lives, yet the indignities continued. When I asked if legal action would be taken against Verity, Eva just laughed derisively and sneered that I knew nothing about the law. Yet I did know something: that making a false complaint is illegal. Reporting what other crime produces such a curt official snub?
Worse, no one explained our long-term legal status, despite the obvious fact that such an accusation can have life-destroying consequences. When I pressed Eva's senior officer, he emailed that the case had been “filed” but didn't explain what that meant, so I had to find out. It means that the file remains open, classified as an as-yet unproven accusation, in case our fantasist fabricates a twenty-ninth incident plausible enough that a jury may just buy it. No one bothered to tell us we'll all die with this hanging over us.
This has wider significance. It means that a suspect can never escape a sexual accusation unscathed, no matter how ludicrous that accusation, and no matter how the police handle it. For anyone tried and acquitted, it will cost a fortune and probably destroy his reputation and mental health anyway. For anyone tried and convicted it will do all those things and send him to jail for good measure. For anyone not charged, the police will keep the case open for ever in case they trip over more convincing evidence, perhaps in 2043, but they don't tell him they're doing that.
In May 2016 I obtained my police file under the Freedom of Information Act. It confirmed just how friendly the detectives are with complainants. I was outraged to see our false accuser consistently called by her first name or “the victim”, while I and the other poor saps she accused were called not suspects but offenders, and referred to by our surnames. The upsetting news that her “abusers” would not be charged was broken to poor Verity face to face, of course. Other falsely accused have told me that their complainants clearly received police coaching to hone their statements, and I have little doubt this happens. The police are pressured to deliver results; vindicating innocent suspects earns no kudos.
A complainant receives the personal contact, the financial assistance and the sincere promises to find ways to ease the pain. A suspect is just a target – the remote and reviled enemy. Allegation – police interview – charging – trial – conviction: these are the five stages of increasing terror for anyone accused. We only had to endure stages one and two, but others suffer far more.
Although we were spared court, those seven months were their own kind of trial. However, five years later the accusation has become like a diagnosis of mild cancer, and life is back to normal. What rankles now is something general rather than personal: the way cases like ours distort false accusation numbers. The refusal by police even to consider holding Verity to account shows that false accusations must be more common than their infrequent prosecution suggests – though no one can know how common. And of course, keeping our file open means it's classed as a case of paedophilia in which the perverts have got away with it – so far. This reinforces the myth that false sexual allegations are rare.
Conditions are likely to keep improving for complainants, and the system which Hannah disparages will continue to treat suspects far, far worse than it treated her. Progress can come in tiny steps. Let's start by thinking a little harder about what victim means.