Why does TV give a pass to men accused of sex crimes?

The idea that men’s lives are ruined by women crying rape is a persistent narrative in our society. It is also wrong and dangerous. Still, it makes good TV, right?

In the past week, two small-screen heavyweights have interviewed alleged sex offenders in primetime programmes. For his latest BBC documentary The Night in Question, on campus rape, Louis Theroux spent six months following Yale student Saif Khan, who was accused but subsequently cleared of sexual assault. “I was making a documentary about young men accused of sexual assault on American campuses,” Theroux said. As many have asked since: why?

No, really, why?

Khan was acquitted of sexual assault. However, Theroux gave – as you imagine is the point – Khan enough rope; his account a thoroughly uncomfortable display of martyrdom and hubris. The film makes you angry. It makes you think about how, in campus investigations, a lower standard of evidence is required than in criminal court. It makes you question verdicts such as these. But are these compelling enough reasons to make such a programme now?

For CBS This Morning, Gayle King interviewed R Kelly in his first appearance since his arrest last month. (Kelly was charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse, involving four alleged victims. Three of the victims were minors.) The interview was pitched as Kelly “breaking his silence”. That he was interviewed at all arguably spoke more of a broken society.

Kelly shrieked, spluttered, cried and stormed around saying he was fighting for his life. (And women are told they can’t control their emotions.) Presumably – and it was not dissimilar to Brett Kavanaugh’s tantrum at his confirmation hearing – he wanted us to see how he was being torn apart by women’s accusations. Much was made of King’s straight-backed stoicism as he reared up and loomed over her.

One particular image, like something from the stage at the Royal Opera House, dominated social media. A cynic may say this speaks of a TV network chasing numbers over public service. I saw people tweeting that King was “taking out the trash”, and, without indictment, perhaps we should be taking every opportunity we can to show up such accused men. It’s hard to stomach, though, isn’t it? Given the state of things beyond the TV studios and camera booms, it feels like we need an entire reappraisal of giving platforms to such men at all.

Let us remind ourselves that while Dr Christine Blasey Ford continues to be attacked on US television, Kavanaugh is still serving on the highest court in the world. By continuing to put a camera on men who have been accused of sexual assault, who are we helping? Where is it getting us?

Discussions of sexual assault routinely hinge on a woman’s agency over a man’s. Theroux reached out to Khan’s alleged victim for his film but she declined to participate. Still, he made the film. And throughout, her absence rang and rang like a phone in the next room. Men like Khan, on the other hand, can lay out their life story and say: look, we were all drunk, but I am a man who respects consent.

We can come to our own conclusions watching a film like Theroux’s, but so-called blurred lines of consent is used as an argument by critics all the time. So, too, is the familiar sing-song of “she’s doing it for attention”, “she was drunk and asking for it”, “she said yes but now regrets it” or “she’s doing it for revenge”. The message, so often, is: treat reports of rape with caution lest you screw up a standup guy’s life. But remember that, in November, US education secretary Betsy DeVos proposed new sexual assault reporting rules for US campuses that, rights groups say, could help shield rapists and harm survivors.

It bears repeating not just how devastating a trauma sexual assault can be to a person’s mind, body and interpersonal relationships for a very long time, but how incredibly rare it is for an innocent man to face a rape charge.

In 2005, a study was conducted for the British Home Office on the reporting of sexual assault to the police – the most exhaustive research ever undertaken on the matter. The researchers found that, of 216 false complaints, a mere six cases led to arrest. Only two actually resulted in charges, which were eventually dropped. In the US, the data tells a similar story. The National Registry of Exonerations states that only 52 men convicted of sexual assault since 1989 – when the records started – later had convictions overturned because accusations against them were not true. As the writer Sandra Newman discovered in 2017, 790 people were exonerated for murder over the same time period. This makes for quite the comparison. None of these statistics were cited in Theroux’s film.

It is very hard to see the merit of platforming men such as Kelly and Khan. From a psychological perspective, it is potentially harmful. “Rates of PTSD are very high following interpersonal trauma such as rape and sexual assault – often up to 40-50%,” says clinical psychologist Dr Georgina Clifford, director of the London Trauma Specialists Clinic. “People attempt to block or suppress traumatic memories due to the distress they experience when they intrude into awareness. This can be internal – cognitive attempts to compartmentalise trauma, dissociation etc – or external, involving avoidance of actual or thematic reminders of the traumatic experience.”

It is common following sexual assault for individuals to avoid anything that reminds them of what happened. “This includes exposure to the assailant and the area where it occurred, but also very often generalises to watching or reading the news, because stories about rape and abuse are so common,” says Clifford, noting the “special measures offered to victims of rape and sexual assault so that they do not have to sit in a court room and face the assailant.” It is “very likely”, she says, that direct exposure to media such as the R Kelly interview could “trigger intrusive, distressing memories of a victim’s own experience.”

So what is the value of TV programmers willing our living rooms into court rooms – positioning us, the viewing public, as a new jury of sorts – when the systems for bringing justice to survivors of sexual assault are so thick with bias and misogyny? In light of the evidence for how many men’s lives are actually ruined in contrast to how many women are undoubtedly living with embodied trauma for which they may never experience closure, it is irresponsible and, on a fundamental level unkind, to keep giving men accused of assault a chance to say, to millions of people, “poor me”.