Picture this; you’re an undergrad at Oxford, and President of the Oxford Union, a world famous debating society. This is a position that’s been held by the likes of William Hague, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. If I was in this position, I wouldn’t be too worried about my graduate employment prospects.
Then one morning, you’re woken, bright and early at 7.10am and your whole world comes crashing down. You’re accused of rape. Your name and picture is not just all over your student media, but also national media.
This all happened to Ben Sullivan, a 21 year old History and Politics Student, at Christ Church College, Oxford. Sullivan has now been cleared of all charges, yet his name will forever carry the stigma of an accused rapist.
Sullivan isn’t the only ‘high-profile’ victim of a false accusation. Freddie Star, Jimmy Tarbuck, Matthew Kelly, Nigel Evans, and Neil and Christine Hamilton, have all been in this position. People in a similar position to Sullivan have faired the accusations differently, some such as Sullivan, and Nigel Evans have become advocates for anonymity, others such as Comedian Jim Davidson have advocated the opposite. Another student falsely accused, Peter Bacon, was forced to change his name and emigrate, due to the ‘rape stigma’.
In 1988, the Law that gave both sides anonymity in sexual cases was repealed, and since there has been an on-going debate on whether men (under British Law, a woman cannot commit rape) should be given anonymity in rape cases.
In 1988, there was no Internet, no mobile phones, no Google, no Social Media, and no way a rape conviction could go ‘viral’. There was no digital footprint to haunt these men. Now, if you google, Ben Sullivan instead of hearing about the Oxford Union, you get hundreds of articles, like this one, about rape. The same goes for Nigel Evans, Matthew Kelly, Freddie Star, Micheal Le Vell, Peter Bacon – these men cannot escape their accusations in a digital age. Simply put, the Law is outdated, and needs to be reviewed for the 21st Century.
This is not about victim blaming. I am a feminist, and I completely acknowledge that for the most part, the issue is rapists. Yet this doesn’t mean innocent men should suffer. I’m not suggesting convicted rapist should be given anonymity, nor even men who have been charged with rape. The issue is, as it stands, any man can be accused of rape, and, without being charged their reputation can be ruined forever.
Opponents argue that it is very unlikely to happen, about 0.6% of rape allegations turn out to be false. Yet, when has unlikelihood ever been a reason to prevent help? It’s unlikely you’ll be bitten by a shark, it’s unlikely you’ll be struck by lightning, it’s unlikely you’ll be falsely accused of rape – that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get all the help you need if these things happen. The argument that believes there are more important issues to discuss than this is fundamentally flawed. This is the same argument that was once used by opponents of women’s suffrage.
This is not to say that the opponents don’t argue well. There are certainly two sides to this argument. Another man wrongly accused of rape, Jim Davidson argued that there should not be anonymity for men accused of rape. Speaking to The Mail on Sunday, he said “The publicity means that more victims will come forward to speak out. Rape is a terrible thing. But it is also terrible to be wrongly accused of it.”
Of course, it is useful for the police when a suspect is named. Ben Sullivan too has acknowledged this. The Mail Online reported Sullivan stating “Police investigations may sometimes need people’s identities to be revealed so that witnesses come forward. But these were utterly poisonous allegations against me… I understand why naming people is useful – naming Jimmy Savile obviously had a huge impact in getting people to come forward. But when inquiries are at such an early stage it is vicious, and it can be at a huge cost.”
Late Labour Peer Lord Corbett, who was a life-time adavocate of mutual pre-conviction anonymity told the Evening Standard “Rape is a uniquely serious offence and acquittal is not enough to clear a man in the eyes of his family, community or workplace. He is left with this indelible stain on his reputation. The case for matching anonymity for the defendant is as strong now as ever.” Lord Corbett here seems to perfectly understand the complaints of many falsely accused men. Despite British Law stating ‘innocent until proven guilty’, when it comes to rape, parts of the British public seem to think ‘guilty when accused’.
Most Universities have a problem with sexism, and Oxford is among them. A lot of Universities, Southampton included, have elements of idiotic ‘laddish’ behaviour, and ‘Rape Culture’. This undoubtedly needs to be tackled. Yet there is certainly a risk of an ‘ethical terrorism’ taking its place, where the right to a fair trial and justice for the accused is in jeopardy.