Believe the victim: a recipe for injustice

The innocent suffer when we’re encouraged to believe all claimants.

The outraged reactions to newspaper reports of a recent debate at the London School of Economics entitled ‘Is Rape Different?’, at which I spoke, proved the point of my talk there about the prevailing ideology of victimisation. This ideology dominates official thinking about rape and sexual abuse to a point where the police actively solicit allegations with the promise, ‘You will be believed’. This militates against the idea that allegations need to be investigated. 

The ‘you will be believed’ mantra also fosters an unreal expectation on the part of complainants, and the victim lobby, that their accounts should not be challenged or questioned robustly. The government is now piloting a scheme of ‘pre-trial’ cross-examination, in an attempt to shield complainants from the rigours of a criminal trial, ostensibly so as not to ‘re-traumatise victims’.

This is dangerous, for two reasons. First, it creates an ideal climate in which those who have not been abused can claim that they have been. Second, it ignores the ease with which false memories of abuse can be created, whether by self-persuasion, interaction with victim/survivor groups, or influence by third parties with axes to grind. Those third parties may include therapists, policemen, injury lawyers, campaign groups, and journalists avid for scandal. All these players espouse the ideology of victimisation.

In 1997, the US sociologist Joel Best identified seven widely accepted propositions which, taken together, create this powerful ideology:

1) Victimisation is widespread;
2) Its consequences are fundamentally psychological, and long-lasting;
3) Victims are innocent, victimisers are exploitative, and there is no room for moral ambiguity;
4) Both society and victims themselves fail to appreciate the extent of victimisation;
5) People must be taught to recognise their own, and others’ victimisation;
6) Claims of victimisation must not be challenged, as this is ‘victim-blaming’;
7) The word ‘victim’ connotes powerlessness: the term ‘survivor’ is preferable. (1)

Victims/survivors are praised for their courage, and enjoined to recover. The language of recovery is permeated by the doctrinaire religiosity of the 12-step movement, pioneered by the founders of AA in the US. This may explain why some victim-advocacy groups can sound cult-like, with their own jargon (‘grooming’, ‘trafficking’, ‘mind control’) and their disdain for non-believers.

But, like any religion, the victim/survivor movement needs new recruits and new spheres of influence. Not satisfied with sensitising society to victims’ needs, they then demand integration within institutional structures, and then wholesale institutional change. The contemporary victim industry, according to Best, mass-produces victims.

Even those who deny prior experience of victimisation are seen as candidates for conversion. Best quotes the comedienne Roseanne Barr from the early Nineties: ‘When someone asks you, “Were you sexually abused as a child?”, there’s only two answers. One of them is, “Yes”, and one of them is “I don’t know”. You can’t say no.’

What Barr alludes to is the concept of ‘gradual disclosure’. Hugely influential with therapists and social workers, this posits that people who have been abused will initially deny it, and need help to overcome their denial. This is a deeply flawed approach, because it assumes that there is always something to disclose. It refuses to countenance the possibility that a denial means there is nothing to disclose. According to researchers, there is no clinical evidence to support the theory of gradual disclosure (2).

Back in 1991, Barr had accused her parents of incest, a claim they strenuously denied. She also joined an incest recovery group. But in 2011, Barr told The Oprah Winfrey Show: ‘Incest was the wrong word to use… I had some mental illness… I totally lost touch with reality… I didn’t know what the truth was… I just wanted to drop a bomb on my family.’

It’s worth pondering why some people want to join the ranks of the abused. Another American sociologist, Joseph E Davis, argues that the adult survivor account ‘has great explanatory potential: it economically orders a wide range of confusing and troublesome experience, settles the question of self-blame, and is set within a discourse of hope for the future.’ (3) In short, the idea of being a survivor meets the desire to make sense of life, through a culturally sanctioned narrative.

We know that some people strenuously maintain things that are untrue: such as those claiming to be victims of alien abduction. Such people can be quite intelligent, articulate individuals, holding down jobs and not obviously mentally ill. Alien abduction is not, theoretically, impossible: but the problem is a complete absence of any objective evidence to support the existence of such a phenomenon. By contrast, we know that sexual abuse unquestionably does exist, though its true extent remains strongly contested.

We also know that it is very easy to implant false memories, which may be quite vivid and detailed. A study published by members of the Department of Psychology in Utrecht University, in May this year, found that subtle misinformation conveyed to normal people could create false memories (4). This follows the same findings in earlier research by US psychologists such as Elizabeth Loftus in the 1970s.

The 2013 Dutch study also references an earlier Dutch study in 1996, after an aircraft crashed into an apartment block. The media reported that videos of the crash were made, though no such footage actually existed. Yet a survey found that over half of those interviewed later on claimed to have seen the non-existent video material, and some proceeded to give details of what happened when the plane hit the building.

In the 2013 study, 249 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan were interviewed about stressors in deployment. After the interview, 213 were given subtle misinformation about an imaginary but plausible event, namely, a harmless missile attack on their base on New Year’s Eve. They were asked if they recalled such an event, but denied it. Seven months later, they were retested. Twenty-six per cent of participants (55) were now recalling this fictional event, which previously they had denied experiencing.

What this shows is that memory is malleable, and that memory for a potentially traumatic event is not immutable. As the 2013 study authors wrote: ‘New information, from whatever source, can be incorporated into existing memories and can change the way people remember events.’ (My italics.)

Given the contemporary fascination with abuse in the mainstream media, the vast array of self-help books and ‘misery memoirs’, and numerous websites and workshops devoted to survivors, the continual eruptions of historic allegations of sex crimes are perhaps understandable. The power of this cultural script of victimisation is compelling, even hypnotic, in the present climate.

And for those hunting alleged abusers, finding a suspect can become a psychological necessity. What may also happen is that investigators encourage witnesses to provide more and more allegations of abuse, to justify their own preconceived notions. As Jean La Fontaine commented in her study of alleged Satanic abuse: ‘Sympathetic acceptance of a story slides easily into a curiosity to hear more. When the listener is eager to hear more, gratitude for support may impel the young person to… find ever more dramatic memories to recount.’ (5)

We also cannot ignore the lure of compensation. In Ireland and Canada, when allegations of historic abuse in institutions surfaced, and compensation was mooted, claims multiplied to an astonishing extent. Similarly with the Welsh care homes scandal that began in 1991, and the recent Savile scandal.

So how believable are historic allegations of sexual abuse? The latest Dutch research suggests that there is room for serious doubt. If soldiers, who are a pretty down-to-earth bunch, can be so easily persuaded that something happened in the recent past when it didn’t, it is plausible that people are susceptible to misremembering events that took place, or are believed to have taken place, decades ago. This is particularly so if they are suggestible, manipulative, or have a history of emotional disturbance.

The civil courts, which try actions for damages, are used to the spectacle of those insisting that something has happened to them, when in reality it has not, or has not happened in the way they say it did. In 1968, Lord Pearce observed:

Witnesses, especially those who are emotional, who think that they are morally in the right, tend very easily and unconsciously to conjure up a legal right that did not exist. It is a truism, often used in accident cases, that with every day that passes the memory becomes fainter and the imagination becomes more active. For that reason a witness, however honest, rarely persuades a judge that his present recollection is preferable to that which was taken down in writing immediately after the accident occurred. Therefore, contemporary documents are always of the utmost importance.’(6)

Exhortations to ‘believe the victim’ miss the point. A legal system that shrinks from testing witness credibility robustly is not an authentic system of justice. And as one Chief Justice said in 1825, long dormant claims have more of cruelty than justice in them (7).

Barbara Hewson is a barrister in London.

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Footnotes and references

(1) ‘Victimisation and the Victim Industry’, Joel Best, Society, May-June 1997, 9-17

(2) The Secret of Bryn Estyn: the making of a modern witch hunt, by Richard Webster, Orwell Press, 2009, p229

(3) Accounts of Innocence: Sexual Abuse, Trauma, and the Self, by Joseph E Davis, Chicago, 2005, p237

(4) European Journal of Psychotraumatology 4, Lommen, Engelhard and van den Hout 2 May 2013

( 5) Quoted in The Secret of Bryn Estyn: the making of a modern witch hunt, by Richard Webster, Orwell Press, 2009, p232

(6) Onassis v Vergottis (1968) 2 Lloyd’s Rep 403 at 431

(7) A’Court v Cross (1825) 3 Bing 329 at 332