Guest post: I was raped at Oxford University. Police pressured me into dropping charges

I’ve known Maria Marcello several years. (Follow her on Twitter at @missmarcello.)
On her request I’m reprinting this post, originally published at Medium, about what she through two years ago.
Be warned: everything the title mentions is discussed in detail.
I was the friend.

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Former judge Mary Jane Mowat’s recent comments about rape convictions are outrageous. (“Rape conviction statistics will not improve until women stop getting so drunk”, she said this week.) To me however, they are also personal.

In the first term of my second year at Oxford, I was raped while passed out in my bed. Yes, my unconsciousness was due to alcohol.

Desperate to learn how to play poker, I had invited some friends over to teach me, one of whom brought two companions. Poker rapidly descended into a drinking game and I, being a fatal combination of bad at poker and intolerant of alcohol, passed out. I have since learnt that I was put to bed, but I don’t remember anything. Then a guy I didn’t know had sex with me in my sleep.

I have one very clear memory which still haunts me two years later. I remember waking up during the night and seeing him on top of me, my trousers around my ankles and my shirt still on. I pulled away and heard him mutter “Oh no, it fell out” to himself, at which point I blacked out again. I assume he continued to rape me.

I told very few people at the time, but a friend came with me to the police station. The receptionist, on learning I was reporting a sex offence, insisted on me giving details in front of everybody in the waiting room before taking me somewhere private. Two officers then came to my house, where I was questioned further. One described rape as “just something that happens”, especially at university. The only advice I received was to drink less in future.

Once I explained what had happened and provided forensics, the policemen contacted a woman I was told was in charge of dealing with rape allegations around Oxfordshire. She came into the kitchen, where I had been with the two policemen and my friend, and sent him from the room insisting the conversation be private – even as I maintained I needed him for moral support and didn’t mind him being there.

She proceeded to question me rather forcefully, in a very short and matter-of-fact tone, and concluded that because I was drunk I couldn’t prove anything, informing me my evidence would not stand up in court. She said she got called to investigate a number of rape reports each day and her job involved deciding which of them it was worthwhile to pursue and which it wasn’t. In her opinion, as she made clear from the start, mine fell into the latter category.

The woman asked me to decide in that moment whether or not to press charges. I was not allowed to leave the kitchen until I had made my decision. She didn’t fail to emphasise how traumatic I would find the process or her certainty my case would not stand up in court: I would be unable to prove I was unconscious at the time or that I didn’t drunkenly consent.

000In fact, the Crown Prosecution Service states “capacity to consent may evaporate well before a complainant becomes unconscious”. Photos and videos my friends shot of me passed out both on the floor and on my bed proved I was incapable of consenting: unable to talk or stand up, I cannot have been capable of agreeing to sex. Furthermore, the Sexual Offences Act 1956 lists “evidence that by reason of drink… the complainant was unaware of what was occurring and/or incapable of giving valid consent” as a means by which to establish rape.

The entire experience, being separated from my friend and then questioned harshly hours after my rape, was perhaps as disorientating as it could possibly have been. I was given no opportunity to seek advice or regain composure; no chance to sleep on the matter. The woman insisted on me deciding whether or not to press charges immediately. Still shaken and vulnerable, I was in no position to make such a decision on the spot, and frankly her description of the court process scared me. It was little wonder, then, that I dropped it.

The woman who came to my kitchen told me my situation was exactly what former judge Mowat calls “one person’s word against another[’s]”. Her implication is that a woman who was drunk can’t prove anything – that the whole case is a matter of he-said-she-said.

For me, it wasn’t. As it happened, I did have evidence.

Had the police cared enough they could have acquired DNA, but the woman told them to return the clothes, bedsheets and used condoms I had given them. These all provided incontrovertible evidence that the guy had sex with me. In fact, given his bragging at dinner the following day, this was never really in question. “I lost the poker,” he said, “but I did pretty well if you know what I mean.” Just typing that today sickens me.

My Oxford college, when I spoke to its professional welfare staff, largely ignored me; the guy who raped me received a minor reprimand and no further repercussions. Despite several friends explaining on multiple occasions that his mere presence unnerved me, he seemed to devote his life to making me feel uncomfortable. On nights I was working behind the college bar, he would carefully place himself between me and the exit, sitting there all night. One time when I left a party as soon as he came in he followed me all the way out of college. I ran, and made it halfway back to my house before stopping. Whether his behaviour was intentional is irrelevant: I spent as little time in college as I could, rarely attending events there.

Despite the number of times I have contacted the welfare officers about this, they have largely ignored me except to say that if he’s around I should just leave. I have a year left at Oxford, as does he. I still don’t understand why I should be the one leaving.

“I’m not saying it’s right to rape a drunken woman,” Mary Jane  Mowat told the Oxford Mail. “But [when] they’ve got a woman who says ‘I was absolutely off my head, I can’t really remember what I was doing[’] . . . how are they supposed to react?”

Juries should react, in those circumstances, with the understanding that a state of extreme inebriation is not one where a person can give valid consent for sex and that this in itself is evidence of rape. The CPS explicitly states as much, encouraging investigators to “consider whether supporting evidence is available to demonstrate that the complainant was so intoxicated that he/she had lost their capacity to consent”.

There would be more convictions if the police process didn’t pressure women with viable evidence to drop their reports. In 2012-13, official treatment of victims like me meant only 15 percent of rapes recorded by the police even went to court. Mowat is right in that rape conviction statistics are lower than they should be. However, the criminal justice system is to blame, not drunk women.

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These police commissioner elections should terrify us all

Of the few encouraging signs about today’s PCC elections, one is the total unenthusiasm on display: I know only one person planning to vote, and friends are organising collective ballot-spoils. This couldn’t contrast more with Barack Obama’s reelection, the run-up to which included all the usual choruses of You must vote! and Don’t forget!

By most of the self-declared progressives I know, the choice to abstain was treated almost as a kind of treason; one acquaintance in Australia wishes voting were compulsory around the world, as it is there, and I’ve heard the same suggested closer to home.

Assuming that when our new police commissioners are chosen, turnout is as miserable as now seems likely, the case for staying at home on national election days is worth contemplating. Traditionally, one argument is that they’re not just how people choose specific governments, but how they choose in general to be governed. The most politically important part of voting is entering the ballot box; to step into it is to legitimise the electoral process, granting the eventual winner our consent to govern us, even if it’s not them we support. Both in America last week and in 2010, when David Cameron came more-or-less to power, a great deal of coverage went to people unable to vote, left standing in their queues for hours – trumpeting the notion that, whatever government resulted, its right to rule was popularly acknowledged. (In fact, four people out of ten chose abstention in both cases.)

The vote, paradoxically, is always a minister’s first port of call when something unpopular needs justifying. Invading Iraq might face widespread opposition, but Tony Blair’s party were elected to take tough stances; austerity might be viewed as needless and cruel, but people chose a government to make tough decisions. More than anywhere, and most implicitly, it’s with the police that government’s entitlement is presumed. Think back to the riots in August last year, with the demands on social networks and in print that lethal force be authorised, or the military contacted. The smashing of shop windows and burning of cars was mindless violence; the potential widespread shooting of citizens by police was a means by which to restore order. Why is the violence of the state the only kind acceptable? Because government directs its forces, and we elected the government.

Our leaders, we tell ourselves, only hold power over us because we say they can. Except sometimes we don’t, and they still do.

One side might always regret a lost election, but inconclusive ones spell trouble for whole political establishments. That Cameron came so visibly to office by Nick Clegg’s direct choice and not the U.K. population’s is more than just a point against their government; it exposes the superficiality of Britain’s electoral regime, just as it caused skittishness across the pond when George W. Bush entered the White House with fewer people’s votes than opponent Al Gore. There are other inadequacies, too. We’re encouraged to vote based on politicians’ promises, but none of these are binding and most are broken once in office; we’re faced typically with a forced choice between two or three realistic candidates, of predictable backgrounds and broadly similar political leanings; what power we’re granted, we only hold on one day every four or five years; we’ve no ability to change our minds, or update the scoreboards as opinions shift – the Labour Party, for example, retains around as many seats as it won in 2010 with 29 percent of the vote, despite polling in the low to mid-forties today; we make our voices heard as much as possible, but see major parties’ financial backers drown them out.

Still we go to the polls, encouraged by news broadcasts about democracy and freedom, convincing ourselves that whatever future legislators do, we chose – that, as with all the most effective placebos, we have an investment in it, and no right to complain. However you vote, an English teacher told me once, you always end up with the government, and a socialist truncheon looks much the same as a Thatcherite one. In the past decade, governments of all colours have chipped away at our civil liberties with surveillance and shadowy arrests, no-protest zones and kettled schoolchildren. Far from solving these problems, the electoral cycle seems to me to validate them. Ticking boxes on ballot slips less often demonstrates what freedom we have than makes us feel more complicit in its erosion.

What happens when the police themselves make vaunted, tenuous claims of public appointment? It’s from them that government derives its power, after all, and not the other way around.

So far, major police decisions (on whether to fire water cannon at demonstrators, for example) have usually been checked in practice by a need for the approval of elected politicians like Theresa May. If publicly appointed commissioners allow them more autonomy, as seems to be the aim and matches the Cameroon ideal of ‘liberated’ schools and hospitals, no such external validation will be needed. The shiny if inauthentic seal of electoral support will, on its own, become a means of validating police actions, just as it’s used to validate the most despised government policies. The overt parliamentary costuming of candidates, drawn along party political lines and including the likes of John Prescott, adds to the effect.

Political parties, on the other hand, are privately bankrolled. However ‘modernising’ Conservatives might be, their party’s funding depends largely on City of London financiers‘ approval; however centrified a Labour leader might want to become, trade unions’ ire must never be raised. Their ambitions may be extreme, at whichever end of the political spectrum, but the vested interests of relied-upon donors limits their actions for good or ill. Our publicly funded police force, on the other hand, can count on its continued income; should its actions become draconian or its reputation tarred, the threat of financial starvation will never hem it in.

Begin electing police leaders, then, and we give them all of government’s entitlements, with none of the drawbacks.

These PCC elections should terrify us all, because they aim to give constables the false legitimacy ministers wield: it’s the police force’s freedom, not ours, they’ve been devised to increase, so let’s hope for the lowest possible of turnouts, because when police are given more freedom, we almost always lose some of ours.