Note: The following article contains discussion of sexual assault that some readers may find upsetting.
There is a pernicious myth that always rears its head whenever women make accusations of rape and sexual assault.
It's long plagued those who choose to speak about their ordeal, whether that's to their inner circle or to the police. It's also a weapon that fills vast numbers of women with such an acute degree of hopelessness and distress that they choose not to voice their pain at all, instead resigned to shouldering their burden alone.
That discomfort is compounded by the fact that the person who harmed them is not behind bars, but out there, free to do it all over again, which they often do.
"Most men don't rape in isolation," Nicola Mann, a spokesperson for Women Against Rape, told Digital Spy.
"If that person is never held to account, they have the power to carry on doing that, and it's something that can ruin nearly every aspect of your life."
The fable in question is false rape allegations, which the second season of Netflix's Criminal has turned its attention to.
It should be noted that the episode was both written and directed by men.
Kit Harington plays Alex, an estate agent who has been accused of rape by Sarah, a junior member of his team.
He vociferously denies any wrongdoing. Sarah wanted to have sex and not only was their exchange consensual, she was the initiator, taking complete control of the situation.
According to Alex, Sarah had a crush on him. She laughed at all of his jokes, and there were myriad other hints that she was interested in more than a professional relationship.
It's that comment, coupled with other traits, that make Alex an unappealing character.
He's arrogant, domineering and entitled. He is exactly the type of man that springs to mind when women declare, "Men are trash".
You can imagine him "rating the birds" in his office, truly believing that white men are an endangered species, and retweeting outspoken celebrities who "tell it like it is".
If you were watching another series, there would be no doubt in your mind that he was guilty. The detectives are quick to tell Alex that they don't believe his version of events, and it's implied that there is damning evidence to come.
But this is Criminal, where the rug is regularly yanked from beneath you.
It revels in playing devil's advocate and provoking a vigorous response. It encourages its viewers to debate and draw their respective battle lines.
But when you're using rape to do that, it veers into morally murky territory, and the real-world implications are devastating.
We learn that Sarah had applied for a promotion but was unsuccessful.
She was told the bad news after the night of the alleged rape, which Alex claimed was a strong indicator that she had used sex in an attempt to climb the ladder, in turn benefiting her status and her finances.
But when her gamble didn't pay off, she cried wolf. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and all that.
It also emerged that her friend and flatmate Claire had spent just less than a year in her last job.
She, too, had put herself up for a promotion, but was unsuccessful. Claire then made an allegation of sexual misconduct against her boss before being paid to leave the company.
She used the money to whisk herself and Sarah away to South Africa for a holiday.
Shortly after that piece of information was uncovered, the detectives allowed Alex to walk free.
There was insufficient evidence, which is not synonymous with innocence. But it's heavily implied that Sarah is a devious, dangerous and manipulative woman who falsely accused her colleague of rape as an act of vengeance.
"We seem to be going backwards 30, 40, 50 years every time something like this comes out," Mann told Digital Spy. "It feeds into the narrative that all women lie because they're bitter, they want revenge, or they want compensation.
"Less than 1% of reported rapes are classed as false allegations and the actual conviction rate for rape now, the most recent figure that came out in The Guardian [in 2019], is 1.5%.
"These programmes are making money out of a distortion of reality and it completely undermines our grasp on grassroots women's struggles to get justice for all women."
The national spokesperson for Rape Crisis England & Wales Katie Russell also shares Mann's concerns.
"There's nothing especially edgy or new or clever or, indeed, provocative about peddling far-too-prevalent, longstanding myths and stereotypes around women, and around sexual violence and abuse," she told us.
"It's already sadly a widely held myth that women, in particular, routinely lie about rape or sexual violence for petty or vengeful reasons. And that is just simply not true.
"But it has very real, life-damaging consequences."
Russell added: "The great untold story is that millions of victims and survivors of sexual violence and abuse of all different kinds, who are living among us with impacts like post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and all sorts of knock-on effects on their lives, their health, their relationships, their education and training, their employment, their income, and who have no justice – no recognition, no validation, no criminal justice, and, in many cases, no access to specialist services, like Rape Crisis, because of chronic, historic underfunding of those kind of services."
The conversation that takes place between Alex and his solicitor is also deeply troubling.
She referenced the folder lying on the table in front of them containing Sarah's medical report and asked her client: "If that report shows Sarah's suffered significant internal bruising, if that's what it says, what do you think that means for you legally?"
Alex replied that it would look "bad".
She then asked him if it was to show "no signs of internal bruising", what would that mean?
"Well, that's got to be good, hasn't it? he responded. "That means, you know, normal sex."
It's what his legal representative said next that is profoundly damaging.
"All of those answers are wrong because internal bruising alone can never prove rape," she said. "There's always a way to maintain, however severe, that the bruising is the result of consensual intercourse."
Approximately 85,000 women experience rape, attempted rape or sexual assault by penetration in England and Wales every year, according to a Ministry of Justice report published in 2013.
Only around 15% of those individuals report what happened to them, which means thousands upon thousands do not. And that comment made by Alex's solicitor is unlikely to improve those statistics, instead acting as a deterrent.
"We know that among the reasons why victims don't report is their fear of not being believed, and being treated full of suspicion by the criminal justice process," Russell said. "Portrayals like this one will undoubtedly reinforce those fears.
"We know, too, that a lot of jurors, because they're obviously ordinary people like you and me, are influenced by these social myths, these very damaging, victim-blaming myths that are so widespread in society and media."
She added: "On the one hand you could argue that this is just fiction – what harm can it do? But actually, we know that drama and television have important roles to play in people's understanding of a lot of topics.
"And when they are handling something as serious as this, the programme-makers do have a social responsibility to do that in an appropriate way."
There will, undoubtedly, be those watching who argue that there are exceptions to the rule, and that those stories of individuals falsely accused of rape or sexual assault deserve to be told.
"I think we already see them all the time," Russell said. "I think that they are heavily over-represented.
"Considering that the actual incidence of so-called false reporting or false allegations of rape and sexual violence is so low, it's very rare in contrast to the huge prevalence of sexual violence and abuse against people of all ages and backgrounds and genders, but especially women and girls – women and children."
She added: "It'd be good to see more drama from the point of view of the victim or survivor. Increasingly, we are seeing examples of that.
"The drama Shetland is a recent, positive example of sexual violence and abuse being well-handed, and soaps have tackled these storylines with very careful research and consultation with specialist charities like ours. It's possible to do it in a way that is educational and is sensitive and is appropriate, without being gratuitous, and using sexual violence just for a shock factor or some kind of titillation.
"And it's possible to raise awareness and understanding of the very real impact that sexual violence and abuse has on victims and survivors – and generate some empathy for those experiences.
"If these subjects are going to be tackled at all, the refreshing, really edgy thing to do would be to tackle them from the perspective of the people on the receiving end of this serious violence and abuse."
Rape Crisis England & Wales works towards the elimination of all forms of sexual violence and sexual misconduct. If you've been affected by the issues raised in this story, you can access more information on their website or by calling the National Rape Crisis Helpline on 0808 802 9999. Rape Crisis Scotland's helpline number is 08088 01 03 02.
Readers in the US are encouraged to contact RAINN, or the National Sexual Assault Hotline on 800-656-4673.
Digital Spy has launched its first-ever digital magazine with exclusive features, interviews, and videos. Access this edition with a 1-month free trial, only on Apple News+.
Interested in Digital Spy's weekly newsletter? Sign up to get it sent straight to your inbox.
You Might Also Like