Vera Baird begins her rather remarkable book about her first term as Northumbria’s elected Police and Crime Commissioner with a story about rape.
That is unusual enough — policing sexual violence is rarely the priority in populist narratives about law and order.
But Baird is not the usual police commissioner.
The job was invented by the Conservatives to replace elected police authorities. Labour reluctantly participated in the 2010 election of Police and Crime Commissioners in 41 constabularies: six women were elected and 35 men, and Baird was one of them (on a slightly higher than the average low 15 per cent average turnout).
Whilst not necessarily a believer in the new system — it was a manoeuvre to further eviscerate local government — she is recognised as one of the most focused, novel and effective: an exemplar of how to be a Police Commissioner.
What she doesn’t deliver in this really useful little book is a gung ho account of crime figures going up, or down. What she does do, however, is place gendered violence at the centre of policing priorities for community law and order, peace and security.
Tyneside police were scalded by the public response to the fate of the young woman raped that night in 2013 in the midst of Newcastle’s fabled party culture.
Baird reports how a club doorman walked a very drunk teenager to a taxi after she’d been excluded from the club; she’d lost her pals, she was stranded, and she was so intoxicated that the doorman accepted the help of a man passing by.
He left her with this man without making sure that she was safe. She wasn’t. Some taxis refused to take her, the man raped her in a corner — noticed by other people out on the town that night — and then toured round the city passing her around other men until, writes Baird, ‘she finally “came to” in a car park with someone on top of her and fled to a club where a couple called the police.’
The girl’s fate and the response of the club door staff provoked outrage in the city. It changed things.
It was Newcastle’s good fortune to have vigorous feminist networks who launched a public protest and, unusually, two women heading up policing: Vera Baird and Chief Constable Sue Sim. Both understood not only the danger of sexual crime but its implications for crime and public safety generally.
Newcastle is a fabled party city; communities of razzlers and revellers are the new ‘flaneurs’ who hit the streets and lubricate the city centre’s flouring night time economy.
But that night in 2013, writes Baird, ‘the shocking persistence’ with which the men ‘had toted her around for hours appeared to forestall any victim-blaming against her and was so disturbing that it demanded a new approach to dealing with people when they are vulnerable through drink.’
Thus began a quiet revolution in community policing.
The problem began with door staff whose priority was ‘protecting a single set of premises from trouble, with no thought of what might befall the young woman once she had been removed.’
What did befall her was a night of multiple rapes. But door staff training included no reference to a duty of care to the public and ‘no training about predatory men.’
Two of perpetrators were arrested — they were identified on CCTV coverage.
However, the case pointed not only at rape culture and door staff indifference, but to the police: people had complained to officers patrolling the city that night about what was happening in that corner: sex with a helpless woman who could hardly stand or speak — and therefore could not consent to anything.
This was brushed aside after the man persuaded the police that they were a couple.
So, everything was wrong.
Baird describes how she pulled together the police, club managers, community safety staff, women’s networks and businesses to work with Tyneside Rape Crisis Centre on a safety strategy for the city.
That’s what makes her book, ‘Headlines from the First Three Years’ so salient: it is not only an account of a strategic attack on men’s violence against women, but a ‘how to’ guide to making the night time economy safer and making institutions take more responsibility.
Baird re-visits research on the lamentable response of police generally – with some honourable exceptions – to the reform of Britain’s laws on sexual assault and violence against women.
Baird, of course, drove the reform of the sexual offences legislation when she was Solicitor General in the last Labour government.
One of its most significant changes was the requirement that men secure consent for sex and that women have to be capable of giving it.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary has published several reports showing that police culture has shown itself resistant to the reform of gendered crime — and that’s what makes this book so pertinent.
It is not only strong on gender – which you would expect from a feminist Police Commissioner — but on how and why gender is important to understanding perpetrators, victims — including all victims of violence — more generally, and why that enhances the administration of justice generally.
Tory grandees, former ministers and yesterday’s men queue up to denounce the police for investigating sexual abuse allegations against members of the Tory establishment.
They demand that the Metropolitan police apologise to the widow of Lord Leon Brittan for failing to inform her promptly that her late husband was no longer under investigation for the alleged rape ‘of an adult female’ — indeed some seem to want an apology for investigating in the first place.
But a review, published in February by Dorset Police Deputy Chief Constable John Vaughan, of the Met’s decision to investigate the alleged rape has deemed it ‘proportionate’ and ‘justified’.
It has described the ‘adult female’ — known as ‘Jane’ — as ‘compelling’.
There is no apology, however, to ‘Jane’ who has been traduced by politicians and press for daring to come forward to tell her story.
She says that Lord Leon Brittan raped her in London in 1967 when she was 19 years old.
Dorset’s review should embarrass the Home Affairs Select Committee that last autumn chided the Met and deputy Labour leader Tom Watson, who had prodded the Met on behalf of ‘Jane’.
Tom Watson was to be put in the stocks for writing to the Met about ‘Jane’ after the officer in charge, DCI Paul Settle, had decided in early 2014 not to interview Lord Brittan, and not to take the case any further.
Although it was widely aired that Watson had triggered re-investigation, the Home Affairs Select Committee acknowledged that the Met had already decided two weeks beforehand to review the case and to remove DCI Settle.
This is what DCI Settle told the committee:
‘Despite ‘Jane’ insisting that she’d been raped, in law she hadn’t’; The points to prove rape ‘were not there’; he was ‘not convinced that the offence is made out’; he believed that to interview such an important figure as Lord Brittan — which would have been normal practice — would be not only ‘disproportionate’ but unlawful and a ‘baseless witchhunt’.
There were other allegations against Brittan which could be compromised if it became public knowledge that he’d been investigated for the alleged rape ‘of an adult female’, he said.
But Dorset police did not agree. The investigation was ‘necessary, proportionate and fully justified despite the significant passage of time.’ It was not unlawful.
‘Jane’ the witness was ‘compelling’, she was a ‘competent witness, who displays no malice in her motivation. Her accounts of her
situation in 1967 are corroborated and it is plausible that she was moving in similar social circles to LB.’
Jane went to the police toward the end of 2012 to report that she had been raped in 1967: she had been on a blind date with Leon Brittan, he had suggested dropping by his house on the way to their evening out. There he locked the door, trapped her and raped her.
In September 2013 that DCI Paul Settle abandoned the investigation.
It was after this that, disgusted by the press and politicians who so blithely disparaged ‘Jane’, a woman contacted me.
‘Jane’ had been her flatmate in 1967. She’d been contacted by the police a couple of years earlier — ‘Jane’ had remembered her name and passed it to the police; she’d been around at the time of the rape. She was contacted through her medical records.
This is what she had to say about why she had come forward
“I just felt everybody was flooding to Leon Brittan’s defence. She doesn’t have anybody. They’re saying that things she said can’t be corroborated. That’s true insofar as it goes.”
I inferred that there was no evidence to convict, but…
They had shared a flat in 1966-7 when ‘Jane’ was a 19-year-old student, ‘She was really sweet. She looked very young; she was quite naive; we felt very protective of her.’
They belonged to a wide group of friends who’d go to the pub and parties together and they’d take ‘Jane’ with them. Men in their circle knew Leon Brittan, professionally and politically.
She recalled an occasion in the summer of 1987 after one of their parties. She arrived home at the flat and found ‘Jane’ sobbing.
‘We were quite young, she didn’t want to talk about it and we didn’t push it.’
The former flatmate was candid and clear — she was not claiming any more than her own memories of ‘Jane’ and their circle — a network that included Brittan — at the time that ‘Jane’ said she had been raped by Brittan.
“All I can say about her is that she was nice, a sweet kid. I didn’t recognise any mental health problems. I said to the police I had no reason to disbelieve her. In those days a lot of men were out to have you. She’d not have been able to defend herself.”
Furthermore, even if ‘Jane’ had talked about rape, “I would not have recommended that she spoke to the police back then women were often treated badly when they reported rape.”
The controversy about Brittan is also contaminated by a toxic public disagreement between journalists who have pursued sexual abuse allegations.
Exaro has been accused of excess and bad judgement in another case.
But Exaro is merely the arena in which ‘Jane’ has told her story. It may never have reached the evidential standards needed to mount a prosecution and it reported that ‘Jane’ understood the difficulty.
So, too, did Dorset’s Deputy Commissioner.
The review by the Deputy Chief Constable of Dorset has been received with predictable disdain by the detractors. Former Minister David Mellor has loyally defended Brittan — he had a Rolls Royce brain, said Mellor, whilst Dorset ‘a small country force is allowed to tell the Met they did a great job.’
It is this impoverished process that gives men who want to rape women virtual impunity — individual immunity from prosecution; and that and thus a society that hardly knows or cares what happens to women.
It is not as if the police and criminal justice system don’t understand the politics of sexual crime and justice: In Britain we have emerged from three decades of dramatic discovery about the prevalence and meaning of rape, three decades of professional reviews and legal reform.
Until now, more and more women every year have come forward to report rape. But they have not been reciprocated by reformed policing or criminal justice systems.
In the 1980s, society was shocked by Roger Graef’s documentary on Thames Valley’s response to a woman reporting rape. In the 1990s the law and police processes were reformed. In the 2000s, Liz Kelly and her specialist scholars at London Met University reported that the rate of detection had slumped to the lowest ever; Betsy Stanko’s research into the Met’s files revealed shocking disdain for women reporting rape — and cases of known suspects who were never traced or investigated; the law was reformed, and it is as good as law on sexual crime anywhere.
To no avail.
I and others have been writing about this scandal for nearly a decade — here’s some of it:
“Observations on criminal justice — the shocking failure
when it comes to rape prosecutions.”
Shocking evidence is circling the desks of the police and the Home Office showing that many men reported to the police for rape are not investigated, and their crimes do not appear in police records – even though they have previous records of violent offences and sexual attacks on women. Men rape with impunity and immunity, and they can do it again and again. Furthermore, as long as men target women who have been drinking or young women under 18, there is a good chance that the police won’t bother to interview or investigate, and the allegations won’t appear “on the books”.
New research commissioned by the Metropolitan Police delved into the Met’s own case files: it not only analysed the victims’ fates in the criminal justice system, but for the first time checked out the histories of the suspects. No one had carried out an offender profile of alleged rapists before. No one had correlated the victims’ stories with the records of the accused. The results are shattering.
Researchers reviewed the files on 677 rapes reported to the London Metropolitan Police in two months in 2005, and followed up by tracing the suspects. A third of the reported rapes were “not crimed” – that is, they were not investigated or recorded as crimes, because they were not thought to involve an offence. But many of the suspects had “previous”. More than half of the men accused of raping women who had been drinking, where the cases were “not crimed”, had a history of sexual offences against women.
A third of suspects whose victims were under 18 were not investigated, but had histories of violent offending. Among those cases that were crimed, but didn’t get past the police investigation stage, were some with known histories of offending who were not prosecuted, “in the public interest”.
This is sorely embarrassing for the macho (and besieged) Home Office. The evidence shows that the police directed their gaze at the wrong people. “We concentrated on services for victims,” comments Richard Sumray, a magistrate member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, “but we did not concentrate on offender profiles.”
One of the country’s pre-eminent researchers into sexual crimes against women, Professor Liz Kelly of London Metropolitan University, says the new findings are unprecedented. “This is unadulterated data that we’ve never had access to before.” It was Kelly’s research – based on the experiences of 3,500 victims – that in 2005 exposed the alarming collapse of the conviction rate. What was not apparent earlier (because it had not been correlated) was that men who like raping women do it over and over; they target their quarry.
It is the not-crimed category that is particularly sinister, officers giving up on cases without even checking up on the suspect. This is evidence that officials will want to keep out of the public domain, but which also vindicates reformers in the police service. The Met’s review — the largest of its kind — vindicates Kelly’s celebrated study that showed an unbroken increase in the numbers of women (and a few men) reporting rape in the past 20 years but a static number of convictions.
“The attrition rate [the rate of cases being not-crimed, not detected, or not pursued by the victim] is abominable,” comments Assistant Commissioner John Yates, who, as well as heading the Met’s cash-for-peerages inquiry, is also lead spokesman on rape for the Association of Chief Police Officers. “Rape is regarded as second only to murder, because of the violence and the violation, but most attrition takes place with us in the police,” he says. “My aim is to take best practice in scene management and forensics in cases like murder, and apply it to rape.”
The crisis comes from what Kelly calls a “culture of scepticism”. “The police are often quite willing to interview people who don’t support an account,” she says, “and they seldom follow up what supports it.”
If the not-crimed and attrition findings weren’t bad enough, the picture becomes even more disturbing when correlated with patterns of vulnerability among victims. The overwhelming majority of rape reports on the Met’s files – 87 per cent – are made by women whose characteristics make them vulnerable. Most are known to the perpetrators: acquaintances, partners and ex-partners; they are young; they consume alcohol or drugs; they suffer from mental illness. These categories attract police pessimism and a preoccupation with the virtues or vulnerabilities of the victim rather than the propensities of the perpetrators. This correlation appears to be decisive.
Pioneering research by Vanessa Munro at King’s College London transcended the ban on talking to British jury members by assembling jurors from the electoral register for mock trials. She found that although the law on consent was radically reformed by the Sexual Offences Act 2003 – requiring defendants to show that they had taken steps to ascertain consent, and requiring that the alleged victims had the capacity, choice and freedom to give consent – it still didn’t help them greatly. Some jurors felt that, however intoxicated, “as long as a woman was conscious she’d have the capacity to consent or resist”.
Sumray reckons that the crisis is multidimensional: cultural and political, as well as a policing problem. The political arena, he says, has “to begin to influence how people think about this”.
There is good news: the promotion of specialists in the Met’s dedicated Project Sapphire, and greater respect and care extended to victims by sexual assault referral centres. The Met’s response to research is already palpable; it reduced the number of rape reports dismissed as false allegations from 10 per cent in 2005 to 4 per cent in 2006, in line with Kelly’s estimate.
According to Kelly, however, given the sexism of the culture and British institutions: “Yes, a woman can get better care, but she still can’t get justice.”
“In exploiting the rape crisis for political capital,
Cameron has ignored a wealth of new research.”
David Cameron is right to talk about rape. Its prevalence and prosecution are a crisis. And it is full of complexity. But politicians, especially Tories, don’t do complicated. Cameron has done a typical Tory thing: invoke the disaster of rape for a moralistic, collapse-of-civilisation-as-we know-it populist agenda that has nothing to do with contemporary culture or policing. It ignores his own party’s history: Tory law-and-order debates have been animated by women’s laments about the beastliness of men since the 1930s; and it ignores the remarkable discoveries emerging from research into policing.
When Cameron talks about the rape crisis as a sign of “moral collapse” and sexualisation of the culture he is being lazy. Rape rates are not new: rape is nothing to do with “permissiveness”; it is a crime of dominion, as old as patriarchy itself. To pledge tougher laws exemplifies the Tory tradition: exploiting women’s humiliation and harm to promote populist – authoritarian – politics.
But explosive evidence from Scotland Yard – hitherto unpublished – shows the problem is not the law. The problem is still canteen culture, and it is still sexism that muddles the judgment of juries.
The reformed Sexual Offences Act, heavily influenced by women’s experience of sexual crime and by scrupulous (often feminist) research, is not to blame. The Association of Chief Police Officers agrees: the problem is what happens when a woman makes that first call to the police. And what happens at every step thereafter – right up to the appeal court. It is the “demonisation of women as a set of victims”, says the Acpo rape spokesman, Dave Gee.
Buried in those processes is sinister evidence that a significant proportion of perpetrators are simply not investigated. Policing has got better at treating victims humanely. But it has been mesmerised by the worth of the victim, and averted its gaze from many of the suspects. The Met has been contemplating this evidence for nearly a year. It should have made it public. It should have seen it not as a source of more shame but as a resource for reform.
The story starts with a 2005 survey of rape victims, conducted by Liz Kelly, Jo Lovett and Linda Regan from London Metropolitan University. Their study, A Gap or a Chasm?, found that more women than ever had the confidence and courage to report rape, but fewer than ever achieved justice, not least because their cases entered a “culture of scepticism” and investigative inertia.
Acpo and the HMI inspectorate set out to find out why. Their report was published earlier this year, followed by a Home Office study of eight forces last July. All confirmed the study’s findings.
Next came some remarkable research at the Met. An independent team looked into all 677 rapes reported to the Met in two months of 2005. What they discovered challenged conventional wisdoms about victims and perpetrators. It found that men who like raping women target their victims and that these women cluster into the very groups least likely to attract police attention: those under 18; in present or past relationships with the perpetrators; living in domestically violent environments; under the influence of alcohol; suffering mental ill health. These groups constitute nearly 90% of reported rapes. Between half and a third of these reported rapes were not “crimed” – they don’t appear in the books. It gets worse. In half of the not-crimed cases involving alcohol, for example, the suspects had not been investigated, despite having a history of sex offences.
“Those in most need of caring and sympathy in the criminal justice system get smacked even more,” says Professor Betsy Stanko, who conducted the Met study. There is, then, a scandalous synergy between men who like raping women and police pessimism.
If the police haven’t made their evidence public it is because they don’t want to discourage women from reporting rape, and they can’t rely on politicians to get the story right. As Liz Kelly has pointed out, Cameron could have done something useful: he could have said the culture is hard to change, that appeal court judges’ prejudices are ricocheting through the criminal justice system, but that the Home Office and senior police officers are having a go. He could have said the huge investment in terrorism should be spent on “ordinary domestic and sexual terrorism”.
Tories – usually to great effect – have enlisted the experience of women as the victims of men, but never to empower women, and never to challenge the masculine cultures that sponsor crimes against women.
“The rape review does a disservice to women from whom
police and courts have averted their gaze.”
Will more women be encouraged to report rape if they’re told that Britain’s conviction for rape isn’t 6% but 58%? Undoubtedly the police would be able to feel proud, rather than ashamed, and the government could proclaim it had made a difference. But will this statistical manoeuvre empower women? Or will it avert our gaze from the failures of policing culture?
The Stern Review, published this week, argues that burying the bad news will encourage women to report, yield more convictions in the courts, and raise the level of optimism about policing. But why would it? The problem isn’t women: while only 2,800 reported rape in 1988, this was up to 13,093 by 2008; their courage and confidence grows year by year. Yet the police response has not raised conviction rates, and institutional scepticism rewards men who like raping women with impunity.
It was this paradox – more women reporting rape, reciprocated by the lowest conviction rate yet in the courts and, therefore, the dismal knowledge that society was averting its gaze from the most violent sexism– that prompted solicitor general Vera Baird and leader of the house Harriet Harman last summer to commission this review by Vivien Stern. She has done a disservice to the ministers. This could have been a great moment, says sexual violence expert Professor Liz Kelly – a moment to match Sir William Macpherson’s critique of institutional racism in the police. It has been squandered. During the last decade there has been a revolution in what is known about rape – to whom, and how it happens, and what happens next.
In 2005 the Home Office published research by Kelly and her colleagues at the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit. In it, victims disclosed widespread scepticism among police officers. Rape is unique: women tend to know their assailants. But 15% of reported rapes are not even recorded as crimes. A further 20% of complaints are withdrawn – many women told researchers they had been encouraged to quit by police officers. A further 23% fall through; about a quarter of suspects are charged. Some 12% reach court, and finally only about 6% attract conviction for rape.
Instead of confronting that forlorn process head-on, Stern morphs into Pollyanna. Justice isn’t everything, she says, reassuring us anyway that half of the minority of cases that get to court result in a conviction for something or other. Worse, she suggests that we should now investigate the problem of false allegations. The police have already researched that, and in any case decent detection should deal with it.
Senior police officers were not so awed by the evidence. The Association of Chief Police Officers, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Home Office and the Met itself all looked into what was going on. They found some excellent practice but also routine, endemic failure to properly investigate rape.
The Met’s research was dynamite. It focused on more than 700 rapes reported over two months in 2005. Victims were clustered in groups of “vulnerability” – women who didn’t attract police interest or investigation. The Met took another look. A significant proportion of the men had never been checked out or tracked down. And a significant proportion, it emerged, already had records of violence and sex offences.
This is the dangerous matrix that alarmed ministers: men who like raping women target those who won’t engage police attention or confidence. That’s what Stern should have exposed: this toxic correlation, the institutional sexism that disarms rape investigation.
Check out this chilling review by scholars, into decades of troubled inquiry, reportage, research and reform of the dismal outcomes for women reporting rape and other sexual crimes to the police:
2011 – The Journal of Criminal Justice Research (JCJR) – Volume 1, Number 2
CRITICAL ISSUES IN RAPE INVESTIGATION: AN OVERVIEW OF REFORM IN ENGLAND AND WALES
Miranda A.H. Horvath, University of Surrey
Stephen Tong, Canterbury Christ Church University
Emma Williams, Metropolitan Police Service
….Criminal investigation is …based on discretionary decisions made by detectives. Reiner (2000: 93-94) points to “police property” as a category of crime left to the police to deal with by the “dominant powers of society?. Within this category are a group identified as ”rubbish”, reflecting “messy”, “unworthy” offences that maybe be perceived as the “complainants fault”. Crimes that can fall within this category include rape, domestic violence or hate crime…
…“messy” investigations (long protracted cases where the officer may have some doubts regarding the integrity of the complaint), or unworthy of attention (the officer believes the event is not an offence but a private matter, or a trivial event) or finally the complainants fault (the officer believes the complainant contributed to their own victimisation) …
….The belief that investigative work simply required “common sense” with low levels of education, the lack of research aimed at improving investigative practice, the slow pace of change to past and current criticisms and evidence of a continued presence of negative attitudes towards marginalised groups remain barriers to improving investigative standards in England and Wales.
…Although some progress has been made especially in the care of victims and some re-shaping of the law to reflect modern notions of sexual autonomy many of the reforms have failed to be effective or have not been fully implemented.
Key criminal justice reforms in the last thirty years in England and Wales.
…In the 1980’s criminal justice reform was spurred on initially by Roger Graef’s documentary “A complaint of rape”, which showed oppressive interviewing of a rape victim by Thames Valley police officers and subsequently by a joint publication from the Women’s Aid Federation and Women Against Rape that suggested detailed requirements in police procedures in the investigation of rape. This resulted in the Home Office issuing a number of circulars (25/83 and 69/86) requiring police to revise their procedures.
The nineties began with significant changes in the law…The nineties ended with a Sex Offences Review, which began in 1999. The review aimed to achieve “protection, fairness and justice? within the Home Office’s overall aim of creating a “safe, just and tolerant society” (Home Office, 2000b). It sought to review sex offences in England and Wales and make recommendations to provide much more coherent and clear sex offences, ensure perpetrators are punished appropriately and abide by the ECHR and Human Rights Act so as not to be discriminatory.
The Sexual Offences Act (SOA) 2003 came into effect from May 2004: Amongst the many changes it Act introduced are the meaning of rape to include oral penetration as well as vaginal and anal with the penis; a legal definition of consent; children under thirteen years old can never now legally consent to sexual activity.
…Crown Prosecutors took over deciding if the defendant should be charged in serious cases including rape. This is just one of many moves in England and Wales which seem to be developing best practice towards a more American style approach to dealing with rape where investigators and prosecutors work closely on cases, continually consulting and advising one another.
….The 2007 HMCPSI report assessed the progress against the recommendations in the 2002 inspections:
…despite the many efforts directed at improving and making more consistent responses to victims the picture does not appear to have changed substantially over the last decade.
The review of the Metropolitan police rape cases by Prof Elizabeth Stanko discovered four categories of vulnerability – victims appeared to be targeted:
In 87% of the cases analysed victims displayed more than one of these vulnerabilities, this was confirmed in a subsequent study using data from the same force but from a different time period (Horvath & Kelly, 2009), and patterns of attrition differed depending on the type of vulnerability involved.
Police work has been hindered by performance regimes influenced by efficiency savings and private sector principles of measurement that do not necessarily recognise the complexities or duties of public sector practitioners particular in the context of the investigation of sexual offences.
Jodie Foster answers the eternal question, “Am I gay?”, when she comes out in 2013, almost a quarter of a century after her magnificent movie The Accused.
Here’s my homage to Jodie Foster:
THE ACCUSED ON RELEASE, written in Marxism Today in 1989
The Accused is the first popular movie of the ’80s to self-consciously take the side of women and invite men to take responsibility for rape.
Its commitment to that project is a kind of redemption for the producers, Stanley Jaffe and Sherry Lansing, whose big hit, Fatal Att-raction, was a real shocker, a serious regression, emblematic not so much of 1980s’ postfeminism as anti-feminism.
The Accused, in contrast, takes its form from mainstream melodrama and its consciousness from modern feminism.
Unlike many movies which occupy the landscape of sexuality, The Accused does not face the woman viewer with the dilemma of her own self-destruction as a woman-with-desire, while she watches the drama of desire played out as woman’s destruction.
What the film offers women is the affirmation of their pain as victims, but more than that, it offers pleasure.
There’s pleasure in the metamorphosis of the classic portrayal of women as victims (they’re both doomed by men and yet dependent on the protection of men) into women as survivors, and more than that, as protagonists. For once women aren’t defeated. And they defend themselves.
Women’s pleasure as spectators is multiplied in solidarity with the performers. Jodie Foster and Kelly McGillis, who play the rape victim and the assistant district attorney who prosecutes her case, have expressed not only pride in their performances, but in the politics of the whole project.
Foster, the child star who took herself off to Yale University, said that she wanted to play Sarah Tobias, the raunchy, working-class waitress, who is gang-raped, because she was ‘close to my heart’.
She wanted to enable Sarah ‘to find her own voice, to prove to society that she could rise above their low expectations of her’. McGillis wanted to play either Sarah or Kathryn Murphy, the cool, chic, district attorney, because she wanted to ‘help give other rape victims a voice’.
There is another level of identification with Foster and McGillis. They’re both stars and yet for once that doesn’t exempt them from the world of women — the debates in the United States have invoked both women’s real-life experience of sexual harassment and rape.
When it comes to the reality of sexual terrorism, they’re women just like any others. They’ve suffered, and they’re using the power of stardom not to transcend our reality but to intervene in it.
It is a measure of the permanence and yet the precariousness of patriarchy and of women’s insistent presence that popular Western culture gives us not only the trashy ‘Fatal Attraction’ but also serious and popular interventions in sexual politics like Farrah Fawcett’s chilling melodrama, ‘The Burning Bed’, about a battered woman who kills her husband; Nine To Five, the secretaries’ revenge movie; and now The Accused.
It is within civil society and the courts, (it’s no surprise that The Accused becomes a court-room drama), that we see the most dramatic expression nowadays of how the power struggle between men and women is regulated and resolved. It is there that we see sexual politics in the raw rather than within the political domain which remains aloof from the seismic shifts in contemporary sexual culture. It’s another ex-ample of the isolation of the Political domain from politics as she is lived.
Much of the debate about The Accused in the US has focused on Sarah and the rape scene. It is detailed and relentless.
The question is: does it titillate?
It’s an interesting question that, isn’t it? The assumption is that to show the abuse of a woman always risks the arousal of men.
The film also pushes the audience to the limits of conventional wisdom by making Sarah a sexual outlaw – she drinks, she likes to smoke dope and she flirts with her assailant.
But The Accused is meticulous here. Sarah is raped in a bar by a preppie, good-looking student while a posse of men cheer and join in.
The camera is positioned so that it neither identifies with the victim nor her assailants. While she lies prone on a pin ball machine, buried under the bodies of the rapists, our eye is guided to the clamouring, cheering men who not only let it happen but make it happen. They’re never allowed to be neutral.
There is also a modesty in the camera’s gaze. The movie makes no effort to dramatise Sarah’s pain and shame. To let us see into her would seem like another invasion.
For women spectators, perhaps, we bring to her what we already know.
And men? Well, they have to use their imagination. They are confronted by what they, too, know about their own sex, but in this scene they also have to see men as women see them and thus, as men must, too.
Interestingly, Sarah can’t see them. She is doomed to feel them and their effects. We, the spectators, also see the crowd through the eyes of two critical characters, the woman working in the same bar, who averts her gaze and gets on with her job. She wants no trouble, she’s got two children to take care of.
And then there’s the preppie student’s admiring buddy, who can’t take his eyes off what’s going on, and who hates what he sees. It is he who follows Sarah as she flees and it is he who calls the police to report the rape.
This brings us to another feature of the film’s politics: there are no spontaneous solidarities. It’s not a case of men are beasts and baddies and women are only goodies.
The goodies have to get better before they get to be goodies, and it is through the process of consciousness-raising that the film constructs the drama. It is the drama of self-discovery and the difficulty of solidarity which gives the narrative its frisson. Because we know from the beginning who has done what.
Here the film offers a fresh variant on what the feminist film critic Judith Williamson has designated the phenomenon of the ‘single working woman’ in the movies of the 1980s. These two are not professional women severed from communal or sexual context, but working women who are also sexual.
It is class which divides the women: the waitress from her attorney. McGillis as district attorney, is aloof and disinterested. She treats the victim, just as her assailants did, as an object, never consulting her, never confiding in her, never respecting her. The rapist student’s wealthy parents employ classy lawyers, and ultimately they do a deal. The law is not about the truth, after all, it is about winners and losers.
Sarah finds her redemption in her revolt. She storms into the attorney’s coolly exquisite apartment — a domestic laboratory — one night while she’s entertaining, and plays hell, as only a woman from her class can.
It is then that the professional woman finds sexual solidarity with the working class woman. Only then does the attorney take responsibility by deciding to prosecute the bystanders. To do that she also has to face out the opposition of her male colleagues in the district attorney’s department.
The film confronts all bystanders with their culpability by adopting this ingenious strategy of taking a legal action against some of the bar-room bystanders as accessories.
By their inertia they are not innocent or exempt, they are involved. And in their indolence. Murphy’s colleagues also forfeit the claim to innocence. They, too, are to blame.
The film dares not only to explore the difficulty of sisterhood, it also illuminates the swamp of male solidarity. The reluctant and scared male witness is tormented by his loyalty to the lads as well as to their victim. And the film lets us see why.
Two words haunt the trial of the bystanders. Sarah is asked what she said when she was being raped. “Did she cry for help?”, her interrogator asks. “No”, says Sarah, but what she did say, over and over again was, “NO”.
Was ‘No’ not enough?
These are key words, they challenge women’s historic subordination in film — the heroine’s salvation is traditionally supposed to lie in her proper dependence on a solitary hero, who in avenging her also avenges his own insulted masculinity. Here, Sarah’s integrity is restored by her own demand that her word was enough.
The Accused is suggestive of the political problems which challenge us in the late 1980s and which are about nothing if not the dissolution of old solidarities and the discovery of new ones.
Neither gender nor class alliances are immaculately conceived, made in heaven. Shared class or gender does not bring with it equivalent knowledge or identical interests, and this film’s maturity lies in its refusal of sentimental solidarities.
Sure, it’s got gross, queasy music, and yes, it carries some soppy characteristics of melodrama, but it is also disciplined in its refusal of easy unities.
That discipline is what gives The Accused its happy ending. The slut gets her proper status as a person; not as a victim but as a survivor. The snob discovers sister-hood. The scared boy becomes a man by joining women. And patriarchy, for once, gets the blame.