Many of us are scratching our heads this week in the UK, seeing the cries of Gayle Newland in court, as she received an eight year sentence for sexual assault. The twist in the story is that Gayle and her victim were friends, girlfriends to be precise, and that Newland invented an elaborate, online male persona who became the complainant’s boyfriend.
After a long period of emailing and phone calls, where Newland disguised her voice to sound male, they finally spent several hours together on dates in hotel rooms and in the victim’s apartment, which included sexual intercourse. During the entire time, the complainant wore a blindfold, as Newland had convinced her that ‘he’ was sensitive about his appearance following brain surgery. Newland organised an elaborate set of emails and communications from the male character and his family. All of this went on for two years, with sex on around ten occasions, until at last the victim pulled off her blindfold and saw her friend Gayle standing there, wearing a strap-on dildo. She took her case to the police and then pressed charges against her friend, causing widespread media interest and commentary.
The legal side of this is interesting in itself. Newland was prosecuted for sexual assault: while her friend consented to sex, it was to sex with a different person, so by law it seems it can be argued that she did not consent to sex with Newland. In the UK, women may commit rape, but they may not be charged with it, as the offence only relates to penetration by a penis. Fake ones don’t count.
It’s a strange case for many reasons, one where many people might assume we haven’t heard the full truth of the story and that there is lot more to it than meets the eye. It’s very hard to believe that any woman could sustain such a high level of ignorance over what was happening, without any suspicions, not least because whether we can see or not, men and women’s bodies feel different to the touch. Perhaps the victim’s wrists and hands were permanently restrained, not allowing her to ever touch Newland. That could explain how the physical deception worked.
It doesn’t really explain anything else. All the little things that would set our alarm bells ringing. Like being in a relationship with someone for two years and never being allowed to look at them. Like having to wear a blindfold for every single date. How that was even managed is hard to figure out. It says in the article that their time together included sitting watching TV while she still had the blindfold on. All of these things suggest that the victim colluded in the game to at least some extent, which was the accused’s defence. In our post Fifty Shades of Grey world, we assume that this must have been what she wanted. How could she have been so gullible, we cry?
What I find so interesting about this case (apart from the fact that it’s so unusual, it’s already a water cooler classic), is that the judge and jury appear to have avoided doing what happens so often in rape and sexual assault cases. They haven’t made the judgement based on the credibility of the victim, but on the behaviour of the accused. It might have escaped your notice, but this is one of the first cases in recent times where the discussion isn’t focused on the behaviour of the victim, even if the wider public have got their own questions.
Let’s face it, whatever the truth of things, the complainant has got to be pretty stupid/lonely/desperate/confused/insert your own insult, to have truly believed the story she was getting from Newland as the male character. Most of us can hold our hands up to falling for a ridiculous line from a guy at one time or another, usually when we want to believe it, ignoring the wee voice inside us telling us it’s all bullshit. But to fall for a deception of this magnitude is extreme. Whatever the reason, she is obviously exceptionally vulnerable. Something that Newland must have been aware of as her friend, yet used to her own advantage.
Let’s look at the judge’s comments on sentencing. He noted that Newland was ‘an intelligent, obsessional, highly manipulative, deceitful, scheming and thoroughly determined young woman’. A psychiatric report identified social anxiety disorder, a personality disorder, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. Perhaps the victim wasn’t as stupid as we would want to think, but caught in a web of deception, all the stronger for being woven by someone who knew her, and therefore all the best ways to catch her.
Finally, if we need to, let’s change the gender of the accused. Newland is a man and has organised an elaborate, false online identity to procure a relationship with the victim, including sexual intercourse. We might still be unsure about the sexual consent issue, but we would be clear that some kind of fraud had taken place. The question is whether we equate this sort of ‘fraud’, in order to obtain sex, as a rape or assault.
I admit to still being iffy about this, because to me, sexual consent is not something agreed in advance, but in the moment. If we go down that very scary road, then all online flirting or sexting implies consent when in person. It doesn’t. So what if, for example, I get chatted up in the pub by a handsome, tall, slightly unwashed, young man, with a fine voice and large bag of green, who in my pished state I believe to be Paolo Nutini, and take him home to my bedchamber, only to discover in the cruel light of dawn that it was not he.
The following morning, whilst nursing an almost fatal hangover (certain to occur following the amount of alcohol that would be required on my part, to believe that Paolo would chat me up, or agree to come home with me) I might regret my stupidity in believing the non-Paolo’s chat but if I had agreed to have sex with him, whoever he was, then I would not believe that I had been raped, only fooled. Am I wrong? I don’t know. Perhaps the difference between my example (and btw has not actually happened!) and this case, is that it was long term grooming. After one night, you feel like an imbecile, after two years, you have been sucked in and have a large emotional investment. There is an element of control and abuse on the part of the groomed.
Still, if the victim agreed to whatever weird conditions were requested at the time and did not express concerns or ask for it to stop, then in my view she has given sexual consent. But she has been a victim of some kind of fraud. But what? Being duped by false love? Again, something that had happened to many people. So in this case, there must be more, something bordering on abuse, otherwise we could all go down to the cop shop when our hearts got broken. Instead of sitting at home, feeling like an arsehole, we could send them to jail. No, I don’t think so. Police don’t waste time on broken hearts, neither do public prosecutors. There must be more.
If this a case of abuse, then strange and controversial as it may be, I think the jury and judge have made brave decisions. Because this case involves two women, for once, they have been able to look at the situation without unconscious gender bias. And they have decided that the victim’s vulnerability or stupidity (her wearing of the blindfold might be the equivalent of a sexy, short dress in a typical rape case) is not relevant, only the behaviour of the perpetrator. That is something to give us all thought.
There will be shades of grey in the power play and even love, in the relationship between the two women. But these humans, faced with a choice of what to do, I think made the right one.
Do you agree? I would be very interested to know what you think…
Until next time,