The innocent suffer when we’re encouraged to believe all claimants. By Barbara Hewson
The outraged reactions to newspaper reports of a recent debate at the London School of Economics entitled ‘Is Rape Different?’, at which I spoke, proved the point of my talk there about the prevailing ideology of victimization. This ideology dominates official thinking about rape and sexual abuse to a point where the police actively solicit allegations with the promise, ‘You will be believed’. This militates against the idea that allegations need to be investigated.
The ‘you will be believed’ mantra also fosters an unreal expectation on the part of complainants, and the victim lobby, that their accounts should not be challenged or questioned robustly. The government is now piloting a scheme of ‘pre-trial’ cross-examination, in an attempt to shield complainants from the rigors of a criminal trial, ostensibly so as not to ‘re-traumatise victims’.
This is dangerous, for two reasons. First, it creates an ideal climate in which those who have not been abused can claim that they have been. Second, it ignores the ease with which false memories of abuse can be created, whether by self-persuasion, interaction with victim/survivor groups, or influence by third parties with axes to grind. Those third parties may include therapists, policemen, injury lawyers, campaign groups, and journalists avid for scandal. All these players espouse the ideology of victimization.
In 1997, the US sociologist Joel Best identified seven widely accepted propositions which, taken together, create this powerful ideology:
1) Victimization is widespread;
2) Its consequences are fundamentally psychological, and long-lasting;
3) Victims are innocent, victimisers are exploitative, and there is no room for moral ambiguity;
4) Both society and victims themselves fail to appreciate the extent of victimization;
5) People must be taught to recognize their own, and others’ victimization;
6) Claims of victimization must not be challenged, as this is ‘victim-blaming’;
7) The word ‘victim’ connotes powerlessness: the term ‘survivor’ is preferable. (1)
Victims/survivors are praised for their courage, and enjoined to recover. The language of recovery is permeated by the doctrinaire religiosity of the 12-step movement, pioneered by the founders of AA in the US. This may explain why some victim-advocacy groups can sound cult-like, with their own jargon (‘grooming’, ‘trafficking’, ‘mind control’) and their disdain for non-believers.
But, like any religion, the victim/survivor movement needs new recruits and new spheres of influence. Not satisfied with sensitising society to victims’ needs, they then demand integration within institutional structures, and then wholesale institutional change. The contemporary victim industry, according to Best, mass-produces victims.
Even those who deny prior experience of victimisation are seen as candidates for conversion. Best quotes the comedienne Roseanne Barr from the early Nineties: ‘When someone asks you, “Were you sexually abused as a child?”, there’s only two answers. One of them is, “Yes”, and one of them is “I don’t know”. You can’t say no.’
What Barr alludes to is the concept of ‘gradual disclosure’. Hugely influential with therapists and social workers, this posits that people who have been abused will initially deny it, and need help to overcome their denial. This is a deeply flawed approach, because it assumes that there is always something to disclose. It refuses to countenance the possibility that a denial means there is nothing to disclose. According to researchers, there is no clinical evidence to support the theory of gradual disclosure (2).