Comment: When men get the wrong idea

The `Brookside' story-line adds credence to the idea that women cannot be trusted to give evidence
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The Independent Culture
TONIGHT THE television-viewing nation, or at least the habit-raddled rump of the television-viewing nation that is still hanging on in there, will be told the verdict in the Brookside drug-rape trial.

Luke Musgrove, the defendant, has been on remand for some months, awaiting trial and passionately proclaiming his innocence. Nicky Shadwick, his neighbour, has been living her life in limbo since December, when she woke up after a local Christmas party with an unusually severe hangover, which was gradually followed by flashbacks alerting her to the fact that she had been drugged and raped.

Brookside, which has always prided itself on its sensitive exploration of social issues, has tackled rape story-lines several times in the 17 years of its existence. Its pioneering treatment of Sheila Grant's rape in the mid-Eighties has certainly been the most successful of these in terms of raising awareness of the issues around this ever-more-controversial crime, and the effect it can have not just on the victim but also on the victim's family.

However, the rape of Nicky Shadwick and the story around it are confirmation, if confirmation were needed, that the Brookside team has lost its sureness of touch in bringing clarity to moral issues through their exploration in mass-media drama.

The main problems surrounding rape and the law were highlighted last week in the announcement by a government review team that it is planning an overhaul of the sex crime laws because of the pitifully low rate of convictions.

The very fact that the Brookside trial has taken place prior to any real trial in this country that has involved the crime of drug-rape emphasises that this sort of crime is difficult to prosecute. But the Brookside case appears to be taking a course whereby the issue explored is what happens when a drug-raped woman remembers her rape imperfectly and brings the wrong man to trial.

For it is inconceivable, according to the rules of television soaps, that Luke Musgrove will tonight be found guilty. No regular viewer of the soap could be at all satisfied with this, for ever since the finger of guilt was first pointed at him we have been fed details to back up the idea of Luke Musgrove as victim.

Apart from his own protestations of innocence, which have been delivered with the help of acting ability rarely seen in latter-day Brookie, we have also been party not only to his sad tug-of-love upbringing, but also to his brutal treatment in prison, including a vicious beating that prompted him to escape and flee home to the Close, where he was persuaded to return to prison, await trial and clear his name. No right-thinking Brookside fan could wish for anything else.

So where does such a verdict leave the hapless Nicky Shadwick, the lovely young student who, prior to her rape, had been rather quaintly saving herself for marriage? It was on her own testimony that Luke was arrested.

What is Brookside's message here? That now, with the further horror of drugs such as Rohypnol being used by men who wish to commit rape, the evidence of women in rape trials is sullied even more than it has been considered to be in the past?

Whatever socially conscious Brookside's message may be, it is certainly not as clear as the one that has been issued to women in Merseyside by doctors from the Royal Liverpool University Hospital and Liverpool Brook Advisory Services, after a spate of alleged drug-rapes.

"Generally this appears to be happening to girls or women who report being unable to remember events after having a drink," Dr Peter Carey, consultant in genito-urinary medicine at the Royal, told The Independent. "Eventually they `wake up' from this state of unawareness having no recollection of what has happened to them. In some cases they have found used condoms nearby, or there is some [other] indication that a sexual assault has occurred."

None of the women Dr Carey has treated has reported her suspected assault to the police. This, he says, is "fairly typical".

Unlike the Brookside trial, which, it has to be assumed, is "fairly untypical". Not only is there absolutely no precedent for any drug-rape trial at all, there is certainly no precedent for a trial that rests on the idea of mistaken identity while under the influence of drugs. Instead this story-line adds credence to the idea that women cannot be trusted to give evidence in their own rape trials, the last thing that is needed in a climate in which only 6 per cent of reported rapes result in a conviction. While it could be argued that the Brookside case is at least staying true to this statistic, the emphasis of the story-line has been almost entirely concerned with portraying the anguish of men who have been wrongfully accused of rape.

But the main issue around rape that a socially conscious drama ought to be exploring is how men who have raped can be brought to trial. With this end in mind, I am very much in favour of government moves to recast sex crime charges, and introduce a two-tier definition of rape in law. But the first, tentative, suggestion that "date rape" should be made a separate and lesser crime, is not a good one. Definitions of first- and second-degree rape are what is needed here, with evidence of "leading on" that may have been misconstrued taken into account in the formulation of the lesser charge. The bare fact of knowing someone or not knowing someone is no more relevant to rape than it is to burglary.

While hard-line women's groups who insist that rape is rape is rape will not like this, the fact is that while for a man to force sex on a woman without any kind of flirtatious contact at all is beyond inexcusable, there are some situations in which fairly reasonable men can get quite the wrong idea about what a woman may want from them. For this they ought to be punished, but not with the same severity as a man for whom the input of the woman is of no relevance at all.

This kind of a definition would come into play when a man had wrongly assumed consent. As in many rape cases, it would come down to the defendant's word against the plaintiff's. However, since only 29 per cent of recorded rapes at present come to trial at all, it has to be assumed that police, prosecutors and juries are more willing to believe defendants than they are ready to believe plaintiffs.

The logic of the sex crimes review suggests that juries would be more willing to listen to plaintiffs if there were not a statutory minimum of five years' imprisonment attached to a guilty verdict. This I think is true. But it is also true that while women are often portrayed as capable of fitting up a man as a rapist out of a desire for some kind of revenge, there are probably far more women around who have been raped but feel enough guilt about having helped to set in motion events that then spun out of their control to refrain from taking a case to court. A lesser charge would reflect their experience and allow them to come forward more easily. Then, at last, we might get through to men exactly what constitutes rape.

These are the important issues that surround rape at the moment, but they are, of course, irrelevant to the Brookside case. No change in the law could help Nicky Shadwick, who is, presumably, just a hysterical young woman who has jumped to the wrong conclusion. In this trial everyone is a victim and no one is guilty.

It is astonishing that a programme that prides itself on being socially conscious has stooped low enough to use a new and virulent form of rape in an attempt to pull in viewers without bothering at all to explore the implications this crime really has, for women and for men. It is astonishing, too, that while much of the story-line has been concerned with Nicky's worry and paralysis as the trial approaches, the moral seems to be that pursuing a rape charge is not a trauma worth putting yourself through.