Mathilda Mallinson: I’m going to tell you a story that I haven’t told many people. And it’s not the only one of its kind. But when I was 15, or maybe 16, a man masturbated on me on the bus at rush hour, and I didn’t do anything. I didn’t report it. It’s actually quite an anticlimactic story. Well, not for him.
(Mathilda and Helena laugh)
Helena Wadia: First of all, I’m so sorry that happened to you. Like you said it was rush hour. So I assume there were other people around, did no one else anything?
Mathilda Mallinson: No, no one no one said or did anything. And the more I think about why I never said anything – and it’s not that I didn’t report. I didn’t tell anybody – I think it is because their collective silence encouraged mine. Like okay, this is clearly just something we don’t talk about.
Helena Wadia: Yeah, it definitely encourages shame. Maybe it goes some way to explaining why, according to UK crime surveys, nearly 90% of assault victims don’t report their attacks. I did report and nothing came of mine. I was on the London Underground again at rush hour and I was groped by a man standing behind me. I actually turned around and confronted him, shouted at him. He was literally smirking at me. I then attempted to take a photo of him at which point he really violently knocked my phone out of my hands. And then the doors opened at the next station. And he jumped off. Now, I did report it, and they found him and arrested him. And long story short – and literally long because the whole ordeal from start to finish took over five months – the evidence I had was the CCTV footage of him getting on the tube behind me and jumping off at the next station, the CCTV of me getting off the tube hysterically crying with two women’s arms around me, a witness giving her name forward to say that she saw him knock the phone out of my hand, and the man himself admitting he was standing behind me and there was no other person standing between me and him. But because and I quote, there were no independent witnesses or CCTV evidence to the sexual touching itself. The case wasn’t even passed to the CPS and he was let go.
Mathilda Mallinson: I mean, that is one of the main issues with crimes of this nature. A lot of them happen without witnesses for very obvious reasons. In 2020, 98%, of reported rapes were dropped by police in the UK. And the UK is not alone, the USA: 95% of rape investigations are dropped by police. And that’s just about going to trial. It doesn’t even touch on convictions.
Helena Wadia: Well, we read a lot last year, didn’t we, about how convictions dropped to record lows over the pandemic. Last year, just over 1000 rapists were convicted in the UK out of over 50,000 reported. And that, as you discovered, is overinflated, isn’t it?
Mathilda Mallinson: It is yes, that figure actually includes people who were acquitted of rape, but convicted for other associated charges, like theft or assault in the same incident. So we put in a Freedom of Information request to find out the real numbers.
Helena Wadia: And what did it say?
Mathilda Mallinson: The prosecution said that they don’t actually record those statistics. And it would be too expensive an exercise to deliver on Freedom of Information. So we do not know the real conviction numbers for rape in this country. It’s just not a record that we even keep.
Helena Wadia: Wow.
Mathilda Mallinson: These statistics have made for shocking headlines and have put much needed pressure on institutions. But there is work being done.
Helena Wadia: And doesn’t the fact it’s such a global issue make it hard to blame one single institution? The problem is clearly so much more pervasive than that. So how do we go about diagnosing it?
Mathilda Mallinson: I will be hitting the road to speak to survivors from different jurisdictions around the world, befor asking the people responsible: What’s going on?
Helena Wadia: And I’ll join you back in the studio with special guests to discuss everything around this media storm.
Helena Wadia: Welcome to Media Storm, the news podcast that starts with the people who are normally asked last.
Mathilda Mallinson: I’m Mathilda Mallinson
Helena Wadia: and I’m Helena Wadia.
Mathilda Mallinson: This week’s investigation – Rape Justice: What happens to the 98%? (Street noises) Columbia University, New York City. Anne-Marie has just gotten in. Her dream space for a career-changing postgrad. That career, by the way, is public-facing, so we’re actually using a pseudonym. She should be thrilled, but pacing around with a small white stick in her hand, she’s more distressed than she’s ever been. Two stripes. No mistake. She’s pregnant with her rapists child.
Anne-Marie: I had to get an abortion. I asked the person who assaulted me like to help me pay for it because I was you know, like really low income at the time. He said that I got myself into this because I opened my legs. I was dating someone in December of 2015. I was asleep. And he was having sex with me as I was asleep. I was scared. But also, it never occurred to me at the time that it was assault, because we had been intimate, you know, before I fell asleep. It actually wasn’t until graduate school program orientations, and one of them discussed sexual assault. I realised in that moment, I did not give consent, you know, each time that we were intimate.
Mathilda Mallinson: Like the vast majority of sexual assault survivors, Anne-Marie did not report the crime against her. This is the first and greatest hurdle on the road to rape justice. And the reasons are many.
Anne-Marie: I felt really ashamed of what I had done, who I had let into my life. As a woman of colour, I just, I don’t see many women of colour, getting justice, if I’m honest. In any regard, you know, whether it’s homicide or rape or anything like that.
Mathilda Mallinson: In the US and UK, research shows sexual violence is disproportionately targeted against women of colour, while they’re statistically less likely to see justice than white women. The same is true for trans victims. But for all survivors, there are many systems in place preventing them from speaking out. For Alison Turkos from New York, sex education bears some of the blame.
Alison Turkos: I didn’t report when I was 16 because no adults in my life were having conversations with me about consent. No one in my life was having conversations with me about the fact that sex is and can be wonderful, but it must be pleasurable for both parties. Where were the adults in my life who were naming the word sexual assault, who were naming the word rape? I don’t need to learn how to put a fucking condom on a banana! That’s not helpful, it’s just not helpful to me.
Mathilda Mallinson: But with Anne-Marie, she shared a fear of being blamed as well.
Alison Turkos: You know, I would have been asked questions consistently of like, how much were you drinking? How late did you stay up? Why didn’t you lock the door? Why didn’t you tell someone immediately? Those questions aren’t helpful.
Mathilda Mallinson: But even asking ‘why didn’t you report it?’, Allison points out, flags a fundamental issue with where we look when diagnosing rape culture.
Alison Turkos: I feel like we are perpetuating the perfect victim narrative. It puts all of the labour on me as a victim. I want to turn the table and to say, what systems were and still are in place that made it so that I didn’t report? Because in October 2017 – and I’ll pick up that that story – but in October 2017, I did everything right. I reported within 24 hours, and look at where it fucking got me because the answer is nowhere. The only person who gets to decide what justice and repair looks like, is the person who has been harmed.
Newsreader: The news headline tonight involving one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood…
Alison Turkos: The Harvey Weinstein news drops October 15, 2017. And so October 13 is a Friday.
Mathilda Mallinson: Just as the Me Too movement was taking off, on the streets of New York, Alison was about to be reminded of why. Now the next three minutes contain descriptions of sexual violence. She’s been on a girls night out and, as you do, orders a taxi on an app called Lyft. It’s a quick ride, her guard is down, and she falls asleep. When something wakes her up. They’re crossing a bridge and that’s not right. So at the light, she tries the door. It doesn’t open.
Alison Turkos: Sheer and utter panic set in. And I, that night I was wearing a set of like seven to 10 like silver bangle bracelets. And for anyone who wears bangle bracelets, you know that like if you breathe or move, they are like a marching band. I’m like trying with every single fucking ounce of strength to open this door, like I think that I’m going to break this handle. And the driver turns around at this red light and he pulls a gun on me and he just tells me to shut the fuck up.
Mathilda Mallinson: They drive into a deserted park where two other men are waiting.
Alison Turkos: So the driver instructs me to lay down in the backseat of the car. And he and the two other men proceed to gang raped me. And the overhead light and the car is on. I have blue eyes I very sensitive eyes. I’m very sensitive to light, so my eyes are closed.
Mathilda Mallinson: After the rape, Alison’s assailant drives her home. And the next morning, she remembers nothing.
Alison Turkos: When I left the apartment, I opened up the Lyft app, and my ride from the night before was over $100. And there’s a map of the entire ride.
Mathilda Mallinson: This is something worth highlighting: trauma-related memory loss, because it’s often used to deny survivors’ legal credibility. For Alison, it took a reenactment of the journey with two male NYPD officers to fill in the gaps. But do you notice, she seems to remember it now with minute detail? The number of bangles she wore, the overhead light. This is something I’ve noticed with other survivors I’ve spoken to. They recount the events with unnecessary detail – at least for the purposes of this interview. To me, it feels like a need to paint an overly accurate picture so that no one can pick holes. It’s as if they don’t expect to be believed.
Alison Turkos: October 16, 2021 will be four years since I reported. No one is in custody. No charges have been brought forth. The driver is still driving, most likely is still driving for Lyft and Uber.
Mathilda Mallinson: I understand that you rape kit provided multiple semen samples, that presumably from the app you had the ID, the license plate number… on what grounds was this all deemed unusable evidence?
Alison Turkos: Yeah, great question. So the drivers DNA is not in my kit, which could be for a plethora of reasons like the driver might have worn a condom. According to law enforcement, because his DNA is not in my kit, they cannot charge him with sexual assault. A question that I will live with for the rest of my life: you had his license plate number, you had the make a model of the car, why not do a hair and fibre check? NYPD never did it. Why not collect video evidence from Liberty State Park to see if there was video evidence of the sexual assault? NYPD never did it. There are glaring factual errors on my police report. The date that I reported on my police report is wrong. My address on my police report is wrong. I knew that they were not going to be helpful. I never knew how unhelpful they would be. I never knew how they were going to, like truly ruin my case. The privileges that I hold that allow me to navigate the system are just like seeping out of me. I am a white woman. Can you imagine how black trans women are treated? How sex workers are treated?
Mathilda Mallinson: Do you think that your queer identity has had any impact on your experience?
Alison Turkos: Like, I used to have very, very short hair – at one point in time I shaved it – but the FBI told me that I should grow out my hair because I would a jury would be more likely to believe me because I would be read as straight. They would look at me and not ask questions internally about like, “but she looks so gay, why would men want to rape her?” I’m doing it. My hair is very long right now.
Mathilda Mallinson: On the 31st of January 2019, Alison filed a lawsuit against the NYPD. They responded to Media Storm: “The NYPD takes sexual assault and rape cases extremely seriously and urges anyone who has been a victim to file a police report.” (To Alison) You did say that you’d had slightly intimidating messages from the FBI after publishing an opinion piece. Have you felt at any point someone is trying to silence you for holding authorities to account?
Alison Turkos: All of the time. As a method of retaliation, I believe that the Eastern District of New York will not prosecute this case, because like I published a letter, I have called them out, I have filed a complaint.
Mathilda Mallinson: John Marzuli, Spokesman for the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, said: “The office does not comment on ongoing investigations. However, we can confirm that all prosecutorial decisions are made based on the law and the evidence. The office does not retaliate against victims or witnesses.” Alison isn’t alone in feeling silenced.
Pieke Roelofs: (Spoken word) I want to see you happy and always bursting with light for the shape of the song that’s bound to survive.
Mathilda Mallinson: Let me introduce you to Pieke Roelofs, a Dutch artist. She claims her botched rape investigation was buried by the state and is taking legal action against them.
Pieke Roelofs: What the government did and didn’t do in those cases showed such a severe neglect to the criminal point.
Mathilda Mallinson: Pieke already had a rape case open when she says one of the witnesses from that case began stalking her. She called the police to complain nine times but it didn’t protect her from what came, when she says he took her hostage in her home and raped her. I’ve been looking into this case for more than a year. I’ve read legal correspondence, court documents and medical histories. I’ve tracked down and interviewed previous girlfriends of the first man accused who support Pieke’s claims against him. I can tell you, there’s no shortage of evidence.
Pieke Roelofs: I’ve just never had my chance to make the case in court. All until now, what I’ve done is fight to get a proper investigation into cases and fight to get those cases prosecuted. This becomes really difficult if even the most basic things in these police investigations aren’t done already. You know, if witnesses aren’t interrogated, if conversations between you and your abuser aren’t interrogated. This is the reality of rape cases: just because a crime happened doesn’t mean it will be properly investigated let alone prosecuted.
Mathilda Mallinson: Once again, Pieke feels that the mental impact of her trauma led to her not being taken seriously.
Pieke Roelofs: I was hospitalised as a result of the abuse. So I became a psychiatric patient as a result of the abuse. But the thing is, they don’t look at you like someone who was hospitalised as a result of the abuse. They look at you as a psychiatric patient alone. I just could see in their eyes, they just started like zoning out and not really taking me serious. I definitely don’t think that the system has been put in place to prosecute as many crimes as possible. I think it’s just put in place to give people the sense of there being a system that protects them. There’s a theatre show going on.
Mathilda Mallinson: In Pieke and Alison and many others, we have a situation where survivors are going to war not only with their attackers, but entire justice systems. (Background voices) Our next case takes me to southeast London to meet Verity Nevitt. In 2017, she says her ex-boyfriend sexually assaulted her before going on to rape her twin sister Lucy. The sisters reported what happened to the police, but a few months later, were told no further action would be taken, despite having texts in which the accused apologised for the alleged assault.
Verity Nevitt: So the real reason was, it’s not enough for a jury to be convinced beyond reasonable doubt. And by this point in, we’d lost friends. During the police investigation, they didn’t believe us, they took his side. I was just like, I’ve just had a suicide attempt over this. Lucy was very hurt. Sometimes I think that hurt her more than the actual rape.
Mathilda Mallinson: What I really want to highlight with this story is the level of scrutiny that claimants often have to withstand in an attempt to build their case, because surveys show this is another significant deterrent to reporting.
Verity Nevitt: I didn’t understand why they needed to see our school records going back to like, primary school. Medical records, counseling notes from when I was like nine.
Mathilda Mallinson: It’s not just paper documents that are collected, but entire digital histories, their social media accounts, messages, photographs.
Verity Nevitt: There are certain things on my phone, like being at university and taking drugs and talking about that, that I was a bit worried that the police would see. And then I’d been prosecuted. They kept bringing up messages that they’d read, which now I know is like very inappropriate. But they kept kind of laughing and being like, you guys are very funny. Like your conversations with your mum and your friends.
Mathilda Mallinson: Were these messages in any way related to the case?
Verity Nevitt: No. So they looked at everything.
Mathilda Mallinson: Can you, is there an option to withhold explicit photographs of yourself or your boyfriend? You know, are you allowed to withhold some things?
Verity Nevitt: It doesn’t feel like you’re given an option. And they mentioned that they’d seen those photos, which was embarrassing. But yeah, my social media accounts shut down all the computers in Lewisham police station because there was so much of it. A lot of the time they have to send the phones off to a lab. Lucy didn’t have her phone for like, gosh, nine months, she was walking around with my iPad.
Mathilda Mallinson: The man that the sisters accused did not have to submit to this. He didn’t even need to submit to an interview.
Verity Nevitt: They didn’t interview him after I had reported they only interviewed him when Lucy reported. And they said, well, we did ask him about what happened with you, but he gave no comment. They basically just knew he was going to give another no comment interview so just didn’t see the point in that. They were meant to interview my mum. And they didn’t. They were meant to interview the first person my sister told, which is called like the first disclosure, which was quite important to police investigations. And they never did that either.
Mathilda Mallinson: And while the sisters data was needed because it could be used to pick apart their credibility in court, there’s a different approach for the accused.
Verity Nevitt: A man’s character is used in their favor. We’ve said all along, you know this is someone we’ve trusted and have been really close with and was part of our family. And they said that actually works in his favour. And I remember my partner just saying: “what so seemingly good men get one shot at being able to rape somebody?” It definitely felt like we were the ones being investigated.
Mathilda Mallinson: It’s a very interesting time to be looking at this issue in the UK. The government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which caused controversy earlier this year with its restrictions on protesting, is back in Parliament. It also rephrases officers’ powers to access people’s private data in a way that critics say undermines data protection law, making victims privacy even more vulnerable.
Dame Vera Baird: Let’s see if she’s ever said anything to us. Let’s see if she’s ever flirted with anybody. We’re looking at her credibility – that’s the culture at present.
Mathilda Mallinson: Leading the battle against this is Dame Vera Baird, the UK’s Victim’s Commissioner. She sent the government a list of amendments to bring the Bill in line with data protection laws, amendments the government chose to ignore. (Soundbite of debate in Parliament) But after much fighting, the government U-turned. Only, however, for digital data. Third party data like school and counseling records remains, in Dame Vera’s eyes, all too vulnerable.
Dame Vera Baird: There is only the Crown Prosecution Service to point to. They are very keen to keep their conviction rate up. They think that jurors are very prejudiced against rape complainants, that it’s easy to throw dirt at them about flirting, about drinking. And so they want to look for all of those possibilities before they even consider taking it forward. They are, in my view, very worried about their reputation, and much, much, much less worried about the privacy rights of a complainant. Prejudices shouldn’t be a barrier, prejudices should be challenged.
Mathilda Mallinson: What makes the government’s decision even more confusing is the fact that police actually support these changes.
Sarah Crew: I’ve been a police officer for 27 years, the figures and the convictions are worse. That shows we have to do something different.
Mathilda Mallinson: This is Sarah Crew, the National Police lead for rape in the UK, and she is hoping to lead that new departure.
Sarah Crew: So there were some significant cases in around 2016, 17, where the police and the Crown Prosecution Service had failed at disclosing material.
Newsreader: Dozens of rape and sexual assault cases have been dropped because vital evidence was withheld from the jury.
Sarah Crew: When there’s a significant failing, there is a reaction. And so in the quest for making sure that all the relevant information had been gathered, disproportionate effort, and disproportionate focus has gone into material held about the victim, about them. School records, health records, etc. It’s sending the pendulum towards an investigation of the victim. And what I’m proposing and what I hope I’m leading in policing is a swing back of the pendulum, rebalancing our focus on to the perpetrator. Let’s not forget the people who are responsible for this are the perpetrators.
Mathilda Mallinson: So what’s her plan of action? Project Bluestone, as it’s called, is a five pillar model. One, that swinging of the pendulum to focus on the suspect rather than the victim; two, an interventionist approach to catching criminals before they act; three, ensuring victims feel respected throughout the process; and four, with the help of academics, continual learning and development that is – five – informed by data and analytics. Trialed in Somerset earlier this year, rolled out to London’s Met Police in September, it will spread across England and Wales in 2022. (To Ms Crew) So on that note, when do you think we can expect to see results from this change in terms of real prosecution figures?
Sarah Crew: I think, almost immediately.
Mathilda Mallinson: With that promise, we can watch this space. Ms Crew knows what’s at stake.
Sarah Crew: Rape is such… it’s the worst crime you survive. And the criminal justice system should be able to deal with a crime of that seriousness, you know. My own view, and this is a personal view, it throws some doubt around the effectiveness of the criminal justice system. And if the public haven’t got faith or confidence in the criminal justice system, you know, that says something about the way we live and our way of life.
Mathilda Mallinson: Now, as you’ve heard from our survivors, it isn’t just up to police. The Crown Prosecution Service or CPS rejects about a quarter of cases referred by police and have a role in deterring referrals themselves. So that’s where I’m heading now, inside the Ministry of Justice’s building in Westminster, to ask the CPS why that is.
(Voices chatting: “I’m hearing I’m getting a better room than Channel 4!)
The woman leading the CPS for rape and serious sexual offenses is Siobhan Blake, and she insists the same pendulum swing that Ms Crew described, to focus on suspects, is happening in courtrooms as well.
Siobhan Blake: Why was this person sat in a nightclub on his own? If he’s there for a night out quite innocently, why isn’t he joining in? You’re trying to place the jury in the minds of the perpetrator. So you really have to try and focus right from the start of the investigation on what we call an offender-centric approach.
Mathilda Mallinson: Did that lead to a conviction?
Siobhan Blake: We did get a conviction in that case, yes.
Mathilda Mallinson: And and in other cases, where do you think the jury is typically lost?
Siobhan Blake: Very often the cases that we are investigating and then prosecuting will have quite limited immediate evidence, in so much as a lot of them take place without witnesses for obvious reasons. And also, the law on consent is such that we don’t simply have to demonstrate that an individual has not consented, but we also have to show that the defendant hasn’t reasonably believed that that individual has consented. That’s something that sometimes juries I suspect wrestle with. Although it sounds sometimes insurmountable, it really isn’t. And remember, the most important piece of evidence we’ve got is the victim’s. And victims are often really, really compelling. We will prosecute cases simply on the account given to us by by the victim.
Mathilda Mallinson: Could you help us then understand why many cases, who have clearly very compelling first hand testimonies to offer and sometimes what they feel is sufficient other compelling evidence, why it doesn’t lead to trial in so many cases.
Siobhan Blake: What we have to do as prosecutors is assess all the evidence. And it’s not about not believing victims. I think this is the point I’d really like to stress. We’re not there to make those value judgments. But we have to be satisfied that we can put a case to a jury where they could convict. Please, hold hold the faith with us because we can’t do it without victims. I think when you see headlines which talk about the decriminalisation of rape, and, dare I say, some simplistic examples, which are based more on perception and actuality, I think that can be really frightening for victims and survivors. I walk into an office every day, where we have a whole team of prosecutors who are prosecuting rape cases and serious sexual offense cases, day in day out, it’s what they do. It leaves me fearful that there are survivors who are in really dangerous situations because their confidence has diminished in criminal justice.
Mathilda Mallinson: My takeaway from all this is that pendulum swing to shift pressure from victims onto perpetrators. I think it’s needed at every stage: from courtrooms to police investigations. But beyond that, too. Our survivors pointed to cultures of blaming or not believing victims. Are we still just living in a man’s world? Where does responsibility lie? That takes us back to the studio. Thanks for sticking around.
Helena Wadia: Welcome back to the studio, where we’ll be discussing how the media report on rape and sexual assault justice.
Mathilda Mallinson: Our first guest is calling in from Nairobi in Kenya, so we’re very lucky to have her. She’s a psychotherapist and women’s rights activist, the founder of Dahlia project and Safe Spaces for Black Women, and the first woman of colour elected rector of the University of St. Andrews. It’s Dr Leyla Hussein! Hi, Leyla.
Dr Leyla Hussein: Hi everyone, thank you for having me today.
Helena Wadia: Our second guest is the campaigner who made upskirting illegal. She’s also a writer, and she is an advocate for UN Women, UK. It is the amazing Gina Martin.
Gina Martin: Hello, thanks for having me.
Helena Wadia: Did anybody have any immediate thoughts on the investigation that we’ve just heard?
Dr Leyla Hussein: Do you know, what’s so sad is how commonly actually it is? That’s my initial thought. I really reacted to one of the women they spoke to who said, you know, I’m a white woman who has a lot of privilege. And it was so hard for me. I can’t imagine what it’s like for black women. And I’m so – as sad as it is – I’m glad that was acknowledged because there is a difference. Unfortunately, when we set it up, Safe Spaces for Black Women last year, that was literally the reason we set it up. Because women are already at the backburner of everything. When you’re black and brown, it’s 100 times worse. So that was really my reaction to that investigation – how, how common this still actually is.
Helena Wadia: I also think that in the mainstream media in terms of how survivors are depicted, they’re often reduced to stock images of white women, with their head in their hands. You know, that reduces what we think a victim looks like.
Mathilda Mallinson: The investigation pointed to discriminatory attitudes held by juries as a significant factor in why it’s so difficult to convict. I wonder whether Gina or Leyla, you think that the media contributes to myths and stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes of this kind?
Gina Martin: I think it definitely does. I think so many of the problems we have are the very people who experienced the thing aren’t at the helm of being able to drive the narrative about the thing.
Helena Wadia: While we’re talking about the media, you know, propagating these rape myths and stereotypes, I want to talk a bit about the phrase “non-consensual sex”. “Non-consensual sex” propagates so many myths, maybe the biggest myth being that rape is about sex and not necessarily about power and control and violence. There’s also the phrase “underage women”, which frustrates me no end, and a really good example of this is when Jeffrey Epstein was arrested on sex trafficking charges. And the media outlet Jezebel counted that in the five days since his arrest, there were over 90 – nine, zero – radio and TV mentions of “underage women” alongside Epstein’s name. Now, I don’t know if I’m going crazy here, but there’s no such thing as an underage woman. You’re a girl, a minor, or a woman. And I have been in broadcast newsrooms specifically, where they cover a lot of crime in London and a lot of stabbings specifically. And they are so careful to use “boy” when it is somebody under 18, and man when it is somebody over 18. And the same is not applied to incidences of rape and sexual assault. And there’s almost this grace afforded to perpetrators, where the term underage woman is used rather than child or girl.
Dr Leyla Hussein: It’s, it’s unbelievable! Call it for what it is. The fact that you haven’t consented, it’s rape, full stop. The term “child marriage” comes up all the time. And I’m like, how is a child marriageable? It doesn’t even make sense. So the language we use, what it does, it makes a little bit okay. Because, you know, we respect the constitution of marriage. It’s pedophilia, it’s not “child marriage”. So for me, language is so key. When we constantly say Female Genital Mutilation is a cultural, traditional practice, instead of saying, Female Genital Mutilation: it’s violence – it’s not practice – it’s violence subjected to little girls, who an adult touched their genitalia which is sexual assault, but now took a knife to cut it, which is a serious sexual assault. See, that has a whole different meaning.
Gina Martin: Like where is this language created? Right? It’s not created from like regular working people on the street talking about the issue. It’s coming from the top-down. There’s a need to soften the language because we feel complicit somehow in all these different things. And then that trickles down into society and it’s only when it gets to us that we go: hang on, that’s not what we’re talking about here! How, why are you calling it that? Because you’re making it seem normal to people, as if it’s an accepted part of society, something that just happens. Instead of something super super violent.
Mathilda Mallinson: It’s common practice as well to use the term “had sex with” in situations where adults rape children or young teenagers. Just scrolling through Google, you have: “Man had sex with 14-year-old,” “Man jailed for sex with teen,” “32-year-old had sex with 13-year-old”. That’s not sex. That’s rape.
Gina Martin: Sex is pleasurable, sex is joyful, sex is about loves. It’s consensual, it’s a healthy part of life. This is about power, isn’t it?
Dr Leyla Hussein: Also, we always release the stats of how many women and girls have been violated but not the statistics of how many men are the perpetrators. You never see those stats anywhere. Because then we can see the problem. We don’t see the stats of the perpetrators!
Mathilda Mallinson: In the investigation, they talk about that pendulum swing to focus less on the victim and more on the perpetrator – the media needs to do the exact same thing. I have another question about how the media reports on these things, which is a question of “trauma porn” (quotation). You will often see tabloids regale in very lurid detail the sadism of these crimes, and at what point is it just voyeuristic?
Helena Wadia: I think often the lurid details of violence reported in our media kind of encourages the portrayal of perpetrators as like monstrous, or somehow distinguishable from the average person walking down the street. And then that gives the false impression that perpetrators are like “the other”. When Statistics show that most rape and sexual assault victims know their attacker, or it’s their partners or family member even.
Mathilda Mallinson: Does this voyeuristic culture tie into our pop culture as well? We seem to have an obsession with series about serial killers and femicide: the Ted Bundy tapes… Earlier this year, we started watching Serpent, which was a BBC One drama about the conman and murderer, Charles Sobhraj. We watch a lot of it through his eyes and there’s a scene in which he spikes the drink of a victim. And you’re given a kind of sense of excitement as you wait for the drug to kick in. And I’ve had a drink spiked before and I found that a really distressing moment and stopped watching. Is it overly-sensitive to say maybe we need to police culture better in that way? Or do you think that these shows glamourise violent and objectifying attitudes towards women?
Gina Martin: I think it’s unquestionable that the things that you take in, the messages you take in through songs, movies, you know, TV shows, adverts – all that socialises you into ideas of what’s normal, what’s part of life, and what isn’t. A show that talks about or explores sexual violence can do that many different ways, right? Because if you take something like I May Destroy You, and you look at that, that’s a very, very smart comment on culture, on structural issues we have, on race, on how these things interact. And the complexity of that, it does it in fact very beautifully. 90% don’t. So you get more of a sensationalist, superficial, very-much-through-the-male-gaze. And it’s not really a comment or even a critique or even an exploration of it. It’s just a, you know, rudimentary, kind of voyeuristic look at it. And I think that’s the problem is that the majority is like that. This is not a new problem. But now in the mainstream people are so much more aware of how much these things happen. And I just think about decades of women, and decades of marginalised people watching these narratives and not being able to watch them while other people think, “oh, the drama, how fun”.
Mathilda Mallinson: Rape is literally made entertainment.
Dr Leyla Hussein: Yeah, there’s no context. It is entertainment.
Gina Martin: Like since my work, I haven’t, I can’t watch that stuff. Because I read about it and hear it every day. I need to escape. And this is actually reality. So I can’t escape from reality by watching reality.
Helena Wadia: Anytime I think about the question of pop culture, I go back to Blurred Lines, the 2013 song by Robin Thicke, which includes the lyrics, “I know you want it” and “I hate these blurred lines” and ““the way you grab me, you must want to get nasty” or “naasty”. And I remember at the time, whenever I spoke about how I felt about it, I would get told I was being too sensitive, and it was just a song and get over it. And it was like actually impossible at that time for me to have any meaningful conversation about the song without somebody accusing me of being like an angry feminist who wants to like cancel Robin Thicke or whatever. At the time, there was a backlash to this song. Many women who have been raped said my attacker said “I know you want it”.
Mathilda Mallinson: It’s a literal defence that is used in court. Yeah, it’s a literal defense. This shocked me during my interview with Siobhan Blake, the prosecutor, she said the law on consent is such that you don’t just have to convince a jury the victim didn’t consent. You have to convince the jury that the defendant couldn’t viably have believed the victim consented.
Dr Leyla Hussein: You see the system’s not broken, the system is there to protect certain men. Maybe if we started from that, we can actually start dismantling this properly. Because the moment we think, “oh, something went wrong” – it’s not something went wrong. It was designed this way!
Gina Martin: How many powerful men in the public eye have zero repercussions for the kinds of things they’ve done? You know, Chris Brown, still making music. DaBaby with his whole, you know, HIV AIDS thing, homophobic, it’s just so toxic. And, you know, then Kanye West brought him and Marilyn Manson on stage. DaBaby’s in the top charts. When there’s no accountability for these men who set narratives and encourage narratives, why are we wondering why young men who look up to them and see them as the way they want to live, the way they want to be, taking on this language too, and seeing these kind of behaviors as not a problem? Of course they don’t, because “my hero’s doing it, and nothing happens to him”.
Mathilda Mallinson: Time now for a look at some of the stories making headlines on this topic. We’re going to be looking at the story of Alice Sebold, the author behind The Lovely Bones and Lucky. When she was 18-years-old, she was brutally raped, and recently it has been discovered the wrong man – Anthony Broadwater – was convicted. He was a black man, and Alice Sebold’s rapist was a black man. There were serious miscarriages of justice in the processes that led to his sentencing. There’s a lot in this story because on the one hand, you know, institutional and individual racism surely played a role in an innocent man’s sentencing. On the other, Sebold is facing vicious criticism when she was at the time an 18-year-old who’d undergone a horrific attack. There’s a few strains I want to follow, but one of them is the wrongful sentencing, and racist sentencing, of Anthony Broadwater in 1981. Just as we have ideals about the “perfect victim narrative”, which was touched on in the investigation, I wonder whether the media fixates on its “perfect villains”, you know, playing up men of colour or immigrant men. And does it deflect from the fact that, you know, most rapists are people’s partners or, you know, your average bloke next door? Do you think we have that fixation on a particular type of, quote, “villain”?
Dr Leyla Hussein: There’s a history here where black men have always been branded as predators. They’re actually called predators by many politicians, “these young predators, young predators, young predators”. So if you’re bombarded with that information all your life and you’re seeing this on TV, you know, the human brain is very sensitive. You know, we really take on this information and we create these biases in our mind. You know, she has been victimised, you know, she was raped, so we cannot dismiss that, too. So we’re looking at two vulnerable situations here. It’s, I don’t want to say it’s a complex case, it’s not a complex case, is very common case, this idea that a white woman being violated by a black man. So in a way, the media played a big role in why she even pointed someone out because that’s, that’s all she’s ever seen: that black men are predators. In one of her statement, she said, “I saw a black man running that look liked the rapist,” like, I mean, how that was even considered evidence is shocking to me.
Gina Martin: There’s so many things going on here. And there isn’t really an easy answer to it. But what I would like to see happen is a focus on what the institution was doing throughout this, how were the police acting with this. I’d really like to see that more, instead of just a complete focus on her and no one else.
Helena Wadia: Some mainstream media’s definitely jump on that narrative of men of colour, black men, or immigrant men, as these kinds of monsters and it gives, you know, the opportunity for the white middle class, and or non-immigrant men to shift the blame. So, when it comes to say, Stanley Johnson, the Prime Minister’s father, former politician, who has been accused of groping at least two women, one a Conservative MP and the another a journalist, those allegations are questioned, and the nature of the assault is questioned, and it’s dismissed as “just a bit handsy”. And “why didn’t they say anything at the time?” And that’s because it’s inconvenient, I think, for so much of the media for Stanley Johnson to be a sexual assaulter rather than, say, an immigrant man of colour, that they can call a monster and point out and decry violence against women.
Gina Martin: 100%. He holds so much power, right? So the way in which we’ll talk about him and the lengths in which we’ll go to [for] powerful men in powerful positions, there’s a real hesitancy to hold them to the same level of account that we would hold someone to account who has way less power, and who we can very easily dehumanise.
Helena Wadia: I also think, Gina, as you were saying, you would like to see the questions of the institution in Alice Sebold’s case. And I guess a lot of the time when cases like these are in the media, people jump on the idea that it was a false allegation. And do you think that false allegations, which are statistically relatively rare, give maybe a warped sense about women supposedly lying all the time about their assaults?
Gina Martin: Yeah, because we talk about that a disproportionate level to how much they happen. They’re 2-4%. They’re around the same level statistically as almost every other crime but you know, we rarely talk about – if someone gets mugged, we rarely say: “yeah, but like, were you telling the truth about being mugged? Were you lying about being mugged?”
Mathilda Mallinson: That’s why a lot of rape victims never even report.
Helena Wadia: Yeah, I think it is so important that the media clarifies that not being convicted of a crime is not the same as being found innocent. So a criminal trial is about the prosecution trying to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty, but the defence does not have to prove that the defendant is innocent. So that means that we cannot say that every failed conviction means the alleged victim was lying. And there are so many men in the public eye who have been accused but have not been convicted of rape or sexual assault, but who very much may be guilty. And let’s remember also that it is much easier for rich and famous men to get away with rape and sexual assault.
Gina Martin: I think that is… I wish, what you’ve just said there, which I kind of knew, but the way in which you’ve phrased it, and made it so clear. It’s almost like we need to put that on the TV every day. Just because, people don’t know that!
Helena Wadia: Okay, well, I’ll pitch a new TV show where I just sit and say that over and over again. Maybe the BBC will pick it up. Gina and Leyla, thank you so much for joining us on Media Storm. Gina, what are your social media handles, where can people find you, and do you have anything to plug?
Gina Martin: Thank you so much for having me. My social media handles are ginamartin: @ginamartin on Instagram and @ginamartin on Twitter. And my thing to plug is I have a newsletter that is free every month where we talk about an issue happening right now we take actions together. There’s 4000 people on there who take actions together to kind of get their muscles going and it’s mostly about the government and how rubbish they’re being so you can sign up to that. It’s called the Good Chat and it’s on Substack.
Mathilda Mallinson: And Leyla, please tell us where we can follow you and hear more from you.
Dr Leyla Hussein: So my social media handles on Twitter is @leylahussein, my Instagram’s @leylahusseinUK. I raise money for lots of things, but raising money for Safe Spaces for Black Women has been the hardest thing ever. We have over 500 women who come for therapy every week. And we don’t want to lose that space. It’s really important. It’s a safe space for them to come. So I’m going to plug Safe Spaces for Black Women. If you can share it on your social medias, share the GoFundMe page, I would really, really appreciate it. Thank you so much.
Mathilda Mallinson: Thank you so much for listening. We’ll be back next week with episode four: Transgender healthcare: a waiting game.
Helena Wadia: Follow Media Storm wherever you get your podcasts so that you can access new episodes as soon as they drop. If you like what you hear, share this episode with someone and leave us a five star rating and review on Apple podcasts. It really helps more people discover the podcast and our aim is to have as many people as possible hear these voices.
Mathilda Mallinson: You can also follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Tiktok: @helenawadia, @mathildamall and @mediastormpod.
Helena Wadia: Get in touch and let us know what you’d like us to cover or who you’d like us to speak to.