Warning: this article contains distressing content which may prove triggering for some.
There is, undeniably, a marked trend in the kinds of sexual assault that TV and filmmakers choose to portray, in the types of victims that they gravitate toward, and in the distortions that can happen when the crime is used as a plot device.
In Downton Abbey, it was housemaid Anna being violently raped by Mr Green in scenes that stretched out over several minutes. Thriller film Elle, likewise, opened with Michèle being viciously beaten and raped in her Paris home. Game Of Thrones saw Sansa brutally assaulted by the psychotic Ramsey Snow. And Scandal was widely criticised for its incredibly graphic portrayal of Mellie’s rape at the hands of her husband’s father.
The second season of Netflix’s Criminal, however, wisely chooses to steer away from this narrative of violence. Instead, set exclusively within the almost clinical confines of a police interview suite, the assault in question has already taken place.
And, this time, the onus is on the alleged rapist to prove his innocence.
The synopsis for this episode, the second in the new series, is brief: “With scarce evidence to guide them, the investigators question an arrogant businessman accused of rape by a woman who works for him.”
Sarah, whom we only ever see in a photograph, speaks to us via a statement she has already given to the police. She claims that she went back to her boss’ house after a team night out, that they kissed, and that – when he tried to take things further – she told him no. That he then cancelled the Uber that was due to pick her up, and raped her in the bedroom he shared with his out-of-town girlfriend.
“Why would Sarah say that you assaulted her?” Detective Inspector Natalie Hobbs (Kathleen Kelly) asks the accused.
Alex (Kit Harington) has his own theory, of course. He insists that Sarah made the first move, that she asked him to cancel the cab. That consent was willingly given, That she had applied for a senior position at his company, and that she hadn’t got it. That she was “pissed off”.
“Maybe she only slept with me to get the job,” he says, spreading his hands across the table. “I hate that I think that, but that’s what I think.”
It is clear that DI Hobbs and her team do not believe him, but they lack the evidence to prove as much. Indeed, as Alex’s own lawyer reminds: “Internal bruising alone can never prove rape… which breaks my heart to be honest love, but it’s the rule.”
However, as she adds pointedly, it works the other way, too: a lack of internal bruising doesn’t disprove a woman’s claims of rape. Indeed, there are many reasons why someone might not scream or struggle, and some rapists may even use manipulation or threats to intimidate or control the other person.
It seems, for a while, as if Netflix’s Criminal is going out of its way to highlight an unhappy truth: that the system is tipped in the favour of accused rapists. That, without hard evidence, it’s very much a case of one person’s word against another.
Then, just like that, the show’s detectives stumble across evidence which strongly suggests that it is Alex, not Sarah, who is telling the truth. Her best friend, it seems, made a similar claim of sexual assault against her own boss just over a year ago, resulting in a cash settlement large enough for her and Sarah to enjoy a luxury holiday.
And a single WhatsApp message from Sarah, suggesting she and her pal book themselves a “reunion” trip, sees the officers rush to release Alex without charge.
The episode’s ending, focused on a crumpled Alex, sees him lament the irreparable damage that being arrested for rape has done to his life.
“I’ve committed no crime,” he tells officers. “I’m completely innocent… [but] this shit sticks. I was tarnished the second your mates came into my office in their uniforms. Nowadays, not being charged with rape is not enough. People won’t believe it.”
It’s a damning conclusion: one which suggests that people can easily lie about being raped, and one which feels completely at odds with the hard lessons we learned during the #MeToo movement.
“This is a really disappointing and potentially harmful approach for the show to have taken,” Katie Russell, national spokesperson for Rape Crisis England & Wales, tells Stylist.
“It reinforces damaging myths that are already far too prevalent in society and the media. There is nothing ‘edgy’ or new about sexist stereotypes of women as deceitful or money-grabbing.”
Russell continues: “False rape allegations are very rare. By contrast, the experience of rape and other forms of sexual violence and abuse is much more common than most people realise. The impacts on survivors are significant and long-lasting, and the vast majority of those who are subjected to these serious, traumatic crimes never report to the police.
“Among the reasons survivors tell us they don’t report are fear of not being believed and of being treated like the one under suspicion. The criminal justice process is long and difficult and it’s not something people routinely put themselves through for petty reasons.”
Netflix’s Criminal had an opportunity to explore the murky waters of rape accusations, the difficulty in getting the reluctant CPS to prosecute, the doubt that women face. And, for the first half of this episode, it seemed as if it were about to challenge this.
Instead, it turned into a “shock twist” about a lying woman, fuelling the incorrect assumption by some that false rape accusations are rife, as opposed to something that only accounts for between 2 and 10% of all reports and almost never results in any kind of conviction.
When you consider the fact that around 85,000 women are raped every year in England and Wales, and that two thirds of those will not make it to court, this isn’t just a disappointing angle to take: it’s dangerous, too.
With this in mind, then, we hope that should Netflix’s Criminal be renewed for a third season, something is done to right this wrong. Because, considering how influential the streaming platform has become, they have a real opportunity to change the narrative around sexual assault for the better.
When approached for comment on this story, a Netflix spokesperson told Stylist: “Unfortunately sexual assault is far too common and there are many issues around rape allegations which are important to highlight.”
If you would like more information or support, visit Rape Crisis UK – or, alternatively, call 0808 802 9999 (usual opening times are noon - 2.30pm and 7 - 9.30pm any day of the year and also between 3 - 5.30pm on weekdays).
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.