Content note: this post contains and links to discussions of rape and sexual harassment.
Social attitudes towards rape and sexual violence and harassment have over the last few years been undergoing what Laurie Penny has aptly called ‘rape culture’s Abu Ghraib moment’. From Steubenville, to Jimmy Saville, and academic philosophers, we have been confronted with both how widespread rape, sexual violence and harassment is, and how awfully this is dealt with by the police, courts and institutions. Closer to home for me, a few months ago the Oxford Union president was arrested for rape and attempted rape (the charges were later dropped). This resulted in a campaign to have him resign his position as president and for invited speakers to cancel their appearances until he did. The ‘public intellectual’ A.C. Grayling however refused to cancel his appearance, saying that the president was innocent until proven guilty and should not be tried in the ‘kangaroo court of public opinion’. This has become a common response to accusations of rape (with ‘kangaroo court‘ the favourite and somewhat tired description). The alleged rapist, it is argued, should not be subject to social sanctions and society should reserve judgement because of the principle that people are innocent until proven guilty.
I vehemently disagree with this. But when challenged I have in the past been somewhat unsure of my reasons for disagreeing. One argument is that though innocent until proven guilty is an extraordinarily important principle, it is primarily a legal principle. That means it applies to the courts and the legal process of convicting someone of a crime. If someone is to be subjected to state punishment (from fines, to jail, to being executed), then they have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty so that the obligation rests with the prosecution and not the accused to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. It is however not clear that public condemnation of an alleged rapist should be subject to the same principle. As has been pointed out the so-called ‘kangaroo court of public opinion’ is not actually a kangaroo court. A kangaroo court (such as white lynch mobs) disregards the standards of a fair trial to punish the accused. Public discussion and condemnation does not (usually) seek to actually replace the legal process and determine guilt and then exact the kind of punishment normally reserved for the state.
But I am unsure of this argument. First, it relies on a kind of reasoning where the legal and social is entirely divorced that I would normally reject. I do not for example accept the absurd argument that women, queer people and people of colour have achieved equal status on the basis that many (but certainly not all) legal discriminations have been removed, because this is undermined by the continued existence of social oppression upheld through patriarchal, white supremacist and heteronormative norms. Second, public condemnation and discussion is not the whole story. Social sanctions, which include being personally or professionally shunned and being removed or temporarily stepping down from public positions, are graver than public condemnation and can approach state punishment in the consequences for the accused. Trying to argue that carrying out these kind of social sanctions does not punish the accused in the way a court does, seems unconvincing. Justifying it requires more than saying that innocent until proven guilty is just a legal principle.
I think the more convincing defence of public condemnation and social sanctions, and thereby overruling innocent until proven guilty, is based on the flawed legal processes and social attitudes that surround rape and sexual harassment and violence. Rape culture and its associated myths infect every step of the legal process from the police to judges. Combined with the social shaming and condemnation of victims, this mean that rape remains (as the graphic above shows) a dramatically under-reported, under-prosecuted and under-sentenced crime. In the absence of a correctly functioning legal system and societal attitudes that support victims I think it is therefore justifiable to publicly condemn and socially sanction alleged rapists and harassers. Of course this will vary from case to case, based on which crime they are accused of and the actions taken by the institutions that are supposed to deal with it, and there is no easy formula for this. I think that these actions are however necessary to challenge the ideas embedded in rape culture and replace them with the kind of norms and institutions that would seriously reduce the prevalence of rape and harassment.
In closing it is worth reflecting why people place so much emphasis on innocent until proven guilty when it comes to rape and harassment. I suspect that this is in fact one more feature of rape culture. At its heart rests the profoundly mistaken view that false accusations of rape and harassment are rife. I think we should remember that insisting that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, is so often based on the assumption that the victim is ‘lying until proven truthful’. To counteract that, I think it is central to believe and support victims. As Stavvers has convincingly argued:
‘Silence is the biggest weapon patriarchy has in keeping rape culture alive, and “I believe her” starts to tear down this wall and encourage and empower survivors to speak out. Because of this, it is crucial that we resist the attacks on this notion, the slurring it as “mobs” and “kangaroo courts”, because it isn’t. It’s solidarity in the face of patriarchy, and we should be proud that it is starting to terrify those who would rather we shut up.’