18:13, May 06 321 0 theguardian.com

2019-05-06 18:13:03
TV review  Sex on Trial review – a story of nightmarish twists and turns

In the US, the average conviction rate for reported rapes (already the tip of a despicably large iceberg) is about 3%. By the end of Sex on Trial, Channel 4’s documentary about the Nikki Yovino case, you could be forgiven for marvelling that it is even that high.

It is a study in competing narratives, shifting perspectives and power relations and it begins in December 2016, when Yovino, an 18-year-old Connecticut university student, reported to the police that she had been raped by two student football players after they pulled her into the bathroom at a Christmas party. In the video footage of her interview, she describes one of them forcing her head down on him while the other rapes her from behind. She tried, she says, to “drag her teeth” on his penis but decided not to bite down. “I just gave up – I was scared for my life. I didn’t want to die.”

Her statement was taken by sex crime investigator of nearly 30 years’ standing, Walberto Cotto, who spent the next few weeks talking to Yovino’s friends, people at the party and combing through her social media posts. At the end of it, he says, “events didn’t make sense to me”. He didn’t interview the alleged assailants. Asked in the documentary why not, he replied: “They didn’t want to. They didn’t trust law enforcement. And I understand that.”

It was at this point that I found myself thinking suddenly of Ely – the name given in Douglas Adams and John Lloyd’s The Meaning of Liff to mean “that first tiny inkling that something, somewhere has gone terribly wrong.”

Cotto did reinterview Yovino, though. He and another officer went to her house, separated her from her parents and began insisting that she tell them “the truth”.

The programme played the interview audiotapes at length. Some viewers will doubtless side with the accused men’s defence lawyer Frank Riccio and hear, in the repeated questions and refusal to accept various answers and in the officers’ (perfectly legal) pretence that videos of the entire event exist (contradicting, he insinuates, everything she claimed in her first interview), law enforcement robustly testing the reliability of their main witness. Others will as surely side with Professor Lisa Avalos, an expert on sexual violence, who sees an interview shaped entirely round Cotto’s desire to prove Yovino is lying, rather than a desire to seek the truth, and her eventual reluctant agreement with him as a result of bewilderment and intimidation.

I personally can hear disorientation set in for Yovino, followed by her casting around for ways to appease this man who is denying her reality at every turn. I can practically feel every people-pleasing sinew in my body – trained over decades – strain with hers to find a way out of this interview that keeps us both happy. I can imagine myself in her shoes – just as I, like most of my age and sex, could picture exactly the scene when she described “giving my friend big eyes to say ‘let’s go’”, when the men came on to her on the dancefloor beforehand. In the Instagram exchanges with one of the alleged rapists, Cotto sees proof that she lied about knowing them. I see attempted pick-up lines politely rebuffed by a girl, just as I would have done it 20-odd years ago.

Does this grant me valuable insight, or simply make me dangerously inclined to believe her? Should I stand with Riccio’s assertion that if you ask an honest person the same question a hundred times, they will stand by the same answer, or allow that human nature is irreducibly more complex than this?

Yovino is charged and convicted of making a false rape claim, serving six months in prison. There is much she would like to say, she explains now, but cannot as she is being sued by the two men.

The programme was admirably dispassionate, but the simple act of juxtaposing participants’ opposing viewpoints painted a horrifying portrait of the shortcomings of the system and the proliferating extrajudicial factors at play when dealing with sexual assault.

From a less dispassionate viewer’s perspective, it was a dizzying demonstration of the way the life experiences, unchallenged world views and internalised prejudices of those in power can enable mistakes (at best) and the wilful abuse of that power (at worst). Yovino’s was a story whose nightmarish twists and turns you are tempted to label Kafkaesque until you realised that there is, in fact, a sound logic underpinning it all. It’s the remorseless, brutal logic of misogyny, which knows that the more women you define as liars, the stronger your hold on power becomes. That is the value in not believing victims. It would all make perfect sense.

The results could form the basis for an infinite number of documentaries, a fury-making evolution of the “true crime re-investigation trend. That is, after all, where we best look for justice now.