There’s a documentary on Channel 4 tonight, as part of the 24 Hours In Police Custody series, that I urge you all to see. It’s called A Complaint Of Rape, and it follows Bedfordshire police detectives as they investigate the alleged rape of a young woman by a man she met in a bar.
On the face of it, there is not much here to celebrate. A traumatised woman is interviewed in excruciating detail. A man denies everything. Evidence is minimal, because evidence for most things is minimal. It’s her word against his.
But. But… The programme’s title is (deliberately) identical to a documentary made in 1982 by Roger Graef and Charles Stewart. It showed three Thames Valley policemen interviewing a woman who says she has been raped by three strangers. “This is the biggest bollocks I’ve ever heard,” says one, summarising both their and the era’s attitude. When it was broadcast, it caused a public outcry and heralded a sea-change in attitudes. The footage is now used as a What-Not-To-Do instructional film for police.
It is wonderful to see the proof of this change in the contemporary film. The male and female officers are kind, respectful and humane towards the victim throughout, while they gather the evidence for the case and present it to the CPS.
Have attitudes really changed that much? I chaired a debate with the documentary’s makers after a screening recently, the Q&A session was dominated by stories from the audience about all the myriad occasions and ways in which police still fail victims. And then, a young man – perfectly nicely, perfectly respectfully – asked: why hadn’t the girl just turned her phone on when she thought things were getting iffy? Voice recorder or video. Either would work. Why don’t the police advise all women to do this?
And suddenly, there we all were, staring at another deeper layer of ignorance reaching, well, who knows how far? How wide does a question like that go?
His question – his solution – was offered without malice and with genuine helpful intent. But how do you begin to deal with something that reveals so much – about how he (and, assuming he is not unique, many others) think of female autonomy, of responsibility, of human relations, of culpabilities. “Kiddo,” I wanted to say. “When I was sexually assaulted and suddenly felt all the certainties I had depended on in life were upended and hurled back at me, my numb fingers would have found it reeeeally tricky to find that voice memo icon, y’know.”
Back to 1982. That film was early fly-on-the-wall stuff and the truth it captured changed things. It really did. What is our equivalent now? It’s social media campaigns like #everydaysexism, and all the ways Facebook and Twitter offer to show our lives in the round and capture under-recognised truths – our truths – and make them visible to people who would otherwise remain oblivious.
So let’s keep publicly celebrating and documenting our experiences, good and bad. Show men like my questioner what it’s like to live in our world. Lead them, by making our voices heard and our common humanity visible, to an understanding that it is as unacceptable, ridiculous and nonsensical to ask a woman to monitor and constrain herself to pre-empt abuse as it is to ask a man. One film educated the police. Now we have the power to educate everyone else.
Photography: Ellis Parrinder