An article recently published by the Oxford Student ‘Ben Sullivan’s victim “knew her claims were false”’ was highly offensive for a number of reasons which have been discussed extensively since it appeared online on the 30th June. However, perhaps the most compelling reason for the outrage it provoked was the way in which it effectively compromised the anonymity of Sullivan’s alleged victim, publishing details which could have made her identifiable within the Oxford student community. The anonymity of alleged victims once a claim has been made is legally guaranteed, regardless of whether the proceedings are ongoing or, as in this case, dropped on the grounds of insufficient evidence.
There was, however, a marked counter-response: if Ben Sullivan’s name was allowed to be revealed before he had been charged, why should we protect the identities of the victims?
This is a debate which is reignited every time there is insufficient evidence to prosecute a notable person, or a jury cannot prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant committed rape. Nigel Evans, repeatedly compared to Ben Sullivan, is the most famous example of a defendant who, once cleared, becomes a vocal advocate for anonymity in rape cases; Ben himself in a Daily Mail interview supports “the right to anonymity as the inquiry is at a preliminary stage”.
This reaction is understandable given their personal experience; of course, the experience of being accused of rape for Sullivan and Evans was undeniably traumatic. However, the portrayal of both figures in the mainstream media after the declaration of innocence ironically demonstrates the immediate rehabilitation and mass public support for those cleared of rape charges.
Ultimately, a small number of isolated individual experiences should not be used to overwrite those of tens of thousands of men and women who are raped every year in the UK. The most damaging consequence of a change in the law regarding anonymity is the inevitable implication that false rape accusations are a significant threat which must be accounted for in legislation. We do not have discussions about anonymity when a defendant is cleared of murder, or drugs charges: this debate serves to perpetuate the idea of ‘crying rape’ by implying that false accusations are far more common in rape cases than in other felonies, an attitude explicitly betrayed in Peter Lloyd’s article in the Daily Mail, which asserts that anonymity would “deter anyone from making false claims out of spite, seeing the accuracy of convictions rise – not fall”.
The CPS last year noted that 0.6% rape allegations over a 17-month period were proven to be false. When these statistics are taken with appalling conviction rates (on average, 1,070 convictions compared to around 78,000 victims of rape per year), it should also be noted that a decision by the CPS not to bring charges due to insufficient evidence is not unqualified proof that claims were false, a distinction often missed in claims for the prevalence of false accusations. Providing anonymity for those accused of rape reinforces the idea that victims will not be believed, a myth that ultimately leads to 85% of rapes never being reported.
We must then consider the consequences that anonymity would have in the context of the incredibly low reporting and attrition rates of rape. Melissa McEwan’s comprehensive definition of rape culture explicitly refers to this consideration. She argues, “Rape culture is the pervasive narrative that a rape victim who reports hir rape is readily believed and well-supported, instead of acknowledging that reporting a rape is a huge personal investment… embarrassing, shameful, hurtful, frustrating.”
There are clear advantages to naming the alleged rapist, the most obvious being the encouragement of other victims to come forward. This is something Sullivan himself has repeatedly acknowledged, “I understand why naming people is useful – naming Jimmy Savile obviously had a huge impact in getting people to come forward.” It was for this reason that the Sexual Offences Act, which used to offer anonymity to alleged rapists, was amended in 1988: police forces needed, and continue to need, to reveal the identity of rapists before they are charged to conduct the most effective investigations and improve attrition and conviction rates which are almost universally perceived as inadequate.
Women live with the threat of rape constantly hanging over them, a culture of fear which dictates how they should dress, how they should act in public, and where they should go at night. As Willard Foxton convincingly proposes in a recent New Statesman article, we might make significant progress in ending the endemic social problem of rape if there were instead a culture of fear about the consequences of raping someone.
I would agree with Ruth Hall’s, a spokeswoman for Women Against Rape, statement on this question of anonymity, that legislative reform “should pay attention to the 94% of reported cases that do not end in conviction rather than the few that are false”. Evans’ and Sullivan’s must look beyond their personal experiences, and examine the implications that anonymity would have in a culture in which 1 in 5 women (and thousands of men) will experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetime.