By: tori marland
September 29 2023
British comedian and actor Russell Brand walks outside the Wembley Park Theatre, in northwest London, Britain, September 16, 2023. (Source: REUTERS/Susannah Ireland)
Content warning: sexual assault, rape
On 14 September, the British media rumor mill began to swirl – a special edition of the Channel 4 documentary series Dispatches had been programmed in the coveted Saturday prime time slot of 9 p.m. on 15 September, promising to expose shocking allegations of sexual assault against a major celebrity, eventually revealed as comedian Russell Brand. The result of a joint four-year investigation with The Times, the secret was out before either aired or published: Brand deftly took his comedian-turned-conspiracy arc to spin his own narrative, positioning himself as a target of a “serious and concerted agenda” to silence his outspokenness on fringe issues, quickly garnering support.
A veritable “who’s who” of conspiracists, controversial personalities, and right-wing influencers came out in defense of Brand, including Alex Jones, Andrew Tate, Elon Musk, Tucker Carlson, and Ian Miles Cheong. Brand’s tactics appear to have worked on a not insignificant chunk of the internet: in addition to the usual suspects, social media platforms have been awash with people – primarily men – supporting Brand and perpetuating oft-repeated myths around sexual assault.
Disinformation researcher Marc Owen Jones used the analytics tool Crowdtangle to assess sentiment across social media platforms and found that 70 percent of the highest-ranked comments seemed suspicious about the allegations against Brand. These comments were found across all news organizations, did not adhere to any particular political affiliation, and mostly fell into three categories: supporting Brand in general, questioning victims’ motives, and suggesting this was because he challenges the “establishment.”
A sample of comments supporting Russell Brand on Facebook.
(Source: Marc Owen Jones/X)
Brand is not the first high-profile figure to have been credibly accused of sexual assault and to receive support despite such allegations. From footballers such as Mason Greenwood to actors such as Johnny Depp, fans have rallied to their side to perpetuate common myths about sexual assault and domestic violence, trotting out the “innocent until proven guilty” refrain.
Example of a post supporting Mason Greenwood.
Such tropes include asking why the victims didn’t report the incidents, claiming the victims are financially motivated, suggesting that these celebrities are rich enough to use sex workers, and – in Brand’s case – pointing out the legal age of consent in the U.K. is 16, so there’s no issue.
Example of an “innocent until proven guilty” post on X.
One of the most pernicious narratives that persist is that men are extremely likely to face false allegations and that the accused are “innocent until proven guilty,” even when multiple victims come forward. In fact, when it comes to actual or attempted rape, men are more likely to be raped than falsely accused; by one measure, this was 230 times more likely. Rape Crisis Scotland found that the rate of false accusations was around 3 percent, while Home Office research suggests the figure to be about 4 percent. This corroborates worldwide, with the figure estimated to be between 2 and 6 percent.
The ONS told Logically Facts they “do not hold data on false allegations,” and Rape Crisis did not respond to requests for comment.
As reported by Dr. Katrin Hohl, a Criminology and Criminal Justice professor at City, University of London, “Rape investigations are complex, and without specialist knowledge about sexual offending behavior and how it affects victims, there is room for rape myths to influence cases.” This includes the narrative of false allegations.
According to Rape Crisis, the idea that there are many false rape allegations is damaging to survivors. It entrenches pre-existing attitudes, with women “already scrutinized and judged on many irrelevant factors” such as how they dress, how much alcohol they have consumed and so on. This is closely linked with popular myths about the naturally deceptive nature of women, that they “cannot be trusted,” leading to their credibility being undermined, while the perpetrators “remain unchallenged by comparison.”
Example of a post asking why the victims didn’t report assaults to the police.
Many sexual assault and rape cases brought to the police do not make it to court or complete the court process. In 2021, just five percent of the recorded 67,125 offenses in the U.K. resulted in a charge.
There are long delays for cases progressing through the system. Data from the UK Criminal Justice System shows that between April 2022 and March 2023, the average number of days taken by police to charge an offender was 324, with the path from arrival to completion at the Crown Court taking 371 days on average. The data highlights the lengthy process, while 62 percent of cases were dropped due to victims not supporting police action, and a further 20 percent of cases were stopped after a charge because victims no longer supported prosecution. Reasons for not pursuing the cases include lengthy delays, invasive disclosure demands, and even victims being discouraged from pursuing justice.
Although many cases are eventually dropped, another prominent issue with sexual offenses is under-reporting. The number of sexual offenses handled and reported by the police is much lower than the Crime Survey of England and Wales estimates because of high levels of under-reporting. A 2014 report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services stated that one in four cases were not reported at all.
However, the number of under-reported sexual offenses may be higher due to difficulty getting a definitive estimate. Many victims do not report rape or sexual assault to the police, stating they felt humiliated or believed no one could help. In the U.S., the Justice Department reports that nearly 80 percent of rapes and sexual assaults go under-reported, with survivors not reporting due to fears of retaliation from the perpetrator and society.
The ONS told Logically Facts, "High levels of non-reporting combined with changes in reporting trends can significantly impact sexual offenses recorded by the police. The crime survey can provide important context to the police figures; for example, Crime Survey for England and Wales estimates showed that fewer than one in six victims of rape or assault by penetration reported the crime to the police.”
In the U.K., a reluctance to report is also linked to a lack of trust in the police following recent high-profile cases, including that of Sarah Everard, who was raped and killed by a serving officer in 2021. Over 1,000 Metropolitan Police officers are currently suspended or on restricted duties, with 450 also being investigated for historic allegations of sexual or domestic violence.
Beverly Engel, an internationally recognized psychotherapist in the U.S., told ABC News that “victims are often too ashamed to come forward. Sexual assault is a very humiliating and dehumanizing act against someone. The person really feels invaded and defiled, and there is a lot of shame attached to that. Victims of sexual assault almost always blame themselves, and we can understand why because, in our culture, we tend to blame victims in general.”
Poor police investigations have also left many survivors feeling that the police caused more harm. According to the Home Office, which polled roughly 1,968 survivors, three-quarters said that their mental health worsened and their trust in the police declined. Of the respondents, 56 percent said they were unlikely to report rape to the police again. One survivor said, "I am more afraid of the police than being raped again."
The rate of convictions for rape cases in the U.K. is low. ONS data from January 2023 shows that sexual offenses are at the highest level recorded, yet only around 2 percent of reported crimes end in a conviction. Out of the cases that make it to court, the conviction rate is around 65 percent. These figures are about court cases, not those brought to the police. While they indicate that the courts may convict most cases, the underlying problem is that many cases do not reach trials.
Not only is the rate of conviction low, but the rate of charges is also low. Criminal Justice System data reported in 2023 shows that while the charge rate varies between regions, it is always below 10 percent. Nationally, just 5 percent of investigations lead to a charge, while in 2022, less than 2 in 100 rapes recorded by the police resulted in a charge. Additionally, according to a BBC article from 2022, rape prosecutions had fallen by 70 percent over the past 4 years.
A post citing Ben Shapiro on the age of consent.
In the U.K., the age of consent is 16, and it is illegal for anyone to have sexual activity with someone under the age of 16. This does technically mean that someone who is much older can have sexual relations with a 16-year-old. Recent polling has revealed that men are more likely than women to think there is nothing wrong with this situation.
Extra laws are in place to protect those under 18, including laws around sexting, where it is illegal for someone to take, possess, or distribute sexual photos of someone under 18, including explicit selfies. It is also against the law to send sexual messages to someone under 18 or possess explicit photographs of anyone under 18. The Sexual Offence Act of 2003 made it illegal for those in a position of power – e.g., a teacher or coach – to engage in sexual activities with anyone under the age of 18.
Following the allegations against Brand by a woman who was 16 when Brand was 31, there has been discussion and debate about changing the age of consent laws to a form of staggered age of consent. The victim, “Alice,” states that she believes a staggered approach where it is illegal for people over the age of 18 to have sex with 16 and 17-year-olds should be considered and that her “mum couldn’t stop her dating Russell Brand - but the law should.”
Despite Alice being legally able to have sex, there are still questions about consent as a whole. Alice alleges that Brand removed a condom during sex – also known as “stealthing” – and also forced himself upon her orally. Both of these constitute rape under English and Welsh law.
Sexual consent relies on the freedom and capacity to take part in sexual activity by choice. If someone does not agree to sexual activity, they have not consented; any sexual act without consent is sexual violence. If someone doesn’t verbally say “no,” that also doesn’t mean that they therefore consent. If someone remains quiet or shows uncertainty, they have not given consent.
The Russell Brand case is merely one example of a growing epidemic of rape culture in the U.K., a culture that is making international news. Teachers across the country are warning of the outsize influence of figures such as Andrew Tate fuelling misogyny in the classroom, while charities point out that “misogynistic attitudes have been creeping up on us for a long time,” aided in part by the ease of access to pornography.
So what can we do? Activist Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, told Glamour that we need to “shift societal focus on ideas around solving sexual violence, which too often focuses on victims and telling them what to do or not to do.” The charity Sex Education Forum believes that good sex education is also key, citing academic studies showing that “RSE [relationships and sex education] can reduce both sexual and domestic violence.” A government report suggests that its Rape Review Action Plan has shown progress, but there is still a long way to go to ensure victims feel supported from reporting to trial and afterward.