Content warning: rape, victim-blaming
After a two week retrial, Ched Evans was acquitted of the rape of a 19-year-old woman. This verdict, and the process through which it was reached, was steeped in fundamental falsehoods regarding rape, consent and women’s sexuality. The legal consequences remain to be seen, but the societal importance of this development cannot be understated.
The most shocking aspect of this retrial was the decision to allow the victim’s past sexual partners to describe, in detail, their sexual encounters. Consider the emotional impact of this for the victim. Imagine the trauma of having your sexual history scrutinised in order to disprove your testimony that your autonomy was ignored, your body taken advantage of, and your right to safety when in a position of vulnerability rejected. Consider also the precedent of using a woman’s sexual history to invalidate her rape claim for rape survivors, women, and wider society.
It means that a woman who unashamedly enjoys sex will always have to second-guess herself. She will have to live with the fear of that enjoyment being held against her should she ever be one of the 85,000 women in England and Wales who report being raped every year. It means that we, as a society, are still so uncomfortable with the fact that women can be sexual beings that we use their sexuality as a weapon against them.
I yearn for the day we realise that rape has nothing to do with sexuality. It has nothing to do with sex. Rape is all about power and its exertion over other human beings. Rape is not about sex. Recognising this, we might then see how ludicrous it is to connect someone’s consensual sexual experiences with their experience of rape.
To persist with this connection shows a deep-rooted ignorance of what consent itself is. Consent is always retractable. Consensual sex with a specific person does not mean that all future activity with that person is automatically consensual. Consenting to a specific sexual position with one person does not mean that you always consent to that position. Being sexually active around the time of a rape does not disprove that rape. Consent for one is not consent for all.
It is extremely unnerving to witness a judge and a jury making this fundamental mistake. It reflects the institutional heights that our collective ignorance has reached. It creates a toxic feedback loop to the everyday prejudice and misogyny to which this case is intrinsically linked. It reinforces the idea that a woman’s body is never entirely hers, especially if she should choose to express herself sexually. It solidifies the lie that a sexually active woman has given up her right to bodily autonomy, especially when faced with a man with money and status.
This lie is pervasive. Evans presumed his status made him sexually attractive, as outlined in his police interview: “Footballers are rich […] that’s what girls like.” While Evans defends himself using the supposed magnetism of rich men, another rich man, Donald Trump, uses the same idea to boast about sexual assault: “When you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.”
The development of this case suggests to victims everywhere that they cannot expect their accounts to be welcomed without ensuing character assassination. They cannot trust the justice system to hear their voices without persistently searching for a reason not to listen. Our society still has not learned how to take rape and sexual assault seriously, and, until it does, it will always be failing its victims.
Image credit: Sporting Life