Britain’s newspapers have been dedicating entire sections to sexual assault—horror splashes of Weinstein, Spacey, and Westminster. At first, we read it incredulously. Now, while still shocking, these stories are becoming commonplace. The other day, among all the accusations, I saw the name of someone I knew. She had talked about a sexual assault that had happened to her in a post online and had named the man who was the perpetrator.
I emailed the woman, and explained that I was curious about why she did it. She told me that she thought the post would publicly admonish him. She said that, since she posted, his employer had told her that he would be suspended until they could investigate her claim further, which they could only do if she went to the police. She had no plans to do that, she said. She would only lose the case, and then he would be reinstated. What would be the point?
Over the last month, there have been thousands of women, (mostly queer) men, and non-binary people who have decided to share their own experiences of harassment and assault under the now familiar hashtag, #MeToo. Some tell a specific story of a sexual assault; some name their perpetrator; some don’t go into detail because it’s too painful to recount, or it’s happened too many times to detail just one instance.
This outpouring online has had huge real-world repercussions. Yvonne Traynor, CEO of South London Rape Crisis, told me they’ve had a 30 percent rise in calls about rape and sexual assault since #MeToo went viral, and therapy referral rates have also gone up. "This is always the case when sexual violence is reported in the media," Traynor explained, "because it triggers memories for women and girls who have tried to cope with a trauma by pushing it to the recesses of their memory or through other forms of coping like self-harm, alcohol, and drug abuse, or exercise and keeping busy at work."
Beyond being a major show of solidarity and more people seeking help, the past month has been a political demonstration of how endemic gender-based sexual violence really is. However, while Traynor agrees that there has been what she calls "a small shift in the public believing women are being harassed and raped," she worries that the shift is only happening right now because huge numbers of women are coming out and saying the same thing. "If it was only one woman saying she had been assaulted by a film producer or politician, it may be a different story," she says. "Juries convicting perpetrators are a gauge of public opinion, and so far we have not seen a spike in jurors finding perpetrators guilty."
Men who are accused online are losing their jobs and being exorcised from their industries, but they are not, currently, being arrested. Harvey Weinstein has lost his family and his job, but at the time of writing, the police investigating him in the UK and US have yet to charge him for crimes related to any of the 100 or more allegations that have been made thus far. Louis C.K. has had his film premiere cancelled and his stand-up shows removed from Netflix, but no charges are likely to be brought against him. Ed Westwick, the Gossip Girl star, has been accused by two different people of rape and still hasn't been arrested (he denies both accounts and claims to be "co-operating with authorities"). Several MPs have now been sacked or suspended, including Welsh Labour MP Carl Sargeant, who was found dead before claims against him could be properly investigated. Two British journalists, Rupert Myers and Sam Kriss, were accused of harassment online, and the latter has been told by several publications that he can no longer contribute (Kriss had previously been a freelance contributor to VICE.com). The list goes on.
"In court you may be cross-examined by a lawyer 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 garbage, but sometimes enough to put doubt in the minds of jurors."
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 Traynor 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 lawyer 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 from having sex with someone and regretting it."
Traynor says she has heard it all: "It’s complete garbage, but sometimes enough to put doubt in the minds of the 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 outlined exactly what had happened to me. It was this horrible experience I’d found uncomfortable or traumatic at the time, but had been unable to define as rape because it was so normalized," 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."
The post, still online, has followed her in her professional life too. "If you google my name it’s the only thing that really comes up about me. For a while, I kept getting calls from people asking for interviews, and it was never about my work, it was always about the time I was raped." Florence didn’t want her real name to be used in this piece because she wants to move forward from that period.
Florence never went to the police about her attack because she didn’t realize at the time that she could. Later, she decided not to go to the police because, in her words: "I don’t think he’s a bad person, he was just super uneducated about consent and that was the whole point of why I decided to write online. Maybe that’s warped guilt. That's the difficult thing about being a survivor. I’ve spoken to people since who have managed to get their rapist convicted and feel guilty about putting them in prison. I did feel that in this situations that it wouldn’t help things."
Florence didn’t name her rapist in the blog post for similar reasons, although people she knew did figure out who it was. "That doesn’t mean he lost any friends, by the way. I think he lost a bit of sleep over it, but that’s about it.
Approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped in England and Wales alone every year, while around half a million adults are sexually assaulted. According to Rape Crisis, only about 15 percent of those who experience sexual violence choose to report it to the police, and only a little over five percent of reported rape cases end in a conviction for the perpetrator, making conviction rates for rape significantly lower than other crimes.
London-based defense lawyer Sam Yazigi can see the logic behind posting online when the legal system looks this way. "The test for the Crown Prosecution Service to proceed with a case is whether there’s a realistic prospect of conviction," he explains. "A case where there wouldn’t be one is if a person made an allegation that they were raped but they didn’t go to [a sexual assault center] haven, or see a doctor, or contact anyone—including the defendant—about it. There’s no ripped clothing, no DNA, no security camera footage, no witness, just that person’s word against the defendant’s. The CPS will look at the evidence, and as genuine as that person is being they might just say, 'There’s nothing we can cling onto here except for words,' and so the complainant is told, 'We’re not going to take it further.' They feel frustrated, and they post something online."
However, while Yazigi says he can understand the frustration, he suggests the stereotype of a failed system may persist too heavily. He assures me that, in Britain, things have gotten better for complainants in sexual offense cases. It used to be that you would have a pretrial in a court that has minor civil and criminal jurisdiction, without a jury present, in which defense lawyers could scare accusers out of taking things further by bringing up the things Traynor mentioned—"you’re a whore, you wanted it, you planned it all along," offers Yazigi, as examples. "It was a long time coming, but there’s now been a shift to give more power to victims. There’s no pretrial and it’s an automatic right for the complainant to say if they don’t want to see the defendant, and a curtain is drawn across the court. There has been a significant increase over the last few years in sentences given out by the courts for sexual offenses, too. This is down to the Sentencing Council having revisited their guidance for these types of offenses. I would say upward of 30 percent increased length of sentences."
Still, longer sentences aren’t ample compensation for low rates of conviction, and women like the one I mentioned at the beginning of this article are wary that going to the police simply means more trauma with no guarantee of justice. Yazigi explains that while posting online can be an alternative to going to the police—"It is your right to decide if you want to involve the police in something"—posting online can result in legal action.
Firstly, it makes the person who wrote the post potentially susceptible to a libel claim. "If someone was to make a claim against the person writing the post as slander, libel, defamation, whatever, then civil action could be taken," says Yazigi. This is what just happened to former Crystal Castles musician Alice Glass, who is being sued for defamation over recent rape and abuse claims she made against her ex-bandmate, Ethan Kath. Defamation law is an important protection against the inevitable problem of false accusations made online, but this also means that, when a defamation case does occur, a common defense for the person who posted online or talked to the press is that the allegation is true. Interestingly, another woman who recently named her rapist online told me that she only felt comfortable doing it because she knows, and he knows, that she has evidence against him, meaning he would be unlikely to sue.
Secondly, and critically, Yazigi warns anyone thinking of naming their alleged rapist in the public realm that the decision could be brought up in court at a later date. Even if the person writing the post remains anonymous while naming the alleged perpetrator, if "someone has said things on the internet that bring the allegations against the defendant into question, it would be relevant to be brought in front of a jury," he explains.
When I ask him if posting an allegation online can ever be used to discredit a complainant, he responds: "Absolutely. Being on the defense side, that’s something we look into regularly. I would tell anyone thinking of posting online that it’s a bad idea because these things can be taken out of context. If the defense gets their hands on social media or press, it can be used against the witness or victim to say, 'Look, you’re only doing this for publicity.'" Yazigi tells me he has worked on rape cases where online posts have been brought up by both the prosecution and the defense. Ultimately, it could skew your criminal case.
"Everything you say, everything you post online, and everything in your past, can feel like fuel when the police don’t care."
"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, and everything in your past, can feel 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 rethink."
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 in 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 write 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 labor than they already have—with the benefits of protecting others, of helping connect the dots 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? 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?
For help or counseling contact the National Sex Assault Telephone Hotline.