Rosie Warren: On believing women who allege rape

Note: A response to criticisms of this article appears at this link.

Over the course of the past few months, I’ve been having a lot of conversations about rape, and about the women who allege rape. Particularly, about women who allege rape against high-profile left wing men. I’ve noticed a lot of things about these conversations; some were reassuring, some were disappointing, many were utterly sickening.

I have been accused of many things over the course of these conversations, most of which were baseless, but the most puzzling by far was the accusation that “You’re automatically believing the woman!” Quite. Not only am I doing so, I maintain that this is exactly how consideration of such cases should proceed. And it is important to stress that this is a position predicated on logic, as well as solidarity.

Having recounted such accusations to those people with whom I actually share my politics, who have been on the same side as me in recent fights, I have been somewhat surprised at their reactions. Some of those I have the utmost respect for, reveal they will still not categorically, even privately, make a stance beyond “This needs to be investigated with absolute seriousness” and “We can’t say anything about guilt, or innocence, because we know nothing about the details”. I reject this wholeheartedly; such tentativeness is a failure of political rigour. We should, of course, start by believing the alleger.

And here’s why:

Sexual intercourse without consent is rape.

A woman has alleged rape. This means she is alleging that both:

  1. sexual intercourse occurred
  2. she did not consent

For the purpose of this intervention, I am considering those cases in which both parties accept that intercourse occurred, but for which he says it was consensual, she says it was not.

The issue, therefore, lies with (2) – consent:

There are several things that could have happened:

  1. She is lying
  2. She misunderstood what happened, believes it to be rape, but is mistaken
  3. She has been raped

How do we know which has happened, and what can we say with conviction?

  1. She is lying – This is understandably an incredibly difficult thing to estimate, not least because so many rapes go unreported (a 2007 government report suggests that between 75% and 95% of rapes are not reported to the police,1 and most reports suggest the latter is more accurate) but those who have attempted to examine it place the figure at somewhere around 5% of reported rapes are false allegations2 – which means 5% of roughly 10% reported; less than 1% of women lie about being raped. I believe we can reasonably disregard (a), then, unless there is a very strong reason to suggest the woman is lying – these are exceptional circumstances, and should not be foregrounded.
  2. She misunderstood what happened, believes it to be rape, but is wrong – I think this rests on how we conceive of consent. I suggest we should conceive of consent not as the absence of a no, but as the presence of a (not necessarily verbal, but very clear) yes. An intentional, conscious, active, positive decision. In order for a woman to have misunderstood about her ‘not-rape’ then, option (b), we appear to be suggesting that the woman has consented, but unintentionally. This is clearly contradictory to the definition I have just laid out. If consent is, as I think it is, an intentional, conscious, active, positive decision, how could she do that by accident, and could that really constitute consent? Surely, in this scenario, it is the man who is mistaken about the consent, since the woman cannot mistakenly give it. I think this is worth stressing: given this understanding of consent, while it may indeed be the case that there has been a misunderstanding, it is surely the man who has not understood that this is rape, rather than the woman who has not understood that it is not.
  3. She has been raped – Given what I’ve already outlined, there is a 99% chance she is telling the truth, and she cannot consent by accident. If she says there was no consent, we can be 99% sure that there was no consent. Either the man was mistaken about the consent, or else he was well aware, and was not concerned. Either way, sexual intercourse without consent is rape. Rape has occurred.

There are several things I ought to add in response to the criticisms that are already being pounded into keyboards and hurled in my direction.

Firstly, as explained, I’m talking about a specific scenario of rape, where both parties acknowledge that intercourse occurred. Certain issues arise from the formulation that a man can be ‘mistaken about the consent’. Before I go on I must state, in the clearest possible terms, that I am not suggesting that this absolves the man of responsibility for his actions. It is absolutely and unequivocally the responsibility of a man to make concretely sure that he has a woman’s consent before he has sex with her. If he’s not sure, he shouldn’t have sex with her.

When I say that men can be “mistaken about the consent”, what I mean is that men can rape women without necessarily realising that that is what they have done. A man may believe that the woman consented, because his understanding of consent is perhaps “unless she says no”, or “when she’s naked” or “she’s promiscuous, she’s always up for it”. These beliefs are, of course, abhorrent. But nonetheless, if he does not understand that consent is an enthusiastic and freely given yes, he may not conceive of himself as the rapist that he in fact is. It should not change our analysis of these men, as rapists, but nonetheless this is obviously a complicating factor.

This is simultaneously very obvious – it is unlikely that in stating baldly that a man can be a rapist without believing himself to be, anyone will deny that possibility – but also, I believe, counterintuitive precisely because many, even amongst the left, have internalised a simplistic view of rape, according to which The Rapist is a conscious, deliberate, sexual predator. It may be this internalised concept of The Rapist (who does of course exist) which lies behind the hesitancy of some on the left to accept that, in the absence of strong counterevidence, a man accused of rape is, indeed, a rapist. One corollary of accepting the logical position of believing a woman who alleges rape, then, might be for those who had internalised this concept of The Rapist to accept that their understanding of what rape is simply wasn’t adequate, and needs rethinking.

It is worth adding to this, I think, that there are many different types of rape. For most this will be obvious, but perhaps it needs spelling out. Some women are, of course, raped by The Rapist, on their way home, in the dark. These are generally the ones you hear about on the news. But for most women who are raped, their rapist is a family member, partner or friend. Many rapes occur in the woman’s own home. Some rapes are incredibly violent, some are less so. Some women are too drunk, or otherwise intoxicated, to refuse, some are simply too terrified. I don’t think it requires a complex concept of rape to understand how this can be so, just a realistic one. Not all rapists fit the criteria of The Rapist. Many of them are ‘nice guys’ who just weren’t quite nice enough to notice that the woman they had sex with hadn’t consented. He may not think of himself as a rapist, because he only knows about The Rapist. But there was still no consent. It doesn’t change our understanding of rape, as intercourse without consent, it just makes it starkly obvious that the old concept of rape as something that only happens in dark alleys, by men who are out to rape, is completely inadequate and is one that has never represented women’s experience of rape.

The final point that I think it is essential to raise, is that while a woman cannot be mistaken in her assertion that she did not consent, this does not mean that a woman may not also have internalised such distorted concepts of consent, and may not, at the time of the event, conceive of herself as having been raped. Many women come to the conclusion afterwards, sometimes years afterwards. This should not undermine the sincerity, or validity of their allegations, nor should it prevent anyone who considers themselves anti-sexist from believing them.

Obviously this throws up issues for dealing with rape accusations in law, and among people on the left. I have an open mind about the best way to proceed, and what protocols if any to put in place, and I welcome that debate. Here, I am focusing on the narrow but important question of belief. The statement that we believe someone alleging rape is not only an important act of solidarity, but is also, given what we know about the nature of rape allegations, the only logically coherent position to take.