The Guardian, Wednesday 7 September 2016
The level of denial about this epidemic is staggering. A society that genuinely valued female equality would acknowledge the hateful truth
It’s always there, isn’t it? Most of us don’t like it, but what can we actually do about gender-based violence? Sure, the figures are terrible – violent crimes against women in England and Wales reached record levels last year – but they’ve been going up for ages. Rape and domestic violence are the new poor, always with us no matter how much we wish it were otherwise.
If that sounds cynical, it’s because I’m sick of a glaring disconnect at the heart of our culture. The criminal justice system is struggling to cope with the number of women coming forward with terrible stories of rape, beatings and – a relatively new one, this – online forms of abuse such as revenge porn.
The annual report of the director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, told exactly this story when it was published earlier this week. Offences against women, including domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault, rose by almost 10% in 2015-16. Stalking prosecutions were up by 7.1%, child sex prosecutions by 15.4% and there were a record number (4,643) of rape prosecutions.
Cue a great deal of hand-wringing and a weary sense that perhaps violence against women, while regrettable, is inevitable. Just think of all the training, initiatives and public awareness work that’s been done in recent years, yet the picture just keeps on getting worse. Is there really anything that someone – police, prosecutors, legislators – hasn’t already thought of and tried?
There is, but it requires a dramatic shift in public attitudes. How many times have you heard people express sympathy with a man on trial for rape, asking why the victim had had so much to drink or agreed to go back to his hotel room? Public understanding of the law relating to consent is woefully lacking, and there is a persistent tendency to view women’s behaviour much more critically than that of the men who commit even violent assaults.
The same unthinking callousness is shown to victims of domestic abuse, who are often criticised for staying with violent partners even when they have nowhere else to live. There are nothing like enough safe places for victims, a situation that’s going to get even worse when a housing benefit cap hits refuges in 2018.
If we are to change the dire situation revealed in annual crime statistics, there has to be an end to a culture of suspicion, denial and victim-blaming. Sometimes I think we’re making progress but every apparent advance is quickly followed by a return to the status quo. Three months ago, after the horrific killing of the Labour MP Jo Cox, there was an outpouring of shock and sympathy. That consensus didn’t last long. When other female Labour MPs talked publicly about receiving rape and death threats, some people went on social networking sites to mock them. They even laughed at Jess Phillips when she posted photographs of a locksmith fixing stronger locks at the home she shares with her children.
The attitude that being threatened with sexual violence is just another hazard of the job seems to be widely held, with the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, telling his female colleagues to ignore it. When even the leader of the opposition cannot correctly identify a gender-specific form of abuse, we have reached a startling level of denial.
But that is exactly where we are, as I was reminded on the Sunday morning after Cox’s killing. I was taking part in a BBC TV programme that began by discussing the attack on Cox and then moved on to a call by several public figures, including Sir Cliff Richard, for anonymity for men accused of serious sexual offences. Another of the guests immediately began to talk about false rape accusations, as though the biggest problem we face is the number of men being wrongly accused.
This claim was debunked by research published by Keir Starmer, Saunders’s predecessor as DPP. Yet in no time at all we had moved from talking about women as victims of horrendous violence to the idea that they make untrustworthy witnesses. There is nothing unusual about that, sadly, but such assumptions cannot be ignored when we look at the shockingly low rate of convictions in rape cases.
According to the DPP’s latest report, just over half of rape prosecutions ended in a conviction last year. That means that fewer than 3,000 men were found guilty in the whole of England and Wales, yet almost 6,000 women reported rapes to the police in London alone. The vast majority are telling the truth but few will ever see their attacker in a courtroom.
Violence against women is at epidemic proportions. Some of it is driven by technology but the biggest problem by far is tolerance. A society genuinely committed to gender equality wouldn’t put up with this situation for a moment.