Everyone has been talking about Unbelievable, a Netflix mini-series. So, I decided to watch it and found it to be gripping and very relevant to the work I do to address and end sexual violence.
The eight-part series of Season 1 begins with the rape of a young teenager Marie Adler who has been making the rounds of foster care homes and is, for the first time, living on her own at a facility for “at risk youth”. A man raped her whilst she was sleeping in her bed, having left her sliding doors unlocked. Her horrific rape was compounded by a hostile system where police officers were cold, impersonal and matter of fact. Immediately after the rape, instead of being comforted or spoken to in a gentle manner, she was asked to repeat her story at least four times to different people. Neither her foster mother nor the police officers were compassionate. Basic humanity and sensitivity towards someone who had experienced a crime of such magnitude was not offered. Subsequently, due to small errors in the versions of Marie’s statements, the police forced her to confess that she was lying and then slapped her with a case of false charges. Her foster mother Judith also does not believe her, which exacerbates the situation.
In the second episode, in Colorado a man rapes another young woman and this time the police officer investigating is a woman, Detective Karen Duvall. She has a totally different approach from the detectives in the first rape. She asks the survivor for consent to ask her questions. She explains to her the procedure and makes her feel comfortable. She tells her that she need not answer questions if she does not want to, but it would help the investigation if she could remember as much detail as possible, and at any point in time if she remembers anything more, she can always inform them. She does not pressurise the survivor but constantly checks in to see if she is fine. She gives her the space to process the incident and gives her the courage to deal with the trauma.
The comparison between the handling of these two incidents itself is a teaching moment for everyone who deals with survivors of sexual assault and rape. Detective Duvall shows throughout the mini-series that one can be compassionate, empathetic and sensitive whilst dealing with the survivor without compromising the quality of the investigation or letting the stress of the job overcome the police officer. It also highlights the fact that most police officers, especially male, do not treat rape or sexual assault as a serious crime like murder, even though survivors may carry the trauma for many years, if not their entire lives. In subsequent episodes, the gaps in the police system are shown where the serial rapist takes advantage of the fact that police stations and systems do not necessarily talk to each other and it would be hard to link individual crimes in different districts and jurisdictions unless one was looking for the connections. It was only due to pure chance that two female police officers who were working on separate cases were connected, that they were able to join forces and work together to track the serial rapist down.
It was also revealing how indifferent male police officers were to a “rape” case. They not only judged the survivors and doubted their stories, letting their unconscious bias take over, but also they did not do a timely or thorough investigation. For example, rape kits were not processed with an urgency that is required even though statistics show that a rapist can be best found within seven days of the crime. Every day lost, every clue missed, allows for the rapist to get away scot free and rape another woman, as was seen in this series. This lackadaisical attitude may also stem from the fact that 40% of police officers are domestic violence abusers as mentioned in the series. So their attitude towards sexual violence is biased and normalised.
During one of the investigations, the female detective had to reframe “forcing girls to have sex” as “rape” and the look of incredulity was clear on the male officer’s face as well as the person being interrogated for all to see. This toxic masculinity makes it hard for men to call out other men when they perpetrate crime and it also helps them justify the crime on women because they can say “she asked for it”. But this is a fallacy because the diversity of the survivors proves it – they were young, old, possessed all sorts of body shapes, and were of different races and backgrounds.
Further the modus operandus of the serial rapist shows that there is a pattern and trend to these crimes. I found it fascinating that they used the mapping of these trends quite a bit to track down the perpetrator. At my organisation Safecity, we crowd map sexual violence stories in public spaces and analyse the location-based trends to find factors that contribute towards the violence. For example, there is a definite correlation to the design of the space and the link to crime. Poor lighting is one of the factors. A very crowded space could be a zone for groping whilst a very isolated space could be a hotspot for assault. We have also noticed that people have a modus operandus in perpetrating crimes. A flasher will use a particular street corner at a particular time of day or night. The ability to have this granular information adds to our understanding of what contributes to the crime and also informs us as to what the solutions could be.
I believe that such mini-series as “Unbelievable” will help people have a better understanding of what women go through when they experience a horrific incident like rape or sexual assault. It is through these stories that one can more fully understand the impact on a survivor’s life, her mental and physical health, the trauma and fear that could overtake her, and the potential shrinking of her world.
Sexual violence is not often spoken about and so shining a light on this subject in a sensitive manner from a survivor-centric lens is critical for improving our collective understanding of this crime.