Daily Telegraph, Thursday 6 December 2018
Rape investigations in this country are at crisis point. More women than ever are going to the police but far fewer rapists are being charged – and some of the reasons are exposed in a shocking new survey which shows that public attitudes to rape are out-of-date and downright cruel towards victims.
The headline findings are jaw-dropping. A third of men think it generally wouldn’t count as rape if a woman has flirted beforehand on a date, even if she hasn’t explicitly agreed to sex. Astonishingly, the same proportion believe that a woman can’t change her mind once sex has started, even if she is uncomfortable with the man’s behaviour.
The survey, carried out by YouGov for the End Violence Against Women Coalition, displays a terrifying ignorance about the law on consent. Almost a quarter of the 4,000 respondents believe that sex without consent in long-term relationships isn’t usually rape, even though rape in marriage has been a crime for more than a quarter of a century. An even bigger proportion (a third of those surveyed) think it isn’t rape if a woman is pressured into having sex but doesn’t suffer physical injuries.
This isn’t just an academic exercise. It tells us about the attitudes people take with them when they’re asked to sit on juries in rape trials, making convictions less likely in all but a handful of exceptional cases. Judges are trained to challenge some of the most common rape myths but prosecutors know they’re hard to shift, especially in cases where women know or have had previous relationships with their attackers.
That’s most cases because the vast majority of victims know the men who rape them. Some women are attacked by total strangers but most are able to identify their assailants, a fact that perversely seems to have made securing prosecutions even harder. Last year, despite the increase in rapes reported to the police, the number of rape charges dropped by 23 per cent to its lowest rate in a decade.
New rules on disclosure of evidence, introduced at the end of last year, have made the situation much worse for victims, something that’s likely to be confirmed when this year’s statistics are published. They have also had the extremely damaging effect of confirming the most persistent rape myths – so, for instance, flirtatious texts might now be seen as evidence of consent to sex even if they were written hours or days before an alleged rape.
The new Director of Public Prosecutions, Max Hill, has denied accusations that rape prosecutors are taking a more risk-averse approach when they make charging decisions. He says that the police and CPS are trying to improve decision-making in rape cases, and he doesn’t believe the drop in charging is a long-tern trend.
The fact remains that prosecutors have to decide whether there is a realistic chance of conviction in rape cases – and survey after survey has shown that a substantial proportion of jurors are disinclined to believe victims. The latest research confirms, once again, that victim-blaming is widespread while public attitudes towards alleged attackers are much more lenient.
A staggering 40 per cent believe that ‘stealthing’ – removing a condom without a partner’s consent – never or rarely amounts to rape, even if the woman has made it clear that she doesn’t want to have unprotected sex. Even now, after years of education campaigns, one in ten people think that having sex with woman who is very drunk or asleep isn’t usually rape, despite the fact that she hasn’t given consent.
There is a generational divide in the research, with over-65s displaying much more punitive attitudes towards victims. In that age group, 42 per cent believe it’s too late in most cases for a woman to change her mind once sex has started, compared to only 16 per cent in the 16-24 age group. This means that young women who have a clear (and correct) idea about consent are likely to find their behaviour being judged by older jurors who don’t understand the law, with disastrous consequences for individual victims and conviction rates.
The bitter truth behind all this is that women are being badly let down by the criminal justice system. Despite decades of campaigns by women’s organisations and feminist lawyers, forensically setting out what’s wrong, the situation has actually got a great deal worse. Women who report attacks to the police are now even less likely to get justice and most rapists know that they’re unlikely to be arrested, let alone charged.
‘For too many women, justice is not an option open to them,’ says Rachel Krys, co-director of the EVAW Coalition. Her organisation is calling for an independent, end-to-end review of how the police and courts tackle rape.
She is right, because we have been here too many times. There is an epidemic of sexual and domestic violence in this country, and the failure of the criminal justice system to protect women is a scandal of massive proportions.