Anonymity in cases of sexual abuse

With the current focus on Maria Miller’s expenses fiddling, it is easy to forget that MPs and other public figures are often tied up in scandal. The most recent example is that of the former deputy speaker Nigel Evans MP, who was recently cleared of charges of sexual abuse. The acquittal of Nigel Evans, hot on the heels of actors Bill Roache and Michael Le Vell, makes now an appropriate time to review how the UK legal system deals with cases of sexual abuse and rape.  

The issue of anonymity for those accused of rape is hard to ignore given the frequency of such cases. Therefore it is a shame that it is often treated as such a black-and-white issue. One side argues for anonymity in order to prevent a devastating experience for the falsely accused, whereas the other says this could reduce the likelihood of witnesses or other victims coming forward. Labour have opted for the latter argument, disappointing many on the left who view it as Labour’s duty to deviate from reactionary, reductive debate on these matters. We must not let Tessa Jowell MP's assertion that victims of sexual abuse are “afraid [and] not confident about the protection of their own anonymity” be the end of our understanding of this vastly under-reported crime.

Sexual abuse is about power; an abuse of the perpetrator’s own power and the victim’s lack of it. Some may say that sex offenders act in the way they do to express their resentment towards elements of the victim’s identity, such as their gender. But, again, this is all to do with power. Our economic model has made self-worth and power synonymous in the minds of many. As a result, when someone feels powerless they lose all feelings of self-worth. Clearly, different people take different measures to try and regain this power, from the trivial to the sinister.

“But what’s this got to do with anonymity?” came the enlightened cry from David Starkey on Question Time when the trauma of the abused was mentioned. “Everything”, is the answer – or should have been - from Jowell.  She was right to exclaim that thousands of abused women have never had the confidence to come forward. But either disclosing or masking identities neglects the real problems.  How are women who are powerless in so many spheres of life expected to be confident in speaking out on such an intimate topic as rape?

Labour have a good record on empowering women (all-women shortlists, female representation in the current shadow cabinet) but need to do more. What is required now is to address men. To get women to report cases of sexual abuse every time, we need to break away from old-fashioned expectations of masculinity. We have seen an unholy alliance between power and a testosterone-fuelled model of manliness, making it commonplace for men to deem this the only way to progress in our society. Labour must show that it is not only women, but all of society including men, who would benefit from fuller emancipation of women and a new definition of masculinity. Women would gain innumerable rights, those accused of sexual assault could be granted anonymity and men could freely dissent from antiquated ideas of masculinity.

This article, like all publications of the Young Fabians, represents not the collective views of the Society but only the views of the author

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