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Taking Rape Allegations Seriously: How Should We Treat the Accused?

Last week, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that it would not pursue further action against Oxford Union president Ben Sullivan, due to insufficient evidence arising from an investigation into the two accusations of rape and attempted rape made against him. In early May, Sullivan was arrested and released on bail, prompting a chaotic six-week period for the Union as the Thames Valley Police investigated the claims made against him. After Sullivan refused to resign, a number of high-profile speakers, including the UK director of Human Rights Watch, the Interpol secretary-general, and a Nobel Peace prize winner, pulled out of their speaking commitments as part of a larger boycott of Union events.

In an open letter (which has since been taken down) calling for the boycott, students Sarah Pine, who is Oxford University Student Union’s Vice President for Women, and Helena Dollimor wrote, “Remaining in his presidency continues to offer prestige and power to someone who is being investigated for rape. This undermines the severe nature of allegations of sexual offences.” In contrast, Oxford professor A.C. Grayling penned a response to the letter refusing to cancel his scheduled talk at the Union, noting, “I simply cannot, in all conscience, allow myself to act only on the basis of allegations and suspicions, or of conviction by the kangaroo court of opinion, or trial by press…” In this post, I look at the spectrum of responses in the wake of Sullivan’s arrest, of which these two examples represent the poles. More broadly, I consider how we ought to respond – both as individuals and a society – when those in positions of power are accused of rape or other sexual offences.

I take it as fairly well-accepted that we should on some general level treat the accused as innocent until proven guilty; even Union speakers who cancelled and those individuals who campaigned for Sullivan’s resignation acknowledged their respect for this basic principle and suggested that his guilt and punishment were questions for the court. As such, I inquire here whether one can simultaneously take this core principle seriously and also boycott an organization due to allegations against its president or suggest that the accused step down from his position of power.

In thinking about whether and why the boycott was justified, it is useful to examine the reasons actually given by those who participated in it. Some, such as David Mepham, the UK director of Human Rights Watch, gave fairly empty reasons: “I believe people are innocent until proven guilty, but I’ve decided to postpone my speech because they obviously have a lot going on over there.” Some – particularly prominent speakers – may have boycotted out of a self-interested desire to keep their names and reputations from being ‘tainted’ by association with the Union during its period of poor press. While perhaps politically prudent, I don’t take such decisions to be principled or particularly useful in thinking about justified responses to rape allegations. However, there were many boycotters that provided theoretically interesting arguments that help in teasing out this question.

The secretary-general of Interpol, Ronald Noble, noted that while he believed firmly that people are innocent until proven guilty, “In my view, [Sullivan] should be guided by the best interests of his organization. He should not be guided by his own interests. In this case my advice to Ben Sullivan would be either to resign or take a leave of absence until the criminal investigation has completed.” This response seems to capture a tension widely-felt by those following Sullivan’s case: Noble wants to both affirm the presumption of Sullivan’s innocence while also suggesting that he has a duty to step down from the presidency in order to protect the ‘best interests’ of the Union.

Yet, these two beliefs seem perfectly compatible and, furthermore, do not logically lead to the conclusion that Noble reached, namely that he should cancel his speech. Perhaps Sullivan should have stepped down based on a consideration of the negative effects the investigation was having on the Union and its dues-paying members, who were denied a large portion of the term’s events due to speaker cancellations. This seems to be something that reasonable people will disagree about. But, regardless, this is a consideration of Sullivan’s duty to his society and members. It is not clear how consideration of his duty translates to any justification on a speaker’s behalf for pulling out of a prior commitment to the organization. Furthermore, the conclusion to cancel is oddly circular: on this apparent reasoning based on Sullivan’s duties to his organization, Noble cancelled because Sullivan’s presence was making speakers cancel.

Others seem to have thought that Sullivan should step down not due to the negative consequences his continued presence was having on the Union, but as a symbolic gesture to the importance of rape allegations in our society more generally. This seems to be what Pine and Dollimor had in mind when they said that Sullivan’s failure to step down “undermines the severe nature of allegations of sexual offences.” Similarly, human rights activist and Nobel Peace prize winner Tawakkol Karman, who was in London for a summit on ending sexual violence in conflicts, explained, “I cannot attend an event against rape and at the same time take part in another event supervised by a person accused of rape.” Finally, Barnaby Raine, arguing in favor of the boycott in the Oxford Student, claimed: “The man [the two women] accused has retained his position of influence even while under police investigation. That is deeply worrying.”

It seems crucial that Sullivan is in a ‘position of influence’: these accounts suggest that Sullivan should step down largely because he is in a position of power or prestige. They would probably not, after all, suggest that a Union receptionist resign or a regular member withdraw his membership simply for being accused – not convicted let alone charged – of rape. On this account, students and speakers might boycott the Union because they think Sullivan has failed not just the Union but themselves and society more generally – perhaps particularly victims of sexual offences – in refusing to resign. His position of power may be seen as central to this argument due to the historical evidence that victims may feel especially afraid to speak out against powerful assailants. In other words, Sullivan has some special responsibility in virtue of his position.

This argument seems to be about sending the wrong message: Sullivan’s failure to resign from his position of power fails to treat appropriately the nature of rape allegations. And yet, it seems neither necessary nor sufficient to step down from a position of prestige in order to take seriously the nature of rape allegations. Not necessary because we, as a society, have already established the process by which we will take rape allegations seriously. We have a police force that investigates such accusations, prosecutors that represent the victims if there is enough evidence to go to trial, and a criminal justice system that determines whether there is enough evidence to convict the defendant. To take these accusations seriously, Sullivan’s part in this process should be no more and no less than full cooperation with the investigation. And resigning is not sufficient in taking rape allegations seriously because it is, in the end, a public gesture that may be simple political choreography – whether he resigns says very little about how he or the Union thinks about the nature of rape and gender relations, how either has cooperated with the investigation, or how either will act in the future. Perhaps most importantly, the idea that otherwise elected and qualified individuals should resign – in Grayling’s words – “only on the basis of allegations and suspicions, or of conviction by the kangaroo court of opinion, or trial by press,” is anathema to our system of justice, even if the alleged offense is as serious as rape.

Oxford professor Linda Scott, who moved her original Union event to a different location in Oxford, responded to Grayling saying, “I was dismayed that Grayling’s invocation of an important principle, ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ was used to reinforce a tacit assumption of cultures that tolerate gender violence: the victim is ‘lying until proven truthful.’ ” Indeed, many boycotters seem to think that refusing to act on the basis of rape allegations is necessarily a verdict on the victim and the truth of his or her allegations; many may thus worry that failure to boycott makes them ‘complicit’ in rape denial and other very real and problematic aspects of rape culture.

But, as Alan Dershowitz elucidates, our criminal justice system is set up to presume innocence until guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, on the understanding that we’d rather mistake ten guilty men as innocent than treat one innocent man as guilty: “That is why a criminal trial is not ‘a search for truth’…A criminal trial searches for only one result: proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” Refusing to act on the basis of allegations is not, then, about whether the victim is ‘lying’ or ‘truthful’, nor is it about making a statement on the seriousness of the alleged crime. It is about affording all citizens the same standard of justice and requiring the same burden of proof if and when accused of a crime. This serves both the individual-oriented goal of protecting important liberties and the community-oriented goal of maintaining a free and open society in which citizens need not fear repercussions from accusations unless and until they are adequately proven.

Some, including Sullivan and Nigel Evans – a politician accused, charged, and ultimately acquitted of rape – suggest anonymity for those accused of rape in order to prevent the destruction of their careers and personal lives. Anonymity before charges are made would also prevent what I have attempted to show is unjustified boycotting toward the undesirable goal (undesirable for all of us, not just the accused) of pressuring a person out of office simply for being under police investigation. As Evans notes, the common rationale behind maintaining the accuser’s anonymity but not that of the high-profile accused – that other victims will see the news and gain the courage to speak out – could still be preserved by revoking anonymity once the case matures, for example, after charges are actually made.

After charges are made, it obviously becomes more difficult to determine how the defendant should act and how we should treat him: the state has decided that there is enough evidence for trial but his guilt still remains to be determined in court. Perhaps this is the right time for high-profile defendants to step down; indeed, that is what Evans did and what Sullivan promised to do once accusations became public. Campaigning for the defendant’s resignation may be understandable at this point. But it seems both an unjustifiable cause and an undesirable outcome before the accused has even been charged.


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4 Comment on this post

  1. I think Ronald Noble has a fairly sound approach. If Ben Sullivan cares about the Oxford Union he should step aside in its interests and let the cards fall where they may. Irrespective of the outcome, this protects and enhances the Union’s reputation. [The alternative strategy- staying – does not have this property.]

    Linda Scott’s argument is terrible – the justice system sets a very high barrier to proof. That is not an assessment of whether or not people are “lying” or being “truthful”. It’s whether prosecutors can prove their case, which is something completely different. Judges make it clear that you have to be very very confident that the defendant is guilty; not just more sure than not. [I once asked a judge for a probabilistic read on what “beyond reasonable doubt” meant, and he said, after much legal jargon/equivocation/discussion of terms and conditions that meant he couldn’t give an answer… >98%. Other judge’s mileages may vary, and this particular judge was no mathematician, so put some uncertainty bars on it.] But it’s pretty clear that you could be maybe 80% sure that an alleged victim was telling the truth, and you would still be *obliged* to find the defendant not guilty. [Interestingly, here in NZ a recent report recommended reversing the burden of proof for cases of domestic violence. This has received short shrift from pretty much everyone, since history makes it clear that this is always a bad idea. (see The Crucible, read about the anti-communist crusades of the 1950s and ritual child sex abuse cases from the 1990s if you’re in any doubt about this.)]

  2. I assume it should have been easy for Sullivan to predict that a refusal to stand down would result in important speakers cancelling their engagements, and so to conclude that his organization would effectively be crippled while he remained in place. Thus the fact of being charged with these offences rendered him ineffective as a leader (whether or not that was justified, in his or anyone else’s opinion) and that in itself is sufficient reason to stand down.

    1. It may be a relevant reason to justify standing down, but I would not argue that this would be, in itself, sufficient.

      At different times and places people may want to boycott an organization because its leader has been accused of being an atheist, a homosexual, a practitioner of witchcraft, a communist, an imperialist or whatever. Would that always be a sufficient reason? Would not it be relevant to also consider in these cases whether:

      a. what is alleged is really such a bad thing
      b. the allegations are false
      c. failing to protect the positions of individuals facing such allegations could result in the erosion of basic social goods for everyone.

      If it is not such a bad thing to be, say homosexual or an atheist, it may be reason enough for an organisation that believes deeply in,, say, equal opportunities to insist that the person should stay in post, and that boycotts should not impact on such a decision. Indeed that it is all the more reason to ensure such a person does not feel bullied out of their position due to boycotts perceived to be driven by social prejudices. This may be a dynamic at play in this case, though probably weighing even more towards Sullivan standing down: what signal is the Union giving to the relative social standing of those who allege and deny rape?

      An organisation that strongly believes in, say, the rights of the accused, presumptions of innocence, or other lawyerly principles may, however, also be compromised if it refused to honor such principles in dealing with its own members. However, I guess such a scenario merely supports your (Nikolas Shaffer’s) view that he should choose whatever brings least disrepute to the organisation.

      If the allegations are untrue, maybe there is a kind of conflict between ideals of procedural and substantive justice. It would be a substantive injustice for an individual to be punished due to false allegations, whether or not it is procedurally just (due to impartial considerations of losses and benefits to the organisation they represent, for example). However this would also assume that the role of Union President is primarily a good the individual deserves to enjoy, rather than a form of social service (with only incidental benefits) which they have been entrusted with on the basis that they would not bring the position into disrepute.

      Although intuitively I took AC Grayling’s position, when thinking it through I do come to see it more as you (Nikolas Shaffer) do. But there remains a slight concern what the cultural dynamics at play are somehow reversing the burden of proof for people accused of certain crimes, which frightens me for the reason Dave Frame suggests, and which is kind of what I am getting at in point c. But I accept such fears are not necessarily well grounded. So there is a lot of philosophical work I haven’t done to clarify when I might be crossing lines between concern and hysteria, suspicion and bigotry, and so on in such cases.

      1. I was taking it for granted that we were discussing this particular case, and were in agreement that rape is a serious crime. The allegations may indeed be false, so obviously it would be best in these cases if there were some arrangement in place allowing the reinstatement of the individual following the court case, if found not guilty. As for other examples you’ve given – being expected to resign due to being accused of being atheist or homosexual – this would in itself be an injustice whether the allegations were true or false, and this would obviously change the ethics of the situation dramatically.

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