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The Problem With U.K. Asking Rape Survivors to Hand Over Their Phones If They Report a Crime

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Renée Fabian, The Mighty’s editor, news & lifestyle, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

It’s the end of my witness testimony in the first of three hearings to determine what will happen to my abuser’s professional credentials. Cross-examination from my abuser’s defense lawyer. Goal: Prove that I am lying about the sexual abuse.

Defense lawyer: Do you have a relationship with Katie*?

Me: We’re friends.

Defense lawyer: Did you ever date Katie?

Prosecuting lawyer: Objection, relevance.

Hearing officer: What’s the relevance of that?

Defense lawyer: The relevance is that it’s believed that this witness is in fact a lesbian, which would assert that her story about this heterosexual relationship is fabricated.

It didn’t take long for me to realize nothing about a survivor’s personal life is out of bounds when they report their perpetrator. Anything, from your sexual orientation to what you were wearing to how much you were drinking, can and will be used against you. It feels like you’re on trial and you’re the guilty party. It’s why the invasive, exhausting and demoralizing process of reporting a sexual crime is often referred to as a “second rape.”

Given how difficult it is for survivors to press charges, it’s alarming that police in the U.K. are asking sexual assault survivors to sign a consent form to hand over their phones after reporting a rape or assault. According to a report from the BBC on Monday, police will use the phones to look at information relevant to the case, such as text messages or photos.

Survivors can explain on the form why they don’t want to hand over their personal information to police, but they’re warned that “it may not be possible for the investigation or prosecution to continue.” Advocates worry the new policy is just one more way to silence survivors by further weaponizing a survivor’s personal history in a culture that systemically prioritizes perpetrators.

“A policewoman called to organize an interview and told me she’d need my phone. I didn’t see the need to hand it over,” rape survivor Leah told the BBC. “When I turned up at the interview and didn’t hand over the phone, I was made to feel that I’d done something wrong. It felt so invasive. I got halfway through the interview and then stopped. It was almost as traumatic as the incident itself.”

There are several issues with this new policy, which advocates have likened to an invasive “digital strip search.” One major issue is the (often mythic) false rape report. 

While it’s important to protect those falsely accused of a crime, false rape accusations are far from the norm. According to a report from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, between 2 and 7% of rape reports are false. To the contrary, at least 63% of rapes are never reported and less than 8% result in a conviction. Advocates fear that forcing survivors to turn over their phones will make the number of unreported rapes and assaults go up.

Police came to the conclusion Liam Allan was wrongly accused of rape after discovering, according to the BBC, messages on the accuser’s phone saying what a nice person Allan was and references to “rape fantasies.” But as survivors point out, rape doesn’t happen on the phone. It can still happen even if you once texted your perpetrator was a wonderful person.

The focus on false rape reports in policies demonstrates how little we care about survivors, who are often women. For example, according to RAINN, 80% of rapes are committed by someone the survivor knows. However, a history of text messages with a perpetrator, which may even say “he’s a nice guy,” are often used in court to prove that a rape didn’t happen. Now nudes, evidence of a sex life and other personal information found on a phone will be handed to defense teams on a silver platter.

Telling survivors they have to fill out a consent form and hand over their phone or their case doesn’t move forward is just another way of beating down survivors. Society blames the victim, doesn’t understand acquaintance or even marital rape, doesn’t want to “ruin” a young man’s life, and more. The justice system puts rape survivors on trial again and again for their very identity or way of showing up in the world — and calls it a defense strategy.

And it has an impact. According to the National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center, survivors of rape are more than four times as likely to have considered suicide compared to those who were not involved in a crime. Rape survivors are 13 times more likely to have attempted suicide. They’re also at increased risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and later struggles with their mental health.

The U.K’s new digital consent plan is just another way to violate survivors and strip their agency — and then blindside them during the justice process. It will prevent sexual violence survivors from coming forward and ensures that rape culture continues to thrive at the expense of survivors who dare to come forward and ask the justice system to do its job and hold perpetrators accountable.

If this news is hard for you, you’re not alone. If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area. If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Header image via MangoStar_Studio/Getty Images

Originally published: April 29, 2019
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