Watching Louis Theroux’s ‘The Night in Question’ is a deeply unsettling experience. Focussing on Saif Khan, accused of raping a fellow student at Yale in 2015, the documentary gives Saif a lot of airtime. His victim declined to participate in the film, and understandably, many news outlets have taken issue with a documentary centred around a specific allegation of rape which broadcasts only one side of the story. Eleanor Morgan in the Guardian responded to the documentary asking why TV ‘gives a pass to men accused of sex crimes’. She cited the way that Saif was allowed to narrate his story to maximum effect and for this perspective to totally marginalise the viewpoint of the absent victim.
Certainly, Eleanor Morgan is absolutely right to note the complexities of filming Saif in this way. Saif is given the opportunity to put his personal spin on what happened, and this is bound to galvanise the sort of people who genuinely believe that the real victims of rape are the men who will face consequences for committing it. But the thing is, people who commit rape are out there. They hold a whole host of ordinary jobs; they are often loving partners and parents. Unless convicted of the crime, they rarely carry the stigma of rapist around with them. They are not people who we can just shut out of our lives, sometimes because we do not know they are there.
This is why it is important for us to be able to look at figures like Saif Khan. I do not say this to be alarmist, but well-worn statistics tell us that that roughly 80% of rape victims know their attacker. In the US, only a third of rapes are estimated to be reported to the police, and just 0.7% result in a conviction. Rapists are very rarely behind bars, and they are very unlikely to all be manifestly evil. Watching Saif Khan cry over the situation he is in does not mean we have to take his behaviour at face value.
As it turns out, Saif appears to be a rather more shady character than his initial denial of everything might suggest. A fellow member of advocacy group FACE (which defends college students accused of sexual assault) came forward to say that Saif had sexually assaulted him and a woman during a threesome. The complainant Jon Andrews also alleged to Louis Theroux that Saif had a taste for sexual sadism and had extensively prepared for his initial interview for the documentary. All in all, Saif began to seem a much less nice and ‘normal’ figure than he initially appeared.
But although this turn of events might have seemed to some people like a vindication for the concept of ‘Saif the rapist’, in part, it simply aligns with a narrative that is detrimental to the way rape is perceived. Saif becoming steadily more unlikable allows him to fall into a character role which is often given to rapists: that of the evil villain.
It is dangerous to start slotting perpetrators of rape into a convenient character category. By doing so, we start to see rape in a binary fashion: bad people rape, good people don’t. But to think of rape in that way then allows our presumptions of who a rapist is to cloud our judgement of real cases.
But there is no one sort of person who perpetrates rape. The term ‘rape culture’ is regularly used, perhaps to the extent where some of its meaning has been lost. But to me it describes a societal situation where certain attitudes towards sex and gender have been normalised to an extent that crimes such as rape and sexual assault become symptoms of pervasive societal biases. They are not aberrations but part and parcel of what prevalent attitudes in society can give rise to.
For example, during a rape trial in Cork, why was the complainant’s lace thong seen as evidence by the lawyer for the defence that she was ‘open to meeting someone’ (and by implication, could not have been an unconsenting victim)? Why did an Italian court rule that a woman alleging she had been raped was ‘too ugly’ to be a victim of such a crime? Behaviours such as this, seen in our legal systems, display shocking attitudes which view women as objects, and rape as solely about a sexual transaction. Such attitudes fly in the face of our understandings of sexual assault as a crime, but are prevalent nevertheless.
These examples suggest that many of our societies are underpinned by modes of thinking which both downplay rape as a crime and shift its boundaries. They mean that misinformation and stereotypes often cloud people’s understanding of enthusiastic consent, and this ignorance can mean that people are more likely to make mistakes when navigating sexual landscapes.
This is not me trying to cast rape as a kind of accident borne of a lack of education; more that I believe we need to start developing a more sophisticated understanding of these kinds of crimes. In Louis Theroux’s documentary, he interviews the activist Emma Sulkowicz. They explain that they see rape as a crime which, if proven, often tarnishes permanently those guilty of perpetrating it. Emma believes that we should instead try to see the majority of rapists as capable of reform. This might then lead to a society where people (including those who commit sexual assault themselves) are more ready to acknowledge that a problem exists and believe that something can be done about this problem.
This is the best way we can look at rape. The language surrounding it is too black-and-white. We need to start to see those who commit rape in a different way. Not just as evil men beyond hope of redemption, but as the unpleasant symptoms of a much deeper problem in society. Dismissing or even eradicating the symptoms themselves cannot cure the disease. Louis Theroux’s examination of Saif Khan was unsettling and confusing, not just because Saif began to seem increasingly twisted, but also because at points he even seemed nice. But it does not matter Saif is twisted or nice. All that matters is whether he committed the rape – and in some respects that is a totally separate question.