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Coffee House

The feminist case for naming names in sexual assault cases

12 February 2016

4:55 PM

12 February 2016

4:55 PM

Google ‘Mark Pearson’ and the first thing you will learn about the 51 year-old artist is that he was accused of a sex attack. You can read all about how at Waterloo Station Pearson supposedly sexually assaulted a woman before striking her.  Then, if you have time, read on: and you’ll also discover this never happened. That a jury, shown CCTV footage proving the incident never took place, acquitted Pearson this week.

Yet while now, and perhaps forever, Pearson’s name will be linked to a crime he did not commit, what we will never know is the name of the women who falsely accused him.

Right now we wait in the wake of a report by the Home Affairs Select Committee, which recommended that suspects in sexual offence cases be given the same right to anonymity as complainants, unless or until they are charged. Highlighting the damage to individuals named in the media in such cases, the HASC report urged the legal system to ‘stop shaming suspects’. Yet despite agreeing with some of their findings, I think the Home Office recommendation is wrong. Those accused of sex crimes should not be granted anonymity, but neither should those accusing them.

There are strong arguments for preserving the anonymity of those accused of sex crimes. Publicly naming the accused in such cases not only risks defaming them, as their name and image is widely shared in the media, but more significantly impedes the presumption of innocence that should be rightly afforded everyone before trial.

We saw this in the case of 21-year-old Ben Sullivan. He was president of the Oxford Union when he was accused of rape and attempted rape; after his arrest, calls were made for speakers to boycott the union and a petition posted for his resignation. Subsequently he was proved innocent.

Such effects are even more concerning in the case of deliberately false rape accusations. As Keir Starmer has noted, ‘false allegations of rape are rare, but they can, and do, devastate the lives of those falsely accused’. Yet even after a false claim is proved to be just that, while the accused must live with the fall out, the complainant’s anonymity remains protected.

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The injustice of this was recently highlighted by the case of an anonymous witness know as ‘Nick’ who accused Lord Bramall and Jimmy Saville, amongst others, of historic sex abuse. As Bramall has been cleared, so it has emerged that ‘Nick’ used different assumed anonymous identities to allege abuse by various public figures (amongst them Sir Edward Heath).

Now there are calls for ‘Nick’ himself to be investigated. Bramall’s son demanded: ‘Who is this man “Nick” who hides in the shadows… Let the spotlight now fall on him.’ And yet the media – some members of which know Nick’s identity – cannot name him. Similarly this week the Met admitted another man, known as ‘Darren’, made false claims about sex abuse by Lord Brittain.

Why, in such cases, should the anonymity of the accuser remain protected? Especially when, by not making such individuals publicly accountable for their actions, we risk undermining the seriousness with which real rape accusations are met.

And yet concern for false rape allegations is not the main reason rape claimants should not have anonymity.

In the 1970s, after anonymity for sex crime complainants was first introduced, Dame Rose Heilbron rejected the suggestion that anonymity should also be afforded to the accused. Supporting her on this point, Professor Liz Kelly has continued to argue anonymity should only apply to suspected rapists if it was granted in all criminal offences. ‘The idea that those accused of sexual crimes should be privileged can only be sustained if one takes a position that… these crimes are of an entirely different order,’ Kelly has said. That same logic should apply to complainants. Currently we protect the identities of those who report sex attacks out of a sense rape is a different kind of crime. I do not think that is true.

When anonymity for rape complainants was introduced it sought to encourage victims to come forward by protecting them from social stigma. Now attitudes have changed. No right thinking person now considers the stigma of sexual assault to fall on the victim (if anything it falls on the accused). Yet by compelling sexual abuse victims to remain anonymous we buy into the idea they should feel ashamed. A notion we reinforce with the language we use to talk about rape ‘victims’ ‘courage’ and ‘bravery’ in coming forward.

Sonali Kohli has put forward a feminist defence of naming rape accusers in the media. Writing for Quartz, she claimed: ‘there is something patriarchal and counterproductive to the idea that sexual assault is presumed to be shameful for the survivor.’ Victims have agreed with her. In Canada, Debra Dreise, one of anesthesiologist George Doodnaught’s 21 victims, went to court to lift the ban on the publication of her name. ‘I am not ashamed,’ she said, ‘These are crimes that happened to us. We as victims are not nameless, faceless people.’

Telling rape survivors they should not want their name associated with a crime committed against them perpetuates the idea they should feel shame. Conversely, speaking out empowers survivors and encourages others to share their experiences.  When the #RapeHasNoUniform hashtag went viral on social media, it helped unite victims of rape and allowed them to share their stories. When activist Amber Amour live-blogged her rape on Instagram minutes after it took place, she explained: ‘I immediately couldn’t keep what had happened a secret. Here I was, telling survivors every single day that they should speak up… I knew I had to practice what I preached.’

The secrecy many feel compelled to adopt around their experience of sexual assault is another level of abuse. But in fact, rape complainants who confront their attackers in court should be proud. We do not know the identity of the woman who accused Mark Pearson. We do not know her full story, which does her an injustice. At a time when the debate around what constitutes consent is so confused, we should encourage more transparency, not less.

Katie Glass is a journalist for the Sunday Times.

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