IN a world where headlines scream louder than victims, scepticism often shouts louder than empathy. It is the elephant in the room whenever the headlines blare out another sexual assault allegation against a famous individual. My thoughts often linger not on the men in question, but on the invisible barriers that victims of sexual assault face within our society, and in our legal system.

The pattern of scepticism and blame-shifting is a recurring one, steeped in a culture of disbelief of women, a suspicion that she has an ulterior motive. A society that is quicker to question the credibility of a victim than to ponder the guilt of an accused. A world where victims – more often women – are disbelieved and put under a microscope.

Meanwhile, false allegations of rape in Scotland constitute a fraction of cases, according to Rape Crisis Scotland. Yet conviction rates for rape and attempted rape cases remain low – around 39% as of 2018-19. When contrasted with the larger number of unreported cases, this highlights a grim reality that we have a system which supports suspicion over suffering.

Scotland’s legal practices, despite modern reforms, have their foundations in centuries-old legal traditions that were made by men, for men. This male-centric focus permeates everything from the words we use, such as “complainer” in legal settings, to the scepticism with which women are often met when they come forward with allegations.

READ MORE: Liz Truss shrugs off mortgage rate hike after shameless speech

Women were historically seen as property, first of their fathers and then of their husbands. This has had a lasting impact, creating a justice system that is often indifferent or even hostile to women, especially those who are victims of sexual crimes. The concept of “unchaste character” or past sexual history as admissible evidence in rape trials is proof of patriarchy.

So if we are to transform our society into one where every woman feels seen, heard, and believed, we need to confront the unpleasant truths about our cultural and systemic failings. The disbelief and delegitimisation that women victims encounter is not exclusive to interactions with the legal system, it often begins at home or within social circles, especially when the accused is a respected or beloved individual.

The “court of public opinion” is a formidable one, and its judgments often lean in favour of high-profile or charismatic figures, perpetuating a culture where victims are silenced twice – once by their assailants, and then a second time by society.

While celebrities accused of sexual misconduct make headlines, the issue is more complex when the perpetrator is a family member or friend. The intimacy of the relationship and the imbalance of power amplify the emotional stakes, making disclosure even more daunting.

When the person accused is someone you know, love, or admire, the burden of proof feels exponentially heavier for the victim. Emotional complexity intensifies when the perpetrator is a friend, a family member or a public figure. I have experienced first-hand the backlash for stating an inconvenient truth: that predators often hide in plain sight.

Remarks like “they would never be in my family!” are not just naïve, they also make it more difficult for victims to speak out against someone shielded by a sceptical family, or public.

READ MORE: Bev Turner in clash with Andrew Pierce after Russell Brand 'hero' claim

Changing the law is one thing, but changing hearts and minds is another. We need education and awareness that reaches into every home, school and workplace. We need public discourse that isn’t shy about challenging deeply ingrained biases.

Victims often find themselves wrestling with a troubling question: “Who would believe me over him?” We are up against a culture steeped in a history of viewing women as less credible, less rational, and more “emotional”. A culture where men are given a free pass because “it was a different time”; “he wasn’t himself”; “he was always a bit of a rogue”; “you know what he can be like”.

Why do women choose not to report sexual crimes? The answer varies, but often it can be the fear of being labelled a troublemaker; of disturbing the peace; of bringing up stuff long past, or the shame of feeling somehow responsible for what happened.

I understand all too well personally the web of emotional and psychological factors that deter women from coming forward. Victims often face the humiliation, trauma and character assassination that can accompany speaking out.

These reasons, rooted in shame and fear, aren’t just psychological, they’re societal. There’s a pressure to conform to a culture that trivialises the victim’s experience, especially when the accused is someone who is “a good guy.” What we often forget is that abuse doesn’t always come dressed as evil, sometimes it comes cloaked in charm and likeability, charisma and credibility.

READ MORE: Economics experts in brutal reaction to Liz Truss speech

Often, when victims witness others stepping forward they can find the courage to speak out. There’s solace and validation in hearing stories from women who, like themselves, had been holding back their truth. However, even this collective strength is scrutinised by society. Accusations of “jumping on the bandwagon”, “ganging up”, or being “in it for the money” frequently surface, further marginalising those who have found strength in numbers.

The Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill is a promising move toward addressing some of these issues. It aims to revamp the way victims and witnesses are treated within the Scottish justice system. It’s an acknowledgement that the law needs to evolve to better serve the victims, rather than just prosecute the accused.

The proposal to abolish the “not proven” verdict is a change long overdue. It also holds a promise of a trauma-informed approach to victims, an automatic life-long right to anonymity and a proposed specialist sexual offences court is an acknowledgement that the current system is often inadequate for managing the nuances of sexual crimes.

Cultural perception and media representation must change also, and we must not overlook the structural issues deeply rooted in a patriarchal past. No single piece of legislation can overhaul a system and a culture steeped in gender biases. It will take collective will, toward believing women.

Anyone who feels affected by any of these issues can contact Rape Crisis Scotland on 08088 01 03 02.