OJ, Yewtree & Pistorious: It’s time we listened to Sue Lees

By Kate Smurthwaite

Last week marked the twenty year anniversary of the deaths of two people whose names you may not recognise: Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman. They’re famous only because of the name of the man who was acquitted of their brutal murders: OJ Simpson. And if you just went “OJ who?” it’s past your bedtime, go upstairs.

At the time many concluded that if you’re rich enough and famous enough you can get away with anything. This probably explains the Star Wars prequels. I’m not sure what the rules are – how famous you have to be to commit what crime. I’ve been on Question Time, I’m guessing that’s enough for a happy slap. I’ll take Farage.

For feminists, the television broadcast of the trial offered an insight into the court process and why men who attack women so often do so with impunity.

I read a lot of books about feminism at university, which might explain why I only scraped the narrowest of 2.1s in my maths degree. Objectification never came up in my modules, but statistics did.

One of them was Sue Lees’ book Carnal Knowledge. Lees had spent months sitting in court rooms watching rape trials and detailing the systematic ways in which the credibility of victims was undermined.

In December last year I did jury service for the first time. I drew two conclusions from my experiences. The first was that the system is still loaded with misogyny towards victims of rape and domestic violence. The second was that Ms Lees should really have been made a Knight of the Realm for sitting through all those hours of grinding legal argument and vicious victim-blaming.

Having trials on TV is a producer’s dream. Spend millions on a new series of Big Brother? No need, viewers will be queuing up to watch a famous athlete explain why he shot his girlfriend. So far we have resisted televising trials in the UK, resulting instead in coverage that has left me with a paranoid fear of chalk drawings.

Home and abroad the cases show a depressing set of similarities. The barrister defending Oscar Pistorius has produced as evidence romantic texts (true love always texts) and a video clip of the couple kissing. Here in the UK, the defense case for Rolf Harris called celebrity character witnesses.

Shouldn’t someone point out that being an outwardly “nice” guy doesn’t prove anything? Those who commit violence against women have so far refused to stick to a dress and behaviour code that lets us all know what they are really like. I suggest a “this is what a misogynist criminal looks like” T-shirts. Although of course within a fortnight we’d be hearing: “she can’t have been raped, she willingly got in a car with him while he was wearing his misogynist criminal T-shirt”. Doh.

While the Harris and Pistorius cases continue there are a string of others that have been dropped, not even brought to court. Freddie Starr, Jim Davison, Jimmy Tarbuck, and others have been cleared of all charges. William Roach, Dave Lee Travis, Michael Le Vell and most – famously of all – Michael Jackson.

Individually these things mean nothing. Any of them could be innocent. And we should remember that a “not guilty” verdict simply means the absence of sufficient evidence to convict. The basic right to be treated as innocent should prevail, but it doesn’t come with a prize or a medal: “Sponsored by Tefal – nothing sticks”.

No, seen together, as a pattern, they add up to a worrying picture – one that Lees was able to identify in 1996. Attrition at every stage of a system loaded against claimants means that – and this is a frightening concept to consider – the percentage of rape allegations that lead to conviction is now lower than the percentage of the UK population who voted for UKIP.

There have been flashes of hope out there. Mike Tyson went to jail. Max Clifford is in jail now. It may have taken years to get the result but Phil Spector eventually went to prison too. The court system has the potential to put dangerous misogynist criminals behind bars.

I’ve been careful with my language throughout this piece. I wasn’t at these trials, I can’t comment on the evidence presented, only on the system and the overall statistics. I can say this though: MAX CLIFFORD IS A SEX OFFENDER. MAX CLIFFORD IS A SEX OFFENDER. Phew. That does feel strangely exhilarating. It reminds me how empowering a conviction like that is, not just for victims and their families but for everyone who values a safe and just society. Maybe I’ll post him one of my “misogynist criminal” T-shirts. I hear his size is extra small.

We can do even better than this. Twenty years after OJ there are simple changes that could be made to our legal system that would give victims of sexual assault, rape and domestic violence a better shot at justice:

The right for claimants to demand a full trial, rather than allowing the police and CPS to just “give up”. Expert judges for rape and sex assault cases, including more female judges. Making it compulsory for judges to warn jurors that it is normal for victims to delay reporting and show no visible trauma as they give evidence. Information given to jurors on the defendant’s previous convictions, complaints and accusations.

And if you’re wondering where I came up with those simple, elegant ideas… they’re in Sue Lees’ book. And they’re as relevant now as they were when she wrote them nearly 20 years ago. The high profile, televised and media-sensationalised cases don’t really provide us with any new information, but they do provide an opportunity to talk about the legal system and demand much-needed radical changes.

Kate Smurthwaite is a comedian and political activist. Follow her @Cruella1

Photo: Wikimedia

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13 thoughts on “OJ, Yewtree & Pistorious: It’s time we listened to Sue Lees

  1. Calum

    Question: how would people feel if a guy (this one, for argument’s sake) actually made and wore a “this is what a rapist looks like” t-shirt? I’d be happy to make the point but I think it would do more harm than good.

  2. Ramiie

    No, I have never been a fan of OJ, but when would white feminism ever accept that black feminists and black people generally do NOT believe that OJ was guilty??? Can white feminism ever accept that Black people generally agree with the verdict in light of the racist shenanigans of the prosecution and its utter failure to prove its case?? Now, here is the thing. Here is the huge gap between the values, loyalties, instincts of white feminism and black feminism. The racial gap is here to stay it seems and its what makes feminism a non starter as a voice for all women. feminism is for white women.

    1. Julia

      Dear Ramilie Your post made me sad; I don’t share your experience but can empathise. ButI think you are wrong. Feminism is a philosophy; it is gender neutral and colour blind. We choose how to express it for ourselves and that is the case whatever the colour of our skin, our spiritual beliefs, or lack of them, our age, our ability or any other individual characteristic. We can all be feminists
      love Julia

  3. Ramiie

    Dear Julia

    I am I broad web-light, you have not only sidestepped my question, but proceeded to proverbially stick you head in the sand. Unless you do not have a conscience – which I don’t believe is true- or you are blinded by race hate (don’t believe) you must be consumed with hatred for anything that looks powerful, famous and male and that is accused of threatening anything female. Hopefully Feminist Times should be more principled in how it deals with racism as it appears to deal with sexism and to accept how racism as well as sexism surreptitiously can qualify all taken-for-granted, common sense understanding of events. Its a disgrace that I have to lecture you or FT like this. Please help me remove this offending article – its not about censorship, but truth, respect for the law (which they praise in the same article) respect for the sensitivities of non prejudiced people who stumble across this site.

  4. Ramiie

    When would FT do a piece on the male and female paedophiles that populate British society, particularly the political class? Isn’t that a more pertinent feminist issue than slandering black men who cannot answer you back?

  5. Ramiie

    Not surprised my comment is still awaiting moderation – after all we blacks know that a lot of white feminisim is a white’s woman’s cover for negrophobia and misandry.

    1. Sarah Graham

      I’m afraid we’re a small team of part-time staff and can only moderate comments during working hours. We moderate all comments as and when we get to them and I have now responded to your previous comment.

  6. Ramiie

    That still does not explain why you stubbornly choose to present OJ as the poster boy for feminist hate – given that the man was cleared in a court of law. Is it because it is a man who is here demanding that you remove it and that your feminist principles won’t allow you to cave in to this particular man’s feelings. How far then is your feminism removed from fascism? Not very far it seems. Further, when do you get to decide that an action is not racist, when it is perceived by some as being just that. It doesn’t really matter even if you have black feminist consultants on your editorial board..crypto racism is great at disguising itself as reasonable and innocuous.

  7. Leisa Taylor

    Just a few points on the misuse of the word paedophile here:

    1: not all sex offences committed against children are committed by paedophiles – some people just like hurting children either directly or indirectly (making money out of seeking images etc.)

    2: not all paedophiles act on their desires/fantasy and commit sees offences against children ref:

    Is an important distinction, like not calling all rapists and murderers mentally ill, ref:


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