Editor’s Note: The following story contains mentions of sexual assault. To reach the National Sexual Assault Hotline, call 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.

Emma Mannion, Nikki Yavino, Dyanie Bermeo. All victims of sexual assault, all handcuffed for having the courage to speak up about it. By the end of Nancy Schwartzman’s Victim/Suspect, the shocking documentary released on May 23 on Netflix, it becomes crystal clear why anyone, no matter the evidence, would fear reporting rape to the police. 

Filing a false report of rape is a misdemeanor punishable by a year in prison. More alarming is that it is 100% legal for police officers to outright lie during an interview with an accuser, so long as these lies are used to elicit confession: The victim is then effectively treated as a suspect. These lies, from the vantage of a known authority, often prompt the already traumatized victim to backpedal on their story or recant it entirely. 

Much of the doc’s appalling content comes from surveillance footage collected by journalist Rachel (Rae) de Leon at The Center for Investigative Reporting, who, in 2018, spearheaded an effort to examine the surprising number of women arrested nationwide for fabricating allegations. 

Finding more than 180 false report cases covered by the media over the past decade, de Leon discerns a pattern in how police abuse their power, and the victims ostensibly in their trust. In much of the footage, accusers are grilled for hours within days of their assault, usually in the absence of an advocate or a lawyer. Often citing “video evidence” that somehow contradicts an accuser’s narrative, officers (significantly, both male and female) coerce the victims, mostly women, into retracting their allegations, so they can then be charged. At one point, a young female victim responds to a detective, “If you say there’s no video evidence [of an assault], I guess I have to believe you.”

Rae de Leon and Emma Mannion in Victim/Suspect

Emma Mannion’s and Dyanie Bermeo’s cases anchor the film with a nuanced portrait of each young woman and how quickly police invalidated her story to put her behind bars. “You’re not being honest with me, okay?” the officer tells Mannion, a University of Alabama student raped after a football game, during her interrogation. After being interrogated for nearly two hours, before she’s put in cuffs, Mannion actually apologizes to the officer for the overtime his team devoted to investigating the case. In a later scene, Bermeo, a King University student who reported a police officer for assaulting her during a traffic stop, apologizes for crying as Schwartzman interviews her. Victim/Suspect exposes the extent to which women, conditioned to apologize for any inconvenience, are vulnerable to pressures to take the blame, and even serve time, for their own violent rapes.

“This happened to you and now somebody is accusing you of lying about it?” asks Dr. Lisa Avalos, a legal expert featured in the film. “Countless women, especially young women, have been cajoled into recanting because that’s how they can get out of that situation.” Based on the efforts of de Leon and various civil rights lawyers, Mannion’s and Bermeo’s cases were overturned, and their records wiped clean. But nothing can give them back the years in which they endured extensive psychological damage and public stigma.

In light of Harvey Weinstein’s incarceration and E. Jean Carroll’s recent winning verdict in her lawsuit against Donald Trump (for sexual assault, if not rape), it could seem the tide is changing for victims of sexual assault. Victim/Suspect is hard to watch for a number of reasons. One such reason is that it exposes how much more work there is to do — not just in training police units to better handle sexual assault cases, but in fostering a culture in which survivors are believed.

Victim/Suspect streams on Netflix beginning May 23.

Eileen G’Sell is a poet and critic with recent contributions to Jacobin, Poetry, The Baffler, and The Hopkins Review. Her second volume of poetry, Francofilaments, is forthcoming from Broken Sleep Books....