We are experiencing a moment where online allegations and social justice seem to be superseding criminal justice as the most expeditious means of punishing alleged perpetrators of sexual harassment and rape. This is concerning, not only because the accused are not given a fair trial, but because it suggests people making the allegations have lost faith in the legal system.When I emailed Yvonne at Rape Crisis about why women are increasingly posting about attacks, she pointed to the difficulties people face when reporting these types of crimes to the police. "There are feelings of shame, blame, fear of being disbelieved, having to talk in detail about every moment, what was said, what was thought," she explains. "Then there’s possibly having to go to court and be cross-examined by a barrister who is calling you a liar and questioning your motives for going to the police in the first place, like wanting attention, wanting to punish the perpetrator or embarrassment at having sex with someone and regretting it."Yvonne says she has heard it all: "It’s complete rubbish, but sometimes enough to put doubt in the minds of jurors."
"In court you may be cross-examined by a barrister who is calling you a liar and questioning your motives for going to the police in the first place, like wanting attention… It’s complete rubbish, but sometimes enough to put doubt in the minds of jurors."
Florence* is a journalist from the UK. She was raped when she was 17, although she didn’t quite understand this at the time. It happened when a boy she had been kissing earlier in the night entered the room she was sleeping in uninvited and forced himself upon her, despite her protesting "no". She didn’t go to the police, but three years later, more aware of rules around consent, Florence decided to post about her experience online, without naming the attacker."I’d read an article about rape and it showed me that was exactly what had happened to me, this horrible experience I’d found uncomfortable or traumatic at the time, but had been unable to define as rape because it was so normalised," she says. The article reignited the feelings of powerlessness she had experienced when the rape happened. She wanted to regain control by telling her story. "I felt like I was doing something constructive with the experience," she tells me now.In 2014, three years before #metoo, not a lot of young, British women had gone public with stories about rape. Florence found a lot of press were interested in her story. She began campaigning about the issue and doing interviews, but she struggled to get her message across: "I wanted to talk about broader issues like rape being a faceless crime, the lack of education about it, or how it’s often someone that you know, but on TV and radio interviews they would just ask me about the event, making me go through the trauma again, or just cut the interview down to that part." There was a fascination with the crime, not the context, and her story was often manipulated. "It took on a life of its own – you don’t have control over that. People will interpret in ways that you don’t expect."
"What’s kind of darkly interesting about my whole experience is that I thought writing about it would give me some kind of power or retribution," says Florence. "I guess I thought it would stop it from ever happening again, to me personally and to others, more broadly."Florence was raped again, two years after she wrote the post. "That time, I did take it to the police and it didn’t go anywhere. It was a shit show." When I ask her if she was worried about the first allegation online discrediting her when she went to the police about the second, she replies that it "definitely" did. "Even if I'd had sex with a thousand people it shouldn’t change the fact that I was just raped by four men," she says. "But everything you say, everything you post online, everything in your past, it feels like fuel when the police don’t care."I ask her whether she wishes now that she’d posted anonymously: "No, I don’t have any regrets on that front. I had a lot of messages of solidarity and it got a conversation going – I think it woke some people up to the idea that rape doesn’t always happen in a dark alley. Hopefully speaking openly about it pushed people to doublethink."Meanwhile, Florence’s rapists have faced few consequences. "I don’t think my article and the second case where I went to the police has stopped the men who did it to me – I think they’re still out there, maybe thinking they didn’t rape me," she reflects. I can’t help but wonder if things would have been different had she named these men in the press, and when I put this to her she's silent for a long time, but eventually says: "I really don’t know. I can’t believe I’m saying this, because I’ve been there, and I’ve tried the legal process and I know that most of the time it doesn’t work, but I’m still not sure that naming people is the answer." I tell her what Yazigi had said at the end of our call – that while a post online might trigger an emotional reaction in readers, that is not and cannot be how jurors look at a rape case. She agrees. There is a disconnect, and it’s the right to a fair trial.In court, there are measures in place to protect your right to a fair trial. "Jury members are asked before the trial starts if they know anything about the case or individuals who are involved in the case or locations," Yazigi explains. "This is done in order to have a jury that is independent. Any individual who has knowledge of the case would normally not be included in that particular trial." Even in cases like Weinstein's, the judge would remind the jury to base their decision on what they hear in the courtroom, says Yazigi – and of course, to lie to a court is a crime itself, perjury. Whereas, online, the whole idea that someone should be "innocent until proven guilty" goes out the window: the named accused often find their jobs lost, relationships destroyed and reputations tarnished quicker than they can pen a statement defending themselves, or sue for defamation. In that sense, the internet is like the Wild West of justice.If we are seeing a shift to action taken outside the criminal justice system, it’s important to consider the judgments we make outside of the courtroom and how we go about informing them. Do survivors know their rights before they post online? Have they weighed up the risks – of not being believed, of being called an attention seeker, of being sued, of feeling guilty, of expending more emotional labour than they already have – with the benefits, of protecting others, of helping the dots to be connected between multiple cases with one common perpetrator, of making a political statement about how they refuse to be silenced?We need to ask ourselves: what is an effective way to educate people about consent and the safe options of reporting sexual assault (grassroots resources like Salvage are survivor-led and intersectional)? How are we charting the ways in which the criminal justice system is failing people who report sexual abuse (the website It’s Not Justice is a great start), in order to campaign for a fairer system? Does vigilantism have to name the accused, or can it work in other ways, like industry-wide support systems started by people with first-hand experience of sexual harassment? And why is the job of protecting people from sexual assault falling onto those who have been sexually assaulted?@millyabrahamRape Crisis have a helpline and services across the country.
"Everything you say, everything you post online, everything in your past, it feels like fuel when the police don’t care."