When courts – and people – believe women

Recent rape cases in and out of court give small hope that powerful abusers can be successfully challenged

December 27, 2015 2:00AM ET

On Monday, Jonathan Caplan, a successful British lawyer (who happens to be my stepfather), won a major case when his client radio DJ Neil Fox was cleared of a string of sexual abuse charges based on allegations going back three decades.

Dr. Fox (his radio alias, not an academic title) was for a while the ubiquitous voice of London breakfast radio — as reliable a feature of my journey to school as the bruised skies of London’s winters. He was accused of sexually abusing three colleagues and a number of fans as young as 14 from 1988 to 1996; he was also said to have groped women, held them down and pressed himself against them and to have forced a teenager to perform a sex act on him while he touched her genitals.

The magistrate threw out all 10 charges. More crucially, though, the panel (this was not a jury trial) stated that it believed each and every claim against Fox but ruled the allegations too “historical” to uphold. Rape has no statute of limitations in the U.K., so sexual abuse should not either, but history favors the powerful. While the women’s credibility was not in question, it was not enough. My stepfather’s victory is a miserable affirmation of institutionally upheld patriarchy: The law believes you, but the law does not care. 

If this was a victory for powerful men, I hope it was a Pyrrhic one. The almost silver lining is that the court publicly believed the women; Fox’s claim that his accusers were “fantasists” was discredited. And this question of who gets to be credible in public discourse lies at the heart of numerous current high profile cases and stories this side of the pond, some of which echo the Fox example.

Most recently, the conviction of serial rapist and former police officer Daniel Holtzclaw and the dethroning of porn prince James Deen saw credibility and support rightly accorded to the women who spoke out, countering historic dismissals of poor black women with records and of sex workers (even famous ones such as pornographer and writer Stoya, who first accused Deen of rape). And last week FitzGibbon Media, a progressive public relations firm, abruptly closed up shop after several female employees accused founder Trevor Fitzgibbon of sexual assault. “FitzGibbon Media closed its doors today, as we could no longer continue working under his leadership,” the firm’s former employees wrote in a statement. “We lost our jobs standing up for what’s right, to ensure a safe workplace for all — and while we may have been left without jobs, benefits and long-term health care, we have our integrity and each other.” Here too, believing women took precedence over all else. 

Let’s avoid panegyrics to the justice system when lauding Daniel Holtzclaw’s conviction. We should sooner celebrate the women standing up to powerful institutions.

In light of these incidents, there’s reason to believe that we are seeing the seeds of a long overdue shift in who gets to be a credible voice in rape and sexual assault cases. No judge, journalist or juror need pat himself on the back, though. This is the work of ferocious feminist, anti-racist and class struggles. 

On Dec. 10, Holtzclaw was convicted of raping four poor black women and assaulting four others after a 57-year-old Oklahoma grandmother, Jannie Ligons came forward and others followed. The jury recommended that he be sentenced to 263 years in prison. (His sentence will be determined in January.) It was a rare moment in a criminal justice system inclined to disbelieve victims and enable police violence. As was the case with the now dozens of women speaking out about being drugged and raped by comedian Bill Cosby, the floodgates needed opening.

But when lauding Holtzclaw’s conviction, let’s avoid panegyrics to the justice system’s working. We should sooner celebrate the boldness of women standing up to powerful institutions. His accusers spoke out not only against their abusers and oppressors; they spoke out to (and thus with) a community that has been historically marginalized and silenced. This empowered more women to come forward, and thankfully, the legal system listened.

It’s nevertheless worth remembering that Holtzclaw was found guilty of only half the 36 charges brought against him.

The oft-quoted words of Black Panther Assata Shakur bear repeating here: “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” It is not a newly found grace or good sense in public opinion or a suddenly cop-critical, victim-trusting justice system that explains this credibility shift. The resilience and strength of Black Lives Matter and related activism has forced a reckoning with the American mythos of the trustworthy cop.

Skepticism toward the legal system partially explains why Stoya (disclosure: a very close friend) accused Deen of rape outside the purview of litigation. Wisely so. The juris prudential tenet — that defendants are innocent until proved guilty — assumes that rape is confined to a legal category. Compelling women to press charges risks telling them that a judge should be the one to determine the truth of their lived, painful experience. Or, as in the Fox case, that the truth of their accounts can be judicially verified but dismissed as a lesser point of law. 

Beyond this, those paying attention to the rape and attempted murder trial of MMA fighter War Machine will recall how his attorney argued that his accuser, porn performer Christy Mack, could not have been raped because of her job. Her career in porn meant she had the “desire, the preference, the acceptability towards a particular form of sex activities that were outside of the norm,” his lawyer contended.

Thankfully, Judge Elissa Cadish responded, “I don’t see how any of those activities that she did in adult movies would ever show her consent to the acts with the defendant that he’s charged with.”

War Machine beat Mack so badly that he broke her nose, ribs, smashed out teeth and lacerated her liver. The mere fact that someone would dare argue in court that her sex work exempted her from being raped gives pause to any sex worker making rape claims to authorities that are, on top of it all, active in marginalizing their profession and community. 

It’s depressing that it often takes multiple women calling one man a sexual abuser for a single woman’s claim to be accepted.

Stoya took the risk of speaking out first about being raped by Deen, empowering others to share their experiences and act in mutual support. A wave of public solidarity followed, and his swift exile speaks to a readiness in the business to distrust him. Stoya, Joanna Angel, Amber Rayne, Kora Peters and the other women who have attested to his abusiveness were largely granted swift credibility. Fears that calling out Deen, a perceived golden boy, would fuel gleeful anti-porn and anti-sex-work crusaders have gained little traction because pornographers such as Stoya, Angel, Kayden Kross, Jiz Lee, Nina Hartley, Bailey Jay and Wolf Hudson (to name a few) have served as a bulwark against such criticism by virtue of ferociously demanding credibility. 

The fragility of credibility can’t be ignored; fear informs much of the time lapse between a rape and its telling. So, too, does a sort of prisoner’s dilemma logic, in which each person fears speaking out first, in case she stands alone, but has the knowledge that a collective calling out either garners credibility or risks being deemed a witch hunt. The all-too-slow undoing of Cosby exemplified this, with critics saying waiting too long is the mark of a false accusation. (This was a defense used by Fox to suggest delays invalidated his accusers’ claims, as opposed to highlighting the barriers to and fears around coming forward at all.)

It’s depressing that it often takes multiple women calling one man a sexual abuser for a single woman’s claim to be accepted. By the same token, collective action and solidarity have always been the sine qua none of marginalized groups’ challenging prevailing power structures. This has proved crucial especially when dealing with rich, powerful and influential men.

Among the arguments used in defense of Fox was that he was the victim of a police fixation on celebrity. His case follows another long-term investigation, of high profile British entertainer Jimmy Savile, believed to have sexually abused more than 500 children and countless adults. Caplan told the court that after the first complaint was lodged against Fox, “four detectives held a planning meeting to find other alleged victims after a single complaint, before even interviewing Fox himself.” Caplan noted, “There have been a number of concerns about this kind of case.” 

I'm not one to praise police action, but to see the police believe a woman’s assault claim against a celebrity and investigate the likelihood that it is not unique is a welcome about-face from decades of police dismissals of abuse claims. And if there is a fixation on celebrity, it is because celebrities and figures of authority like police are those most enabled to abuse and rape without consequence. The people abused by Holtzclaw, Savile, Deen, Cosby, Fox and so many others likely fixated on their assailant’s celebrity or authority too: It silenced them and made them feel powerless in the face of authority, wealth or fame.

The law is a blunt instrument with fatuous claims to objectivity, and I understand that its champions would not value the rationale of investigating the powerful and famous over anyone else. But it’s hardly neutral to steer clear of such probes either; in fact, avoidance upholds the power structures that offer shielding to celebrated members of society or symbols of authority. Holtzclaw’s conviction alone does not inspire my faith in the legal system to address rape or police impunity or racism. Courts certainly won’t smash patriarchy for us. At best, it seems, they’re sometimes capable of believing us. 

Natasha Lennard is a New York–based writer covering civil liberties, dissent, non-electoral politics and international affairs. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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