By Dr Elizabeth Yardley, Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University

Easter Monday will see the conclusion of series three of ITV’s Broadchurch. This is the most powerful crime drama I have seen in recent years. The reason I like it so much is not because of dazzling forensic science or charismatic detectives. Broadchurch is top of my list because of its portrayal of the ordinary, its capacity to situate trauma in everyday, mundane reality. As a criminologist I was really pleased to see this – all too often we are presented with highly stylized portrayals of crime, which reinforce stereotypes about victims and offenders without really challenging them. Broadchurch threw a cold bucket of water over all of this.

The choice of topic for this series was a surprise for many viewers. The producers didn’t go with the standard homicide that audiences have come to expect from crime drama but focused on the rape of Trish Winterman. In our lifetime, most of us won’t be directly affected by homicide. It’s a relatively rare crime. There were 571 homicides reported in England and Wales in the year ending March 2016. This equates to around 11 homicides per week. However, look at sexual assault and the picture is very different. According to figures from the latest Crime Survey for England and Wales, 533,000 women were estimated to have been the victims of an actual or attempted sexual assault within the space of one year[2]. If you work that out, that’s 1,460 women every day, 61 women every hour, one woman every minute. By the time you’ve watched all 8 episodes of Broadchurch, 480 women will have experienced a sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. That’s quite a statistic. Trish Winterman’s rape was therefore relevant for all of us.

Broadchurch dealt with Trish’s rape as a personal trauma. Her muddy feet in the shower were a powerful image. Whilst the water might have washed away the dirt, the psychological scars wouldn’t be so easily erased. She said “I feel like I’m not in my own body”, that she was ashamed, that she wished her attacker had just killed her. Rape myths bubbled away throughout the series as people made judgements about Trish’s behaviour. Ed was incredulous, “She’s not the sort of woman this happens to, that’s what makes it so awful”. Others presented her as complicit in her own victimization. Even Trish had internalised the victim blaming that is so commonplace – asking “How did I cause this? What did I do to make this happen?”. She was at a party, she’d had a drink. Wine, vodka, tequila. Her underwear was new. In the words of her estranged husband Ian, she was “cavorting with men”. He was also keen to add that Trish had slept with “a lot” of men. Another victim, Laura Benson, reflected upon her attack and the fact she hadn’t reported it, saying that she knew how women who report rape are treated, particularly given that she was drunk, it was 3.30am and she had a short skirt on.

Broadchurch didn’t just look at Trish’s rape as an individual experience and an investigative puzzle. It also interrogated sexual violence as a social problem. Pornography was a theme throughout the series. Examples included the explicit calendars on the wall at Attwoods Autos, the videos on teenager Tom’s smartphone and the adverts full of scantily clad women that popped up alongside the story of Trish’s rape on the local news website. We even saw Broadchurch highlight ‘revenge porn’ – portraying the effects on DI Hardy’s daughter Daisy when she became a victim. All of this illuminates the normalisation and social acceptance of misogyny, men and boys consuming sexually explicit imagery as ‘just lads’. A narcissistic sense of entitlement ran through the veins of many male characters – Ian, Clive, Jim and Aaron, their distorted views about who women are and how they should behave very clear throughout the series. DI Hardy was however one voice who stood out from the crowd, “Know what’s bothering me about this case? Makes me ashamed to be a man”.

However, Broadchurch did not let women off the hook – far from it. DC Harford, a female officer, came out with a range of shocking comments – “Are you sure its genuine?”, “Was she drunk?”. Upon discovering that Trish had slept with her husband Jim, Cath commented that of all the women at her party, “Why would someone rape you? It doesn’t make sense”. DS Miller chastised DC Harford for failing to appreciate the struggle of the female detectives that laid the path for women like her. So much for the sisterhood. What came through very strongly here was the idea that misogyny is not a man problem – it’s as much about women’s judgements and expectations of each other.

It may seem premature to be reviewing a series before its ended but the ‘whodunit’ question isn’t the most interesting thing about Broadchurch. For me, what’s made this drama so compelling is the idea that so many things that we don’t even notice in everyday life enable sexual violence. Given the one woman a minute statistic above, we’re clearly not doing enough to tackle this. Tom and his friend were punished for distributing porn amongst their school friends by having to do some weeding in the local churchyard. Whilst this is a fictional example, this type of reaction does nothing to challenge this behaviour and confront what it represented. It’s probably time to turn off the TV for a moment, take a good hard look at ourselves and ask an important question, “What are we doing to tackle sexual violence and why isn’t it working?”.

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