Rape in the UK: myths about myths

The old myths around rape persist. Many people still believe that 'serious' rape must be a violent attack. Now new voices are entering the debate. They claim that legal and academic 'experts' are using rape myths to shut down discussion and subvert the law.

Niki Seth-Smith
27 November 2013

Should rape be treated differently to other crimes? That was the question raised at an LSE event this month, tapping into a controversial debate around rape myths and prejudice. Does the British public hold rape victims responsible? Is rape still conceived as the old idea of a violent attack in a dark alley? Or is the UK entering a new era where we are so anxious to respect the female rape complainant that we treat her in advance as a victim, before her case even goes to court?

The reporting rate of female rape has increased more than eight times in the last three decades. In 2011-2012, there were 14,767 recorded female rapes in Britain. Yet this has not led to an equivalent increase in convictions: the conviction rate still stands at a meager 7%. The accepted theory is that this is the result of a culture that subjugates women and condones sexual abuse. There are several well known ‘rape myths’ that are said to contribute, chief among them the myth that women are in some way ‘to blame’. But new voices are entering this debate. They argue that in countering these old patriarchal myths, we are creating our own.

The panel brought together two of these voices, Barrister Barbara Hewson and LSE academic Helen Reece. Taking very different approaches, they share the belief that legal reform around rape crime has mishandled the attempt to counteract prejudice, or ‘rape supportive attitudes’. They were debating with chief crown prosecutor Nazir Afzal and professor Jennifer Temkin.

Afzal had first-hand experience of rape supportive myths through his work on the Rochdale abuse case. He explained how the sex grooming of young girls by gangs had been "hidden in plain sight" in the market town. It was as early as 2008 that one of the gangs’ teenage victims first alleged that she had been groomed and raped. The lawyer, after viewing six hours of video testimony and obtaining DNA evidence, concluded that "she would not be viewed as a credible witness by a jury". It was assumed that the jury would disbelieve the girl. Here was the 'women cry rape' myth, still widely believed despite consistent evidence that false allegations of rape are not more prevalent than lies about other crimes.

After Afzal re-opened the case in 2011, police found more than forty girls had been subjected to on-street grooming by the gangs. This was not, he explained, before the court process had “retraumatized” the victims by requiring them to relive their ordeal in detail. The girls’ stories contradicted another potent myth of the 'real rape': that a 'true' or 'serious' rape fits into the model of a violent attack by a stranger in an alley.  These were vulnerable, at-risk girls. In some cases, they viewed the gang members as ‘boyfriends’. They may have consented to some sexual encounters, but not to others. They didn’t conform to the uncomplicated idea of ‘a victim’. Throughout his work, Afzal, like many other others in his profession, had to persuade the jury to question another all-powerful myth: that the girls were to blame.

Afzal’s experience supports the view that rape crime should be treated differently. No other crime is so clouded in prejudice and misconception. While conceding that there is much more to do, Afzal argued that recent rape law reforms – such as the introduction of video and remote testifying and a reduction in credibility tests – are justified to protect complainants, encourage reporting, and ultimately fight against these myths.

Putting the case for the other side, barrister Hewson argued that giving rape complainants ‘special treatment’ is perverting the legal system. She claimed that, far from a “culture of suspicion”, there is in fact an “ideology of sexual victimization” surrounding rape crime. Under this ideology, she claimed, “the victim is utterly innocent and the victimiser is utterly guilty and this is infinitesimal”. Hewson has a very different explanation for the rise in rape reporting and the failure of this to convert into an increase in convictions. In her eyes, it is not because of the gradual removal of prejudice that so many more women are testifying to rape today. She believes our culture has built a dangerous myth that “rape and sexual abuse is very widespread but largely unrecognised, even by victims themselves, who need to be taught to realise what’s really happened.”

Hewson appears to believe women are being pressured to report rape by a culture that rewards or encourages “victimization”. It is hard to take the barrister seriously. Her attitude to victims in the past has been plain derogatory. She notoriously commented on a child sex abuse trial in the summer that "it takes two to tango". But let’s put this aside for one moment. Is there anything in the claims that a new set of myths are appearing, alongside the old?

Helen Reece was brought onto the panel for her academic work on rape myths. She accepts that the old myths still hold powerful sway. The law continues to reflect a society that tends to subjugate women and denigrate victims of sexual abuse. However, in her recent article for the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies she points to a worrying truth about the study of 'rape mythology'. 

The idea of the rape myth was conceived during the 1970s second wave of feminism. In 1980, a scale was devised to measure the level of rape myth acceptance in society. This was the AMMSA: the Acceptance of Modern Myths about Sexual Aggression Scale. The German collective that created the scale first defined a rape myth as: “descriptive or prescriptive beliefs about rape that serve to deny, downplay or justify sexual violence that men commit against women”. However, they later decided that “it would be more expedient to define rape myths not as false, but rather as ‘‘wrong’’ in an ethical sense”. In other words, says Reece, any popular opinion with which they don’t agree can be dismissed as ‘myth’.

Reece claims this approach to popular opinion has created a dangerously elitist culture around attitudes to rape. Take the ‘blame myth’. The infamous 2005 Amnesty Report is often used to back the claim that one in three British people blame rape victims. In fact, these respondants said that they believed " that women who behave fliratiously are at least partially responsible" for being raped. Nowhere in the report was the word "blame" used. As Reece sees it, this is just one example of NGOs, policy makers and legal professionals misrepresenting public opinion. We may not agree that women should be held partially responsible for putting themselves at heightened risk of rape, or that flirting might be a contributing factor. However, this is not identical to blaming the victim. 

Professor Jennifer Temkin accused Reece and Hewson of “attempting to turn the clock back”. This is certainly a danger. There is little evidence that we are creating the ‘victim supportive ideology’ that Hewson envisions. The research strongly suggests that the UK’s legal system still supports enduring patriarchal myths around rape. The fight against these must continue. It is not an option to return to a time, not so distant, when women kept silent about rape in fear of being shamed or turned away. But neither is dismissing public opinion altogether on the grounds that ordinary people are incurable biased. Proposals have been put forward by law professor Donald Dripps to abolish the jury in rape cases. Such reforms risk shutting down vital contestation around this most complex of legal and moral issues. We don’t need to agree with Reece or Hewson’s analyses to recognise this as an issue. In moving beyond our current rape mythology, it would be disastrous to create a new one.

Read more 50.50 articles published during 16 Days: activism against gender violence




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