Naomi Scott as Olivia Lytton in Netflix drama Anatomy Of A Scandal

Trauma relived: How Anatomy Of A Scandal puts our treatment of rape survivors on the stand

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New Netflix drama Anatomy Of A Scandal lays bare misogynist beliefs that rape survivors routinely face in the UK, and that infect the core of a deeply flawed criminal justice system.

With just one in one hundred rapes reported to police resulting in a charge, and two-thirds of rape investigations dropped before they even reach court, it’s clear that the British justice system is failing survivors of sexual assault.

And Anatomy Of A Scandal, a new six-part drama from Netflix, exposes some of the myths and mistreatments behind this staggeringly low conviction rate. The new thriller, adapted from Sarah Vaughan’s bestselling novel,  examines the fallout after a political aide (Olivia Lytton) accuses a high-profile Tory politician (James Whitehouse) of raping her in a House of Commons lift.

During the resulting trial, the married MP insists that the incident was consensual; a “moment of passion” during their five-month affair. Olivia acknowledges the affair but contends that the rape happened outside of their consensual sexual relationship – an aspect of the storyline that drives home the real-life difficulties of prosecuting rape in a so-called “intimate personal relationship”.

Marital rape only became a crime in Britain in 1991, and rape within relationships can be even harder to prove than other instances of sexual assault. Partly this is to do with deep-rooted myths that colour attitudes towards rape and consent. A 2018 YouGov study, for example, found that almost a quarter (24%) of Britons think that sex without consent in long-term relationships is usually not rape; and a further third of people believe that it isn’t usually rape if a woman is pressured into having sex but there is no physical violence.

These depressing stats lead into another damaging myth that is explored in Anatomy of a Scandal: that women make up rape allegations because they want revenge. In the TV show, James’ defence team argue that Olivia has fabricated the accusation of sexual violence against him because she was bitter about him ending their affair. 

Naomi Scott as Olivia Lytton in Netflix drama Anatomy of a Scandal
Naomi Scott as Olivia Lytton in Netflix drama Anatomy of a Scandal

Most of all, however, Anatomy of a Scandal – co-starring Sienna Miller, Rupert Friend and Michelle Dockery – drives home the relentless pressure that rape survivors are subject to, when (and even if) their cases come to trial.

Producers deliberately staged the drama so that the character of Olivia is only ever seen on trial (rather than at home, or in her day-to-day life), to echo the perspective of the jury. This decision highlights how stifling, and traumatic, the scrutiny of rape survivors facing the spotlight can be.

Naomi Scott, the actress who plays Olivia in the series, admits that filming the role “opened her mind” to the legal ordeal that rape survivors are put through on the stand. “The set itself is really quite daunting and I thought, ‘OK, I’m an actor. This is not real,’” Scott tells the Radio Times. “I can’t imagine how it must feel for someone who actually has to retell their trauma to a bunch of people who aren’t necessarily supporting them, but actually judging whether they’re lying or not.

“It really did open my mind and my eyes and I just thought, ‘Wow, how brave it is to come forward,’” she adds. “But also, I completely understand why someone wouldn’t want to go through that.”

Michelle Dockery in Netflix drama Anatomy of a Scandal
Michelle Dockery excels as Kate in the new Netflix drama.

Five in six women in the UK who are raped currently don’t report it; and even those who do face a barrage of obstacles to seeing their perpetrators successfully convicted. For example, a two-year wait for trial has led watchdogs to recommend setting up specialist “rape courts” in the UK, to improve the justice system. 

But even rape survivors who do make it to trial face “brutal” cross-examinations that “re-traumatises victims and causes them irreparable harm”, according to campaign groups. A culture of misogynistic beliefs around previous sexual history, drinking habits or even the way claimants dress has added fuel to fire of a flawed and humiliating justice process.

It was only in the mid-90s that a law came into effect banning defendants from grilling the very people they were accused of raping; and just this year that rape survivors were given permission to pre-record testimony, in order to reduce “unnecessary stress and trauma”. 

These changes are (long overdue) steps in the right direction. But as the UK’s appalling conviction rates show, and as Anatomy of a Scandal brings to life so glaringly, our justice system has a long way to go in righting the endemic wrongs that rape survivors so routinely face.

Sexual assault referral centres provide a safe space and dedicated care for people who have been raped, sexually assaulted, or abused. If you have been raped, sexually assaulted or abused and don’t know where to turn, search “sexual assault referral centres” to find out more or visit www.nhs.uk/SARCs to find your nearest service.

Images: Netflix

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.