Liam Neeson’s story isn’t just about race – it’s how men talk about rape too

Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 6 February 2019

Liam Neeson’s revelation that he wanted to kill a black man after a ‘dear friend’ was raped has caused a storm, although the attack happened around forty years ago.
It was even considered worthy of a discussion on Radio 4’s flagship Today programme where three men (of course) discussed racism, revenge and how men deal with their feelings.

Someone is very obviously missing from all this. It is indeed curious how quickly this story has gone from a story about rape to a story about race. Neeson has said that the woman has since died but that won’t stop speculation about her identity. The pool of potential victims is probably quite small and she may have friends who are now having to cope with Neeson’s headline-grabbing revelation, which was made during an interview to publicise his new film.

Equally, many may be wondering if it really was a friend who was involved in the attack – or someone else entirely. As you may have noticed, I have used the word ‘attack’ without an ‘alleged’ anywhere to be seen. For this is that vanishingly rare event, a rape which has barely been questioned, solely because it has been vouched for by a well- known man.

Let me tell you just how unusual that is. Most rapes aren’t even reported to the police because the victims are traumatised – and fear they won’t be believed. We don’t know whether Neeson’s friend reported the attack, whether anyone was charged or what the outcome was.

What we do know is that the number of contemporary rapes that result in charges are at a ten-year low, even though more incidents are being reported to the police. There was a drop of 23.1 per cent in cases that led to charges last year, suggesting it’s getting harder to get cases to court. When men aged between 18 and 24 are charged, fewer than a third are found guilty, according to figures published last year.

Women who have suffered brutal sexual attacks, and not been believed, must be ruing the fact that they didn’t have a famous male friend on hand to validate their accounts. And that’s another reason why Neeson’s admission and the response to it are so infuriating.

Unsurprisingly, he has faced a barrage of criticism, both for the way he appears to have held all black men responsible for the rape and for his admission that he acquired and carried a cosh afterwards – classic vigilante behaviour, for which he has rightly expressed regret. What hasn’t attracted anything like as much opprobrium is the way Neeson has put himself at the heart of the story, making a woman’s horrible experience all about him. Playing up to the old fashioned view that when a woman is attacked, it is the man in her life who is hurt more and therefore must avenge the act.

If Neeson wanted to do something constructive about sexual violence, instead of making himself sound like the protagonist of one of his action-man films, he could have talked more about how devastating rape is for the victim. He could have used his influence to say that women shouldn’t have to go through a second ordeal of not being believed – and called on other men to share his anger towards rapists.

Because we need men to condemn sexual predators – men like the comedian Bill Cosby, who was accused of drugging and sexually assaulting women for years. And men like Harvey Weinstein, who has been accused of using his powerful position in the film industry to assault dozens of women. Weinstein is currently facing trial in New York, while police in Los Angeles and London have also opened investigations. (Weinstein denies all the allegations.)

All of these men will be remembered long after their alleged victims – his actual victim, in the case of Cosby, who was convicted of three counts of indecent assault last year. Many victims rightly value the lifelong anonymity granted to them in UK courts but where sexual predators are concerned, there’s a fine line between fame and notoriety. Women are already denied a voice in public discussions of rape, cast as helpless victims or, far more often, liars and fantasists.

Neeson’s friend has been slotted into the first category, thanks to his celebrity and she has been all but written out of the ensuing furore. Instead we have had two days of men talking about rape in the most self-absorbed way it’s possible to imagine. It hasn’t challenged any of the nonsense that’s talked about sexual violence or helped women one jot. Because when famous men think they’re talking about rape, the conversation is actually all about themselves.

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