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Busting myths in the Criminal Justice System

Once again, the ways in which the Criminal Justice System treats survivors of sexual violence has been in the news a lot recently. One common thread that links all of these horrific experiences is the many myths about sexual violence that are alive and well in the criminal justice system. Although this system can often seem mysterious and far removed from everyday life, it is not a vacuum and we see the same myths play out that we do everywhere else: in support services, in schools, in overheard conversations at the pub – everywhere in our society. The criminal justice system is not above these myths but rather perpetuates them at every level and uses them as a basis for all of its decision-making. We wanted to explore some of these myths, how they play out and where they come from.

MYTH: An acquittal at court means a survivor has lied.

REALITY: A not guilty verdict does not mean ‘innocent’. An acquittal at court does not mean a survivor has lied. The burden of proof is incredibly high and the prosecution have to prove the case. Juries are told by judges that they have to be sure beyond all reasonable doubt that the survivor did not consent, that the perpetrator acted intentionally and that the perpetrator did not reasonably believe that the survivor consented. A case has to get through the police stage and the Crown Prosecution Service stage to even get to court. The evidence just does not support the idea that survivors lie to the police and make false allegations.

MYTH: Lots of reports made to the police are false allegations.

REALITY: The false allegation myth is one of the most powerful and enduring myths around sexual violence. It tells us that survivors cannot be trusted, that they are vengeful and that they want to ruin men’s lives. It’s just not true.  So why does this myth exist? Because abusive men do everything possible to discredit survivors. And because men are in the positions of power that get to set the narrative. We also know that sometimes people want to believe that survivors lie to minimise the true scale of sexual violence. It’s really scary to believe that this is the reality of the world we live in. But it is. And we must all do better.

MYTH: You can tell from a survivor’s sexual history whether they are telling the truth.

REALITY: Although lots of people believe that it’s no longer possible to bring a survivor’s sexual history into a trial, this is not the case. It happens and the impacts on survivors can be devastating. One of the reasons that it is so painful is that the use of someone’s sexual history during a trial is entirely founded on myths. The myth that if someone has had consensual sex with someone, then they cannot possibly have been raped by that same person. In reality we know that perpetrators are often partners or former partners of the people they abuse and they can still perpetrate violence against them. Giving consent once doesn’t equate to giving blanket consent.

MYTH: If you use drugs and alcohol you are an unreliable witness.

REALITY: Having been through trauma, each and every survivor finds their own ways of coping and surviving. Some use drugs and alcohol to cope and this is as valid a response as any other. Rather than making someone an ‘unreliable witness’ using drugs or alcohol could be what is enabling someone to get up every day and get through the criminal justice process and the stress that it brings. Survivors don’t need our judgement, they need our empathy.

MYTH: Lots of survivors report because they want to get custody or a better divorce settlement.

REALITY: It is so incredibly difficult to talk about having survived sexual violence, not least because of all of the prevailing myths that we’ve already talked about. The idea that someone would go through the draining and demanding process that is the criminal justice system purely to ‘score points’ or get revenge is ridiculous. There are so many reasons why survivors choose to report to the police; each survivor’s reasons are unique and they are all valid.

MYTH: They can’t have been raped because he is a nice guy / a good dad / a strong member of the community [delete as appropriate].

REALITY: Time and time again we see defence lawyers bring in a stream of ‘character witnesses’ for perpetrators of sexual violence. Each one tells the court that he is a good person and therefore cannot have raped or abused someone. This process ignores the reality that rapists are not ‘monsters’ – they are normal people, people that we know, like and love. This myth also ignores one of the most common well-known perpetrator tactics: manipulating the people around them to think that they cannot possibly have caused such great harm. This process is called grooming and it is a well-known fact that perpetrators of sexual violence groom not just survivors but also the people around them.

MYTH: Survivors report for money.

REALITY: WHAT MONEY? Seriously, what kind of secret survivor fund are people imagining when they say this? There is no financial reward for survivors who find the immense courage to report abuse and instead sexual violence can have really devastating financial impacts on survivors, impacts that are often not talked about. After trauma survivors may not be able to work, they may need to move house to get away from the perpetrator or they may have to pay for private counselling as we know that Rape Crisis centres are severely under-funded. All of these things can have a hugely detrimental effect on a survivor’s financial situation and many survivors that we support have been made homeless or have been forced to use foodbanks as they try to heal from trauma.

This list is by no means exhaustive. But these myths exist in many different forms in many different spaces, and their impacts are enormous.

Challenging myths is our collective responsibility. Call in, call them out, hold perpetrators to account and support all survivors of sexual violence. Survivors who make the massive decision to report to the police deserve independent and specialist support. ISVAs are a hugely underfunded source of support that can make a vital difference.

You can support survivors by donating to specialist support services, by hearing them and by believing them.  Be part of the change we all want – and deserve – to see.

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