Kaitlyn Dever as Marie Adler, right, in Netflix's Unbelievable.

Emily Writes: Netflix’s Unbelievable is a sadly believable story

Emily Writes watches Netflix’s new US-set series Unbelievable and can’t help be reminded of events back home.

I was asked to review Netflix’s new mini-series Unbelievable more than a month ago. After watching the screener over the course of a few nights, it sat on my to-do list for weeks. I would sit down to write but instead find every reason to turn away from it.

Like some metaphor for rape culture as a whole, I didn’t want to give it my time. It’s too grim and it’s far more tempting to write about something that serves as an escape from that toxicity, rather than diving head-long into it.

This is almost exactly the message of Unbelievable. The desire to turn away, plus deep and relentless misogyny, toxic masculinity and entitlement, is the basis of rape culture. A culture which stands behind the ridiculous notion that false rape complaints are prevalent.

Unbelievable tells the real story of a young rape victim who retracts her complaint after pressure from male detectives. Over the next few years, two women detectives follow the evidence to find the truth, after it is disregarded by those who should have done the same.

Based on the 2015 article ‘An Unbelievable Story of Rape’ by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, the show stays true to the case behind it. As a police procedural it’s riveting, but the fact that it all actually happened is never far from your mind. It felt impossible not to think about the friends, family and people I’ve known over the years who have had no justice for their attacks.

Even those people I never knew – all those cases in the news – felt ever-present.

There are so many times you read about a case and you just know that the rapist or sexual abuser will be freed. The perfect victim doesn’t exist, and in our fucked up justice system, rapists are often left free to inflict devastating harm again.

Kaitlyn Dever stars as Marie Adler, a woman charged with falsely reporting a rape.

As the imperfect victim Marie Adler, actor Kaitlyn Dever embodies this in so many different ways as the series progresses. “If the truth is inconvenient,” she says. “If the truth doesn’t fit, they don’t believe it.”

And the truth never fits. Because to confront it is to accept that rape is depressingly common and many, if not most, women will experience some version of sexual violence in their lifetime. To truly face this is to acknowledge that men are harming women on a catastrophic level.

And before you “not all men” me until the end of time, take a breath. If you are only capable of viewing women as deserving of a life without sexual violence if you consider them in relation to men, then consider this: she could be your mother, sister, or daughter. If you must view this on an individual level, then please do so.

The rest of us will continue as required, as demanded, to look at it from a bigger picture. Sexual abuse prevention network HELP has found that approximately one in five New Zealand women will experience a serious sexual assault. For some women, this happens more than once. The rates of sexual abuse for girls is devastatingly high, up to one in three girls may be sexually abused before she turns 16 years old. Most of this abuse (90%) will be by someone she knows. Young people are statistically at the highest risk of being sexually assaulted. The 16 – 24 year old age group is four times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other age group.

Like Marie Adler, the victim in Unbelievable, many are vulnerable young women who have been sexually assaulted before. She doesn’t act like a victim. She doesn’t cry enough. She doesn’t behave like they think she should. “You take what you get and be happy that it wasn’t worse,” she says. A foster child who knows what it’s like to be let down by the system, she’s come to expect it.

Consider how difficult it is to get a conviction as an adult for rape. Few women report their rapes because, let’s face it, you’re going to get dragged through the system and then your rapist will probably be let off. I’m speaking here as someone who has seen this time and time again, but it’s an attitude shared by most of the women I know. Many of us have seen friends and family brutalised by the system – we wouldn’t put our worst enemies through that.

Michelle Duff, a fearless and excellent journalist who often reports on New Zealand’s harrowing rape statistics wrote in April this year that a Marsden-funded study found fewer alleged rapists are being prosecuted now than 20 years ago. Victoria University criminologist Jan Jordan told her that the situation for victims has worsened in two decades, with alleged rapists now less likely to be taken to court than they were in 1997.

Tess McClure, another incredible journalist, has more recent statistics. She wrote in a must-read piece for Vice that best estimates are that just 9% of sexual offences are ever reported to police. Of those that are, just over half will have a perpetrator identified. Less than a third will go to prosecution stage. And less than half of those, or 13% of overall recorded cases, will result in a conviction.

So, say out of 100 assaults? Nine will be reported to the police, three might be prosecuted, one perpetrator is convicted.

Merritt Wever and Toni Colette star as two detectives on the hunt for a serial rapist

Why the statistics around reporting are so low seems obvious. Figures from the Ministry of Justice, released under the Official Information Act to Stuff, show 61% of rape allegations in New Zealand were not proven. The conviction rate was 35%.

Now, a depressingly high number of people will choose to read that as 61% of women lied – because as we know, lying about rape is a lot of fun and every time you lie about rape you get a new pony.

Rape is the crime that people want to believe doesn’t happen. There’s no other crime where people so routinely disbelieve victims. If a man is beaten up in the street nobody would ask what he was wearing, whether he yelled no when his nose was punched in, was he drinking?

As Marie’s lawyer muses in Unbelievable, “Nobody ever accuses a robbery victim of lying or someone who says he’s carjacked – it just doesn’t happen. But when it comes to sexual assault…”

Because, in any other crime, you don’t have to be a perfect victim. You don’t have to defend your right to your body. If you are raped, and you choose to report, you will be put on trial regardless of whether your case even makes it out of the police station.

Were you drinking? Because if you were and if it goes to trial, you’ll be labelled a drunk with an unreliable memory and your rapist will not be found guilty. Were you wearing clothing that was in any way provocative? Boots, lace underwear, a bra? Who knows, the rules keeps changing. If you go to trial you’ll be labelled promiscuous, a slut who regretted it in the morning. Are you high-profile? You’re attention seeking. Is your rapist high-profile? You’re attention seeking. Have you recently had a break-up? You’re trying to get the attention of your ex-partner. Did you yell “no” repeatedly? Fight back? If you just lay there, hoping not to anger your rapist in case he killed you – sorry, you didn’t really show you didn’t want it.

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If your rape is filmed, if you almost died, if you’re a nun, if you have no sexual history, if you have no history at all, if there’s DNA, if people saw it, if you screamed and cried and were beaten to a pulp – maybe. Maybe you’ve got a chance.

This is what makes survivors so incredibly brave, and what makes the shrill hysteria of people screaming “Why didn’t she report it then?!” so ridiculous. Why would you report? Why would you put yourself through that when you’ve just suffered a brutal attack that you will spend the rest of your life recovering from? You must avoid being so many things to even be believed in the first place. It’s no surprise that having no history will work in your favour.

And so we go on. The final scenes of Unbelievable are hopeful: if just one person believes you, you might get a conviction. You might get closure.

This is true, but in 2019 that idea in itself still seems unbelievable.


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