"She was probably glad of the attention": tackling rape in the UK

Sarah Campbell
28 November 2007

The debate about how and why rape happens goes to the heart of cultural gender and power dynamics, writes Sarah Campbell

Globally, the prosecution of rape is given a low priority by criminal justice agencies, and across most of Europe the rape conviction rate has fallen continuously in the last thirty years. In the UK, in 1977 33.3% of all rapes reported to the police led to a conviction. In 2007, this figure has fallen to 5.7%. The shockingly low rate of conviction for rape has made headlines numerous times in the intervening years, most recently as the government announced reforms to rape trials this week.

Although the vast majority of rapes in the UK are still not reported to the police, there has been a marked increase in reportage in recent years. With more women coming forward, the police have been handed an opportunity to pursue more cases and to see more rapists convicted. But this opportunity to tackle violence against women has largely not been taken. There are complex reasons for this failure, but popular misconceptions of how and why rape occurs are central to the problem.

"Know your limits"

Beliefs still prevail that women are raped because they expose themselves to danger or even ‘imply consent' by being too promiscuous, too flirtatious, drinking too much, wearing short skirts or walking alone at night in dangerous areas. One third of people believe that a woman is partially or totally responsible for being raped if she ‘flirted' with a man who later raped her.

This article is the fourth in a series on openDemocracy marking the "16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence" from 25 November - 10 December, an annual mobilisation aimed at heightening global awareness of violence against women

Also in openDemocracy on the 16 Days theme, part of our overall 50.50 coverage, a multi-voiced blog where women around the world contribute

Roja Bandari, "Iran's women: listen now!"

Rahila Gupta, "The UK's modern slavery shame"

Takyiwaa Manuh, "African women and domestic violenceSuch statistics reflect the disturbingly common idea that the sexual coercion of women in certain circumstances does not count as rape, and that rape is somehow inevitable in contexts in which women are seen to ‘make themselves available' sexually in some way by participating in what is, in reality, normal social life. Meanwhile, Home Office campaigns caution women to avoid the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption, drink-spiking and illegal taxi cabs, implicitly supporting the notion that it is women's ‘risk taking behaviour', rather than the perpetration of sexual violence itself, which is the real problem.

The uncomfortable truth

Stereotypes about what kinds of women ‘attract' rape are reflective of dominant notions about what kinds of men commit rape and why. Rapists are commonly figured as loners who attack women as they walk down dark alleys, men who are starved of sex and driven by ‘uncontrollable' sexual urges. Conversely, it is often assumed that cases of acquaintance rape, where the stereotype of the knife-wielding stranger does not apply, are the result of a misunderstanding or women's ‘misinterpreting' of events, rather than violent impositions of power. In other words, the normal, decent man involved was not aware that he was committing a rape, and simply got ‘carried away', or was led to believe a woman consented by her ‘flirtatious' behaviour.

In fact, the majority of rapists are known to their victim, and about 50% of rapes in the UK occur in the home of the woman or the perpetrator. Most rapes do not involve violence beyond the act of rape itself, and rapists are predominantly ‘normal' men who have steady jobs, nice homes and established relationships. The uncomfortable truth is that rape is much closer to home than many people would like to admit.

Rapists are often pathologised and viewed as a small minority of deviants, and yet studies show that rape and sexual coercion are in fact widespread. Four in ten young people know girls whose boyfriends have coerced or pressurised them to have sex, while significant proportions think it is acceptable for a boy to expect to have sex with a girl if she has been ‘very flirtatious', if sexual activity has been initiated, or if he has spent a lot of time and money on her. This is not just a UK phenomenon; studies in the US have found that one in four men reported having forced women to have sex despite their visible distress, and a third of male college students reported that they would rape a woman if they knew that they would not be caught or punished as a result.

These statistics reveal both the widespread practice of sexual coercion by men, and the high level of public acceptance of such behaviour. In an astonishing variety of circumstances, it is seen as understandable that a man should presume that a woman is sexually available to him. There is a naturalisation of the idea that men can't, or shouldn't, be expected to control their sexual urges in the company of an attractive, ‘flirtatious' or intoxicated woman who they view as sexually available, and that women are to blame if they do not understand and obey these unwritten sexual rules. In this way, sexual coercion is normalised and women are denied any real choice regarding the degree to which they can engage in a social life or in relationships without effectively losing their rights to safety.

Deconstructing the myth

Prevalent public attitudes about rape also have a clear influence on the investigation and prosecution of rape cases and at court, and contribute to the low rape conviction rate. Police, prosecutors, judges and, perhaps most importantly, jurors are as likely as any other members of the public to internalise common attitudes about rape, and misconceptions about who are ‘real' rapists and victims.

The stereotype of stranger rape continues to create obstacles to prosecuting the majority of rapes, which are committed by acquaintances, partners or ex-partners. It is only since 1991 that there has been a precedent in English law for prosecuting rape within marriage. Even today, the police are still less likely to prosecute cases where, for example, the victim was willingly within the home of the perpetrator, and sentences for marital rape continue to be lower than average rape sentences. Women are often viewed as partly responsible for the state of their relationship or partner's behaviour where rape takes place within a marriage, and the links between rape by partners and domestic abuse are not always recognised. It is often presumed that rape within marriage is less violent and traumatic, although psychological studies and accounts by victims of marital rape contradict this assumption (pdf).

In the New Year, the Fawcett Society will be launching a campaign on rape, and putting pressure on all the political parties to make rape a priority issue. For more information, contact Sarah Campbell Judgements about the credibility of charges of rape are often influenced by impressions of the woman's attractiveness, demeanour, dress and alcohol consumption which are in fact irrelevant to the real issue of consent and the perpetrator's culpability. Defence lawyers realise this, and often cynically attempt to use juries' misconceptions to their advantage. For example, earlier this year, the defence barrister in a trial concerning the alleged gang rape of a sixteen year old girl notoriously made the argument that the girl had ‘slimmed down a lot' since the attack and that at the time "she was 12st 6lb - not quite the swan she may turn into - she may well have been glad of the attention".

Similarly, when women have been drinking before an alleged rape, even if the amount they drank was small, or their drink was spiked, this is seen to cast doubt on their testimony. A recent study found that when a woman had her drink spiked, juries were reluctant to convict unless they were convinced that the drink had been spiked with the specific intention of sexual assault, as opposed to ‘loosening up' a reluctant partner. Similarly, jurors were less inclined to equate ‘taking advantage' of a drunken women with rape in situations in which the woman's normal behaviour was to drink heavily in the company of men. This shows the extent to which spiking a drink to encourage a woman to have sex is viewed as acceptable male behaviour, and women who drink regularly are seen not to qualify as real victims.

Creating change

The prevalence of disturbing public attitudes to rape, and their relationship to criminal justice failure, point to a need re-examine ideas about how and why rape happens. The UK Government needs to do more to ensure that problematic attitudes amongst staff in criminal justice agencies are addressed through training, that further investment is made in specialist rape investigation and prosecution services, and that all rape is properly investigated by police from the outset. A greater focus should be put on interrogating the behaviour of the perpetrators of rape, rather than dissecting the character of victims.

However, the extent to which sexual coercion is a common and socially accepted fact points to a need for a wider debate on this issue, and a re-imagining of our understandings of masculinity, femininity and sexuality. We need to ask questions about how sexual coercion is tied up with current ideals of masculinity which are defined in terms of assertiveness, virility and sexual conquest. At the same time, its necessary to interrogate assumptions about women's sexual passivity and the lessons which women are being taught about having reduced rights to safety if they are seen to make themselves sexually available by engaging in relationships, drinking, flirting or walking alone at night.

Amongst the reforms announced by the UK government this week was a plan to provide juries in rape trials with information packs compiled by experts, which would dispel myths around rape victims' behaviour. These proposals are a start, but if there is to be real change, what is needed is a much deeper questioning of what children are taught both in school and daily life about gender and power dynamics, choice and coercion in sexual relationships.

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