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The difficult issue of legal naming and shaming

Image: Snopes
Image: Snopes
Image: Snopes

“Every guy’s worst nightmare is having a one night stand and in the following days the girl accuses him of raping her.” So begins a typical Tab thought piece: taking on a serious subject with customary indelicacy.

I don’t tend to read Tab articles, as it expends time I will never get back, but I was drawn to one, which deals with the tremendous impact that allegations of sexual assault can have on a man’s career, personal life and relationships with others, by its examples.

The author, Jonny Long, covered the story of Bartolomeo Joly de Lotbiniere, a York graduate who has been found not guilty of raping another student. Shortly afterward, Long graced us with his thoughts on how a public accusation of rape can wreck a man’s career, regardless of its truth or falsehood.

In his extensive coverage of the original incident, the trial, the retrial and its verdict, Long must have forgotten to add one detail: Joly de Lotbiniere was once the Editor-in-Chief and regular contributor to one of York’s campus newspapers, York Vision. A fellow writer of York Vision, who wrote about Joly de Lotbiniere while he was a University Challenge contestant, worked with Joly de Lotbiniere when he was in charge and who would go on to co-edit the paper, was, er, Jonny Long. Were Long’s thoughts on the matter influenced by the experience of a former colleague? They might well have not been, but it would have been nice if Long could let his audience know.

Nonetheless, there is a serious point to be made about how allegations of serious misdemeanours can dog one’s image between their inception and the resolution of the process. The weight of public condemnations can drag the accused into an awful state of affairs, where friends cease contact, employers suspend their employment and journalists splash their name, residence and friends in the front pages.

Everyone has been mistakenly – or falsely – accused of something in the past. Many have tried to take action against it. But few could equate their experience with that of Joly de Lotbiniere and others. They will suffer the existence of thousands of headlines reporting their alleged crimes, the difficulties of acquiring employment and possible mental trauma. It is a relief that Joly de Lotbiniere was found not guilty of such a heinous act. One can only wish that his reputation recovers swiftly and that he can resume a normal life.

Still, I find myself reading over the first paragraph repeatedly. “Every guy’s worst nightmare is having a one night stand and in the following days the girl accuses him of raping her.” There is something disturbing about the implication that a man’s “worst nightmare” would be an accusation of rape after a sexual encounter. Surely, in this situation, “every guy’s worst nightmare” would be… committing rape?

For a man to worry that his partner might wrongly accuse him of a great evil makes sense only when he has first ensured that there was consent – clear, coherent, constant and without coercion. It might be just the coarseness that is a hallmark of articles for The Tab, but it strikes me that, according to Long, this “nightmare” is nightmarish for a man because of the inconvenience it puts on him. Detail the inconvenience all you like – “the man becomes front page news before a jury has decided whether they are guilty. Their name and face will forever be associated with rape. This could happen to anyone.” – but it doesn’t change the fact that sex without consent is rape, a crime that must be investigated like any other by the police.

If someone believes that they were sexually assaulted, is our first concern really that it would shame the accused? Yes, Joly de Lotbiniere has a long struggle ahead of him following the recent verdict, but what would be the worse outcome: damaging a person’s reputation or abandoning a victim of sexual assault?

At least in the former York Vision Editor-in-Chief’s case, justice was delivered by a jury’s verdict; for some people, justice never comes into it. Many victims of rape are too intimidated by their attackers to come forward. Of those who do come forward, many choose to call helplines and support networks rather than approach the police, as they do not expect any action against their attacker to be taken. Too many are told that, perhaps if they hadn’t been wearing so short a skirt or drinking that night, it wouldn’t have happened.

Hence, many victims of rape simply live the rest of their lives without disclosing anything. They try to accept what happened to them and ignore it. It is not just a cruel fact of life but a damning indictment on society that many victims of sexual assault are compelled – paralysed by fear – to remain silent. We ought to acknowledge it.

That Joly de Lotbiniere and others like him suffered public vitriol, shame and embarrassment for uncommitted crimes is terrible; but it would be a moral travesty for a rapist to enjoy the luxury of freedom from arrest, prosecution and retribution as a consequence of their victim’s fear.